Everything in "Moderation:" Social Media Ethical Dilemmas

IStock_000006914319XSmallSome of our clients have asked us to serve as moderators on their Facebook Fan Pages.

I know such pages are a dime-a-dozen on Facebook, but we are talking about some big-league brands in this case.  Names you know.  “Fan clubs” of which you may well be a member.

Although we strongly adhere to a full-transparency ethic when it comes to Social Media, the clients simply do not want SHIFT’s name to be explicitly affiliated with their Facebook sites.

“Too confusing” … “Brand dilution” … “Won’t ever get approved.”

To be clear, approximately 90% of the posts are approved in advance, by the client.  In addition to helping respond to user inquiries, we also  often have a pre-developed “editorial calendar,” created in cooperation with our Marketing contacts.  We’re not running amok or anything.

Additionally, when a SHIFTer responds to a user’s query, they typically do so from their own Facebook account (“on behalf of” the client), so that if the user were to click on their profile, they’d quickly discern that they are interacting with an external PR representative.

In other words, there is a fair bit of transparency, but, our team members’ roles are not always explicitly called-out, nor is there 100% compliance: sometimes our people are moderating/responding using the client’s name/account info (when requested).

The clients trust us to do so; the posts are generally pre-approved and always innocuous and on-message … but, yea, “authorship” in such cases is not always clear.

Have we crossed a line?

I don’t lose sleep over this one, though it could represent an egregious breach to Social Media purists.

I would understand their complaint: Social Media Marketing’s power stems from the ability to spur direct dialogue between brands and consumers.  Inserting an agency representative in the mix (with not-always-clear distinctions about their role or employer) begs the question, “how is this any different from the crap marketing foisted on users in the first place?”

There is still more transparency than in the past.  There is still a direct connection to the brand (trust me, the clients care VERY MUCH about feedback we report from Facebook and Twitter).  Any and all “major” responses, i.e., to user complaints, are truly drafted and posted by client representatives.  Ninety-percent of the posts are pre-approved by the client.

Although our agency brains get involved in terms of the core digital strategy, including how-to improve our clients’ interactions online with consumers, at this tactical level we are essentially serving as the execution arm (and listening post) for the clients.  It’s all “on-brand” activity in terms of the messages, and if anything our aid ensures that our busy clients can never be accused of not being engaged at all times — a metric that is increasingly important to them, yet is incredibly hard to scale.

Got feedback?  Accusations and plaudits are both welcome.  Help me figure this out, if you feel we’re taking a wrong-headed approach!

Posted on: March 4, 2010 at 12:51 pm By Todd Defren
25 Responses to “Everything in "Moderation:" Social Media Ethical Dilemmas”


  • Yingna li says:

    I think the whole issue goes back to exactly what PR is about. A PR agency is a bit like a cosmetician, applying tactics to help the clients achieve their ideal brand/corporation images. If applying chemical makeup to make a person look prettier than s/he naturally is, is legitimate, so do PR agencies. Viewers won’t care whether that person applied makeup herself/himself or somebody else did it for her/him. Customers won’t see it as a deceit as long as the communication is effective and their problems are solved properly. After all, hiring PR agencies to communicate with customers is no more than a specialized step along a corporation’s assembly line.

  • Ayesha says:

    A very interesting post and this seems to be an issue that a lot of people are concerned about. I am a student studying PR at the University of Westminster and for the agencies we have visited, classes we have done and even for our blogs (http://ayeshasattarblog.wordpress.com/) that we have to keep as part of course work, we reflect on this issue of social media and businesses and how it is changing the relationships and means of business.

  • Jules Zunich says:

    I completely agree with transparency as the rule, but if the client hires me as a full time employee does that make me better at communicating on their behalf? I do not believe so. Agencies (and PR pros) can communicate authentically on behalf of clients. Should we spell it out in every response? No.

  • Todd,

    Yet another important discussion here. I guess where I get tripped us is when your employees are responding from their personal pages. They aren’t responding as SHIFT/the agency but they are then responding as an individual. That being the case, would the reader realize they are representing the brand? I’m not sure but it seems this is where the picture gets a little cloudy, or maybe I am not understanding.

