Where do you stand on the debate about whether brands, in their role as advertisers, should use their influence to make Twitter and Facebook clean up the nastiness that’s to be found there?

Let’s review the situation. Most media channels need advertising revenue. So brands have power and influence. Equally, brands want to reach their target markets efficiently, i.e. cheaply. Media that get attention, for whatever reason, can offer large audiences, which attract brands. But brands don’t want to upset their customers, or be sullied by association with Bad Stuff. Most, then, live with a pragmatic and commercial compromise. They don’t actively campaign to change the media in line with their principles. Some don’t even avoid media that might be at odds with what they profess, as long as they can steer clear of the inappropriate content. But when something unsavoury gets sufficient secondary media attention, i.e. when it becomes the story, that’s when most brands will feel they must act. At that point, doing nothing looks like collusion.

Facebook and Twitter’s defence is, broadly, that they are just a channel in which others communicate – that they are responsible for the medium not the message. The scale of this issue may be new  – there are now upwards of sixteen million tweets every hour worldwide –  but the problem for brands, and people, of what to do about public displays of nastiness is not. Remember the row about racist abuse of Shilpa Shetty by Jade Goody and others on “Celebrity” Big Brother? It became a huge news story, and advertisers ran for the hills. Jade Goody’s publishers stopped the planned paperback edition of her autobiography, and major retailers removed her perfume from their shelves.

Let’s compare that with the recent sexist abuse on social networking. It’s like Big Brother, in that the channel owner doesn’t create and manage all the content, although they can and do edit it. But this feels different, and not just because of its scale. I think it’s because, unlike BB, there’s no screen to act as a boundary, with us the viewers safely outside. The perpetrators and the victims of the abuse are all on the outside, with the rest of us. Nor did the victims volunteer for this horrible and public treatment.

So what should brands do? Should they withdraw, to show their disapproval, as advertisers did with CBB and later with the News of the World? Advertisers withdrawing spend from Facebook or demanding different targeting seems to have worked, for now, but it only happened because other campaigners targeted the brands and challenged them to take a position. There’s much talk of brands leaning on social networking sites to force them to police their content better. But if we expect this of brands, then shouldn’t they also object to other content in other media that might be offensive to their target customers? What about page three in The Sun, just for example? Lots of women find it objectionable, but as far as I know, not even brands like the saintly Dove, which might benefit from being seen to be supportive of women’s equal status and right to respect, have said a word against it.

A headteacher once told me her approach to managing children’s behaviour at school was to “catch them being good”. So here’s the bigger challenge that the FB and Twitter affair throws up. Shouldn’t a brand live its principles all the time? Actively? Proactively? Even if it comes at a cost? Most people would agree that of course, a brand is what it does, actions speak louder than words, and so on. Most brands stand for positive things. I don’t know any that have misogyny or abuse of power or racism as a core value. So, in theory, brands shouldn’t wait until nastiness gets in the news to take action, should they? To react only when pushed makes the principles look like window dressing. In their own long term interests, brands need to live their principles, and not just when someone is looking. That means using their power, actively, in line with what they profess to believe in, and in the interests of their users. This is where corporate (social) responsibility has gone, and increasingly it is aligned with the brand’s interests and expertise. We as marketers, whose decisions represent our brand’s actions, must do the same, whether anyone is watching or not.

Thought leadership | August 2013