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Flacking Around Terms of Service
By: Mike Bush
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There’s something about the way Facebook operates that, well, just doesn’t sit right. I don’t think it’s just me who has noticed, but the company seems to have a recurring pattern:
1. Create something completely onerous for their users
2. Watch users threaten to revolt
3. Retract part of the onerous “something,” while claiming to be the good guy.
It’s like if you are a kid, and your mom tells you that you have to eat all the broccoli, peas, and tofu on your plate. After you basically throw a fit, your mom then says “Ok, just the broccoli.” At this point, you’re thinking, “Wow, mom’s cool, because I only have to eat the broccoli.”
But in reality, you’re still behind on the negotiations because you’re eating broccoli instead of the mashed potatoes you really wanted.
Facebook just put Instagram through this cycle, first announcing terms of service that had people in revolt (heck, even former Saved by the Bell cast members were up in arms), and then doing the half back-track.
Dan Lyons captures the essence of the Facebook non-apology/quasi backtrack much more effectively than I’d be able to:

Everyone freaked out, so yesterday Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom issued a backpedaling blog post that said, basically, Um, no, you guys all misunderstood what we're planning to do, and we need to fix the language in our statement, and we're totally not going to sell your photos to advertisers, we're just saying that we have a license to license them to advertisers, which is not the same as selling them, so we're totally not lying, right? Although yeah, maybe, like, we might, um, someday use your photos in some new kind of advertising or brand promotion that we're hoping to experiment with or something, but as of right now we don't have any intention to do whatever it is you're afraid that we might do, at least as far as we know at this very minute as I am sitting here writing these words, though that could change in the future. So, we good?

If that’s the wrong way to handle a change or update terms of service, there has to be a right way.
Allows me to point out this link, to a post discussing terms of service for republic wireless that might not sit well with some of the company’s customers.*
If you’re unaware, republic is a company that sells an unlimited mobile (voice, text and data) phone plan for $20 a month. It’s a company doing something different in the space, and they’re trying to make waves.
You have to assume that their customers are early adapters, and telling early adapters not to mod and/or root their android phone is a lot like the previously mentioned mom telling the kid that there will be no more mashed potatoes.
JeccaJ (her user name for posting on the company blog) does three things exceptionally well in her post, and these are things that we as flacks should be recommending to our tech clients who need to role out terms of service.
  • She does a fantastic job of clearly laying out what the terms are. You don’t need to be a lawyer to understand what’s being agreed to between the company and the customer.
  • She explains the “why.” It would be easy for a customer of republic wireless to say “Hey, I paid for this phone, and I’m going to do what I want with it.” JeccaJ explains why that mindset won’t work with republic’s goals, both from the standpoints of the company (We're still in Beta, and our main goal is service refinement) and the user (user modifications are problematic because we can't help you if you encounter problems). 
  • Finally, she understands that there’s a community built around this company. By keeping a sense of humor (working in an emoticon) and speaking as though “we’re all in this together” (Although we value freedom as much as you do, we can’t offer you freedoms that put the health of the republic in jeopardy) she gets her points across in a way that reminds everyone that the customers and the company are aligned in their goals.
It’s a great post, and one the fine folks at Facebook could learn something from.
Happy Holidays.
*A few years ago, I worked at the firm that handled the account for bandwidth.com, parent company to republic wireless. I never worked on the bandwidth account.

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About the Author
Mike Bush is a PR and Marketing freelancer with more than a dozen years of experience in the field. Find him on and connect Twitter @mikebush or at www.mikebush.nyc. 
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