Some may dismiss this week’s story about how the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) ordered Eva Cooper, a small retailer operating a location in Chelsey, Quebec, to translate her Facebook page or face a fine as just another example of overzealous officials putting undue pressure to conduct business in French.
Marketers should pay attention to how this unfolds. This is likely not another Pastagate.
Some context: A year ago this month, an inspector from the OQLF sent a letter of warning to an upscale restaurant, Buonanotte, for using Italian words such as "pasta," "antipasti," "calamari," etc. on its menu instead of their French equivalents.
Instead of complying with instructions on the letter he received from the OQLF, the owner of Buonanotte went public and it generated a widespread public outcry across the province, even among francophones, about the Office abusing its powers. The incident also received international attention in newspapers, thus causing an embarrassment to the provincial government. The incident led to the resignation of Louise Marchand, head of the OQLF, on March 8, 2013.
Ms. Cooper has gone public too. And the media amplified the story this week.
Michael Bergman, a lawyer specializing in constitutional and human rights issues interviewed on CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning, made his case against the OQLF's position:
“The language charter was enacted before social media existed and, for that matter, before the internet was popular. The French language office is expanding into the cyber sphere an ancient concept, so to speak, of traditional advertising. Social media is far from advertising, it's an interactive dialogue."
This seems right. After all, Facebook is a “social” network. It’s about personal conversations between friends. That’s what it was meant to be.
But when companies use Facebook to promote their brands - some do it very effectively by posting well-crafted relevant content while others use the social network as just another advertising media - the line between personal and commercial has been crossed.
That’s where the OQLF has a point. One that isn’t as ridiculous as ordering that antipasti be translated into French.
Jean-Pierre Le Blanc, a OQLF told the CBC:
“When it’s used for commercial publication, or commercial advertising, then it has to be written in French. More and more we see businesses using social media to advertise, to sell products. This is where the law comes in.”
This should not be about the law.
If marketers wish for consumers to “like” their brands, interact with them and become cult-like followers, they should improve their conversational French. While some have gone to great lengths to post unique Québec content and interact in French, others have jumped into social media without a rigorous approach to managing their French-speaking followers and have left their French-speaking communities wondering. Sadly, you can see the result on some brand pages: often previously loyal users exasperated by brands who can’t or won’t speak to them in French are asking in English for answers in French.
As brands' Facebook pages become an online contact point for customer care, answering promptly in French is just good business.