Human beings are social by nature, and not surprisingly, we choose to spend much of our talkative time on Facebook.

Comscore released data in December 2011 that showed Facebook is virtually synonymous with social media. Worldwide, people spend three out of every four minutes of their total social networking time on Facebook.

Check out the recent comment counts on nearly any major Facebook brand Page — the numbers get big very quickly. Disney’s image of Happy, the dwarf from Snow White earned over 1,600 comments at the time of publication. Coca-Cola asked fans whether they have ice-cold Cokes in their fridges – 2,170+ comments.

And these are just single posts. Add in all other posts, as well as wall comments, and brands quickly face a huge amount of fan commentary to respond to — for better and worse.

Thousands of Comments Per Hour

“We have seen many times examples from our customer base when the brand is receiving hundreds or thousands of comments per hour,” said Joe Ciarallo, VP of communications at Buddy Media.

After Facebook announced a new advertising system in 2007, Pages became significant customer conversation hubs for many big brands. Simultaneously, the logistics of managing such a volume of fan interaction had to evolve as well. A brand no longer scrolled through its Facebook Wall, responding and moderating only once or twice a day. Many brands today are forced to manage their Facebook Pages 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Lessons Learned From Lowe’s

In early December Lowe’s pulled its advertising from reality TV show American Muslim, due to customer complaints. Once the 24-hour news stations got wind of the move, other customers expressed their anger. Soon, the crossfire found its way to Lowe’s Facebook Page.

One post on Lowe’s Page received 28,000 comments in just a few hours. Many comments were hateful, racist or profane. Lowe’s would normally delete these types of comments, moderate its fans, and keep its fan voice intact, but the company simply could not handle the scale of comments in such a short amount of time.

Brad Walters, social media director for Lowe’s Home Improvement explained the situation. “[We] received thousands of comments from many sides of the issue. Lowe’s allowed the debate to continue on the company’s social media sites, removing only the most hateful and, in some cases violent, posts that clearly violate company policy.”

But Lowe’s did not have a solution to the scale of comments it received in such a short period of time. The company deleted the original post, and the 28,000+ comments along with it. “While we appreciate the desire to discuss previous advertising, the focus of our social channels are helping our customers with their home improvement needs,” said Walters.

The good news is there are services out there that have worked with Facebook to make these situations more manageable. And best practices are emerging. Director of community programming at LiveWorld, Mark Wiliams, says, “We actually see things like the Lowe’s event quite frequently. We work closely with our clients to establish a both a staffing plan and review/escalation process for peak events.”

Let’s review a few key steps that your company can take to prepare itself for these large-scale waves of Facebook commenting.

1. Declare Your Rules.

Establish clear commenting guidelines for your Facebook Page. When you do need to enforce these rules, publicly available guidelines will help subdue any arguments by fans and and minimize second-guessing by page admins.

“Almost all of our customers have set guidelines in place for moderation…It’s extremely important to have the basics in place,” said Ciarallo.

2. Do Not Delete All Negative Comments.

Make sure your rules reflect your brand values and culture, but avoid a broad-brushed removal of fans’ negative commentary. “It may be tempting to delete the negativity, but it’s much more important to be transparent and respond swiftly,” said Reggie Bradford, founder and CEO of Vitrue.

3. Enforce Your Rules.

If you do not moderate Wall comments that violate your policy, you create a double standard and a false expectation for your fans. When a future situation arises and you have to delete a comment, your public guidelines will not be as helpful.

4. Practice Worst Case Scenarios.

Training is important. If possible, employ a community manager or staff of social media professionals that can regularly respond to your Facebook community. When a PR crisis spreads to Facebook, your core team is going to need backup; train additional staff to help as needed.

Use the Lowe’s example as a model. What would it take for your organization to moderate 28,000 comments in a few hours? How many people would you need to manage it? What training would those people need? What if the crisis happens outside of normal working hours?

5. Get Professional Help.

You may find that your organization is more prepared because it has enlisted outside help that specializes in this type of Facebook comment management. Facebook software vendors like Buddy Media and Vitrue, as well as social moderation services like LiveWorld and ICUC use a combination of technology and manpower to manage these situations. A single moderator can handle 500-1,000 comments per hour, according to Williams.

These services can provide better 24-hour moderation support, and can train specific staff to reflect your company’s guidelines and brand voice. When you have five employees moderating the same thread of comments of Facebook, each individual reviewing the same content at the same time, workflow overlaps and productivity decreases. Software like LiveWorld’s allows a “separation of workflow” that prevents moderators from tackling the same post at the same time.

If your brand invests staff and budget into a Facebook presence and the associated community, your followers may choose to speak out periodically in ways that require response or moderation. Therefore, be prepared.

“Brands should never let volume of comments effect their ability to moderate their communities,” says Ciarallo. “One of the biggest reasons brands devote budget and resources for both people and technology is to make sure they are well prepared for any situation, like the one Lowe’s found themselves in.”

Jason Keath is the CEO of Social Fresh, the leading social media education company for marketers. He works with industry leading brands, agencies and vendors to produce social media conferences and online social media training programs. Follow him on Twitter @jasonkeath.

Image courtesy of iStockphotoMHjerpe