    It would be so much easier if you could respond as the brand. Then there’s no lack of clarity, maybe with initials after the post or something.

  • Hi Todd,

    As a few commenters have already mentioned, the PR agency should serve as an extension of the company it’s representing. So while some people may scoff at PR pros moderating and updating a client’s Facebook fan page, I don’t think what your team is doing is unethical.

    What about the PR agencies who also serve as the marketing department for their clients? Some smaller budget clients have their PR agencies wear several communications hats. If it’s acceptable for internal marketing/PR teams to update and moderate the company’s social networks, what’s the difference if an external agency that serves as the marketing arm does this?

    This series is shedding light on some really tricky topics. Looking forward to the remaining posts!

  • Trace Cohen says:

    This is a very interesting dilemma that you are faced with. It seems that the client is scared of brand dilution, which shouldn’t be a problem if they are big wigs as you said they are. My first thought is that your company brand (shift) should only add to the brand equity if someone was to inquire who exactly is this 3rd person speaking on behalf of this company.

    So to be clear, the client wants all posts, replies and comments to be made under their name and not yours? For someone starting out with a social media campaign I understand their hesitancy to have someone “outside” the company represent them. I don’t think the problem is so much whether you are crossing the line or not, I think it’s just whether or not the client feels comfortable with it. The way I look at it, is that at the end of the day you need to tuck them in, read them a bed time story and tell them everything is going to be ok so that they can sleep at night. Your employees are competent, savvy and have done this for years so that there should be no problems.

  • PS: you used the words “Trust Me” because it’s you, that’s all you had to say.

  • it appears to me that these are not earth shattering issues, that if they were they would be discussed an handled at the appropriate level.

    For those that want direct authorship perhaps they would do away with speechwriters, editors, and all forms of non-original thought which will leave us with little content. Sure I take this to an absurd point that’s where the comedy is, which brings me to my point to those with so rigid a position, lighten up Francis. (Old School the movie is Stripes)

    See you on the circuit TD

  • Bryan Person says:

    Excellent post here, Todd, and enjoying the thread of comments as well. This is an issue we’ve come face-to-face with in our moderation work for brands on several social sites and networks, including (more recently) Facebook.

    Our view for Facebook brand Pages, for example, is that our LiveWorld moderators or community managers are acting as agents of the brand on the brand’s digital property, and that not explicitly disclosing that they are paid by LiveWorld is much like a part-time employee/contractor from the brand itself wouldn’t be expected to state so (e.g. “Thanks for your comment to our Starbucks Facebook Page, Bill. Before I go further, let me disclose that I’m an intern and only here on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Kind of weird and confusing.

    Another element on Facebook is that when an individual with admin privileges on a Facebook Page posts a message, that message will always appear as being from the brand rather than from the individual. Only way to differentiate is with name or initials after the comment. Possible, yes, but sometimes more clunky and confusing than anything else.

    I would also draw a distinction between posting as “the brand” and posting as an individual (ghost-blogging for a CEO, for example). In the latter case, we’d be passing ourselves off as another person–which we’re obviously not–rather than as the brand, which we DO represent. (But recalling you posted about ghost-blogging in your ethics series, too, so we may not see eye-to-eye on this one!)

    We’ve conferred with WOMMA (we’re paying members) on our stance, too, just to make sure we’re not running afoul of its ethical guidelines. From my reading here, neither is SHIFT.

    Let the debate continue, and keep on sharing, Todd!

    Bryan Person

  • RICH BECKER says:


    I’m glad you’ve shared this example. It shows exactly how to manage social media programs without having to elevate a personal or in-house individual. In many cases, it seems more authentic provided no one is pretending to be someone they are not.

    People don’t always need an individual to be connected to in order to have their needs met when it comes to the client-brand relationship. It’s nice to see someone share another positive case study on the practice.


  • We do the same for many of our clients and despite the complaints from purists – I think it is completely acceptable. I look at the PR agency as merely an extension of the company. I don’t think the purists would have a problem with an internal PR contact moderating the company FB page, so why is it a major faux pas if the outside agency does the same? The only difference is where the paycheck gets delivered.

