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Written by Rachel Harding, Media and Communications Consultant

Last week a landmark High Court ruling found the owners of social media pages to be the liable publishers of defamatory comments, rather than the commentor themselves. This has far-reaching consequences for social media users, as it opens the door for anyone who runs a public page to be at risk of defamation lawsuits, even if you aren’t aware of the vilifying comments.

While the court ruling focused on Facebook in particular, it can be applied to any social media platform or website that encourages public commentary. The court found the commercial operator of a page is in fact a publisher of the public comments through encouraging engagement on its posts.

So, for the second time this year, the level playing field debate in Australia adversely affects the businesses and communities that rely on social media to meet their commercial imperative. Social media and communications professionals are back to the drawing board to rejig their publishing policies and consider how to enhance engagement with strict moderation. The ruling may inspire social media managers to restrict or turn off comments completely – a feature Facebook introduced in March. But how can you have a valuable presence on social media without the ‘social’ aspect? 

Regardless, social media remains a top priority for any communication strategy. Social accounts and websites are the first places audiences seek information from during a crisis or when making a purchase decision. Though the risk of defamation may cause some social media users to dial back on their use of various platforms, failure to deliver relevant, timely and entertaining content puts you at risk of missing leads, becoming disconnected and damaging your public perception. 

Yet, communication experts are an adaptive bunch. Yes, more time and resources are needed to moderate comments, which will be challenging for smaller businesses, but this is an opportunity for media, companies and brands to set the example on acceptable commentary. 

If you run a social media page, it’s time to review the opportunities and threats of engaging in public discourse. Public comments remain an avenue for informative conversations between you and your stakeholders, and restricting comments can cost you some relationship opportunities. Rather, implementing a few extra steps into your communications strategy will reduce your risk of trolling, while continuing to reach your engagement goals. 

  1. Begin with your company values, refine them and keep hem at the forefront of the content you share and how you encourage conversation.
  2. Develop policies and proceedures regarding the use of and monitoring social media and address the risks of public posts, edits, replies, comments etc.
  3. Incorporate workflows of identifying and reducing trolling into your risk and crisis communications plan.
  4. Monitor the comments being had about you to ensure you can have respectful, non-insultive conversations with your stakeholders online.

It’s now our responsibility to make users err caution before posting a slanderous comment. Not only are public social media pages being watched by stakeholders, but jurisdictions around the world are also watching what Australian users do next.

The SAS Group is your trusted partner for government, media and corporate engagement.

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