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Outside at The Espy
Photograph: Graham Denholm

Australian arts and culture venues caught in Facebook's news ban crosshairs

Facebook blocked news in Australia. That swept up a lot of unintended venues

Cassidy Knowlton

On Thursday, February 18, people across the Australian media (including yours truly) woke up to learn that their Facebook pages had been blocked, as part of an ongoing dispute between Facebook and the Australian government. Time Out Melbourne's page has been restored, for the moment, though Time Out Sydney's remains down. Facebook has reached an agreement with the government and intends to restore publishers' pages fully within the next few days, but their removal caused significant upheaval – and we weren't the only ones caught up in the mayhem. 

Cinemas, bars, theatres, restaurants, arts organisations, community groups and even government services like the Bureau of Meteorology suddenly found themselves unable to reach their Facebook audiences. Among them was the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, which was in the middle of a marketing campaign for a concert series of Handel's 'Rome', which starts on Wednesday. Suddenly they realised an article they'd written about the series wasn't getting any engagement on Facebook.

"We’re pretty disappointed with the way that it happened, there was no notice," says Tom Morgan, head of marketing and customer relations at the ABO. "It would have been very easy [for Facebook] to send advertisers a message saying this was coming, but to have to be told about it through your customers was pretty embarrassing. Just to be blindsided was pretty disappointing." 

He says ticket sales for upcoming shows are down between 20 and 25 per cent from where they would normally be because of Facebook's actions. "We can probably catch up, but we lost momentum," he says. 

Rapha Tamir, marketing and business development manager of the Classic, Lido, Ritz and Cameo cinemas, was just as blindsided when some of the cinemas' pages went down. The Cameo, Lido and Jewish International Film Festival pages were suddenly unable to post, but the Ritz and Classic remained active. Tamir says the cinemas have alternative social media channels, but Facebook is their most important. "We rely very heavily on Facebook traffic. Instagram doesn’t sell movie tickets in the same way that Facebook does," he says. The pages are now back up, but he says if the situation had continued it would have had a serious effect on sales. 

It wasn't just arts and culture institutions affected by the ban. Hospitality venues like the famous Espy and Garden State Hotel also lost access to their Facebook pages. Senior marketing manager of Sand Hill Road (which manages the properties) Maria Griffin says it was a particular kick in the teeth given that the Facebook news ban came just hours after Melbourne's snap lockdown ended. "After the year that’s been and the lockdown the last few days, we’re trying to get back on our feet," she says. "Our social pages are always important to us, but those channels are more important than they’ve ever been right now. We can’t communicate with customers about basic things like our opening hours."

Morgan of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra says the Facebook ban was a timely reminder that relying too much on the social media giant is dangerous. "We don’t want to be held at gunpoint by Facebook, and we want to be able to control the environment in which we put out our content," he says. "In our game, in the arts, we’re not selling shampoo or toothpaste. The qualitative aspect of the advertising really makes a difference, and positioning ourselves with high-quality editorial products is a much better return. Increasingly we’ll be looking at what we can do with our own database and our strategic partners."

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