  • Janet Killen says:

    This is something I’ve struggled with from time to time because it seems like cheating, but it’s really not (or is it?) Conflicted? You bet.

    I just answered a LinkedIn question on behalf of a client that truly conforms to their messaging and does not really need their attention (since the answer is so pat). But I answered the question myself (as their agency representative).

  • I have to agree with Craig and Meghan. If someone is stubborn on being a purist with this issue, it’s possible the amount of valuable content posted and monitored might not be as great as if the agency steps in from time to time. Like you said, everything is approved by the client and any major news / responses are always drafted by the client. At no point would the consumer feel like they’re always dealing with the middle man and aren’t *really* hearing from the client. I think you’re doing a great job and it’s great that you question these things. It shows you put the work into every aspect. Keep it up!

  • Todd,
    Yes you cross the same line as discussed in the first article in this series. I commented here:
    that following that logic, you would end up walking the clients dog.

    Well here you are. By ‘moderating’ for the client under the clients account, you are walking their dog. You can either be a strategist or a dog walker.

    The whole point behind these ‘Social Media’ strategies is to get the client front and center. If the client is unwilling to speak in their own voice, this is an error in execution or a bad fit, PR wise.

    This is the old PR in digital clothing.

  • George Snell says:

    Hi Todd:
    Just a quick note to tell you that I’ve been enjoying this series on social media ethical dilemmas. It’s great that you’re sharing how you’ve dealt with them and for us to know that we all face the same types of challenges.

  • Craig Peters says:

    I have to agree: While purists may cringe, I think there has to be a comfort level with agencies and/or consultants having some reasonable amount of involvement on behalf of a company or brand. One can’t expect company marketing departments to be as knowledgeable and savvy as the most experienced practitioners of social media; that’s why they’re hiring us.

    So, for example: Ghost blogging? The devil is in the details, of course, but I generally don’t have an issue with that one: Often the person in question is a terrible writer, so there’s a real need for someone to articulate his or her thoughts in a best-practices-for-blogging way.

    Facebook page and Twitter account management? I’ve done both for very well-known brands. As I note above: The devil is in the details — ghost-tweeting for a *brand* is one thing; I would never ghost-tweet for an individual.

    There *has* to be a middle ground of comfort in this issue. Look at it this way: Many of the very purists who scream about the horrors of ghost-blogging (or tweeting or Facebook posting or whatever) would be the first in line to scream about the deterioration of social media when ham-handed practitioners of same pollute the social media waters on behalf of brand marketing.

  • I personally don’t feel like any line is being crossed. I mean the point of using social media in a corporate way is to get the lines of communication open between the company and consumers. This is clearly being accomplished here. So what if there is a middle man? Consumers are being heard and companies are gaining helpful insight. And as you have said you are working more with the tactical side of the social mediums. I don’t feel like your cutting corners at all but putting your company and its consumers in a position to talk. Efficiency and practicality shows through in this endeavor. Keep up the good work!

  • nick james says:

    Isn’t the point that they’re not then ‘engaging’ with their customers – you’re engaging with their customers for them – a bit like paying someone to sleep with your wife because you cant be arsed?

    • Todd Defren says:

      It’s a fair question, but, again, mostly what we are doing is MONITORING/FILTERING/REPORTING/BROADCASTING – the engagement piece involves clients directly, as often as possible. We’re helping with the SCALE issue.

      p.s. Stay away from my wife! ;)

      • Dan Greenberg says:

        Although I’m not an attorney, I do look at this from a legal perspective. Specifically, “agency” is a well-defined legal concept, as in “Statements made by you or your agents…” Generally, agency means that you act as if you were a part of the company you’re representing, with problems arising only if you act in a way counter to their interests or do something illegal. My guess is that your contracts with your clients have this concept deeply embedded, either implicitly or explicitly.

        Thus, I’m not too bothered if you moderate on behalf of a client — you’re (legally) bound to act in their best interests and they’re bound to take responsibility for your actions. It’s no different to me, at least legally and ethically, from if they had hired in a contract temp to moderate.

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