Is it ever OK to close comments on a blog, Facebook page or online news article?

It’s a question we often hear, particularly from companies who’ve found, for a variety of reasons, that their online communities have been flooded with posts that they simply weren’t prepared for.

2011 saw some high-profile examples of Facebook page owners taking the decision to block comments.

Closing comments: examples

Versace stopped fans from posting messages on its Facebook Wall when it began to receive criticism over its manufacturing methods. It still allowed comments in response to posts made by the brand, but deleted anything on the forbidden topic.

Mattel went one step further and closed Barbie’s Facebook Wall to comments for several days after it was flooded with comments relating to the Greenpeace campaign over the companies packaging being linked to the destruction of the Indonesian rainforest.

Once the heat died down Mattel reintroduced the function, but others made the decision a permanent one.

American news site, the Portland Press Herald, closed comments completely when it lost control of reader comments, calling them vicious and vulgar.

No-one should be subjected to abusive comments, but a good community manager and team of moderators should have been able to tackle the problem.

When is it OK to close comments?

News sites may choose to close comments on articles that are about controversial subjects and which provoke extreme reactions from readers.

It’s easy for discussions on wars, race or religious issues to degenerate into abusive arguments and the editorial integrity (and impartiality) of the news organisation would risk being compromised.

In these cases it might be better to close comments and consider taking the discussion elsewhere, such as a forum. Equally, if there is the risk of litigation, it’s better to close comments down.

Discussions in which the participants begin to attack the writer with personal, abusive and bullying comments could merit the closing of the comment function, but a better option would be to block persistently abusive commenters permanently.

Branded communities may occasionally decide to temporarily close comments because it cannot staff the page.

This should be regarded as the last resort. If you’re going to create a community, it should be properly resourced, but it’s better to close comments than have a stream of people all being ignored by the brand.

People who will more than likely take their opinions elsewhere, to platforms such as Twitter, where the brand has less ability to manage the conversation.

Of course, some brands didn’t have to worry about any of this until recently. Facebook had made an exception for the heavily regulated pharmaceutical industry by blocking comments on the walls of pharma brands.

The removal of this privilege in August 2011 has frustrated many in the industry: brands now have to engage with customers or risk having a wall full of problems. Some aren’t willing to invest the time and money into managing this, choosing to close their branded pages down completely as a consequence.

Managing comments takes time, money and the ability to respond to rapidly developing crisis situations. There are crisis plans to develop, out-of-hours contact lists to maintain and protocols to write. It’s a lot of work, but ultimately worth the investment.

When it’s not OK to close comments

Social media is about transparency and engagement. Shutting comments down because people are criticising the brand makes the brand look as though it’s panicking and doesn’t know how to deal with the problem.

In August 2011 fruit brands Chiquita and Dole caused a stir when Chiquita closed comments on its Facebook wall and Dole was accused of deleting the comments of people protesting at their use of Canadian tar sands for shipping and refrigeration.

Brands have also deleted comments after asking for feedback from fans, never a good idea.

In October 2011 Chapstick posted a not entirely relevant, but pretty innocuous picture on its Facebook page. A blogger was offended and posted a negative comment on the brand’s wall.

As the image spread across the bloggersphere, more negative comments began to pour in, which Chapstick continually deleted, while encouraging people to comment (positively, we presume) on the picture.

It eventually removed the picture, apologised for any offence but still claimed that it had deleted comments that violated Facebook’s rules. Here Chapstick created a mess by trying to censor feedback that it asked for.

If a brand wants fan feedback, it has to be willing to accept criticism as well as praise.

In summary: assuming there’s no risk of litigation or liability from accepting comments, it is always better to try to manage a conversation than block it.

Blocking comments really should be a last resort, not just something you do because you don’t like what people are saying, or you don’t have the time to respond.

Image credit: geishaboy500 on Flickr