|Monday, 15 June 2009 09:40|
Welcome to this month’s 35 Debate, our monthly email dialogue in association with 35 Communications. This month, we ask whether responding publicly to criticism on the blogosphere is necessary or advisable:
Elly Williamson of M:Communications, a consultancy specialising in financial PR, believes that it isn’t. Taking the opposing view is Kewal Varia, a director at Spark Communications, a London-based PR agency with a specialism in technology clients.
There’s a risk of misrepresentation in contributing to online forums, too. You’re trusting your words to platforms often maintained by persons unknown, where identities can be falsely given. A public response online can quickly be forwarded, selectively deployed and even corrupted, as the environment is unregulated. Genuinely lending your name by publicly participating can also be misinterpreted as tacit approval of other debates taking place on a given platform.
Then there’s resource. Given the ease with which a blog can be set up, who could expect individuals and companies to dedicate the time and money to adopting a policy of responding to potentially endless communications?
One day, maybe soon, the blogosphere will be a more clearly delineated space, but until then, there’s little to be gained by prolonging open dialogue on topics of harmful reputational potential with persons perhaps unknown.
In today’s online world, reputations can be damaged quickly: one disgruntled individual can soon turn into hundreds or thousands. Before you know it, you are all over Google for all the wrong reasons. However, by responding to criticism on blogs, you can create a much more positive reputation. The fact that you have taken time to respond shows you care. This, if nothing else, will gain the respect of bloggers.
Of course, it’s difficult to respond to every comment but where criticism is unjust or damaging, organisations and individuals should look to respond. At a minimum, organisations must put in place processes for monitoring and, where appropriate, responding to the most influential social media, otherwise they could soon find the bottom line hit.
Wasn’t it always the right of the person challenged to choose the weapon in a duel? When you say a blog is to encourage open, honest and online debate, surely your scenario forces rather than encourages?
If criticism is constructive, then a phone call can result in a blogger themselves updating, which is more powerful than any public contretemps. If criticism is malicious, you can judge whether the platform’s profile constitutes a serious risk, and start finding out what truth there may be to it.
When a platform is not authoritative and the news doesn’t spread, the issue will feature lowly on search engines if at all, and can be pushed down further by search-optimised positive news. You can find any rumour you wish on the internet if you look long or hard enough, but we all know to disregard some sources and rumours just as we do spam email. When a malicious rumour is grave, the platform is authoritative or the news begins to spread, you can take serious measures even in the legal grey area that
If serious criticism is true, you’ll need to bottom out the problem before any response, and perhaps consider an apology via the most respected relevant media outlet, which I think would still be an old media stalwart. Just like with traditional media, you can treat people well if they mean well, and firmly if they don’t, but always be prepared to take responsibility if you are at fault.
When was the last time you saw a blogger’s phone number published on a blog? One of the main purposes of a blog is to encourage open, honest and ‘online’ debate. By making a phone call to respond to criticism, you aren’t following the rules of engagement. By their very nature, blogs are expecting an online public response. Also by phoning or emailing the blogger directly, you can still leave it open to the blogger to interpret your response in a way they wish and publish it accordingly – by responding to the blog you can get your message across the way you want to.
Engaging with bloggers isn’t a dark art, as it still requires following the same principles as in traditional PR –
Clearly, if criticism is malicious or defamatory, you can take steps to remove content from websites. However, as in the offline world, this should be treated as a last resort and only if you can clearly prove your case. If you start getting heavy-handed with bloggers, you risk whipping up a greater storm than the one you were trying to prevent in the
Increasingly, today’s media outlets are using independent blogs and social networking sites, as sources of news content
This is where quality and authority matter. A blog attached to a leading newspaper, or a blog with an author who is ‘out’ will be tied in to a system and a code of conduct beyond making easy disruptive hits on the reputation of others. Accountability applies to the media too and we need always to ask who watches
As regards ‘rules of engagement’, it seems rather confrontational to choose a forum and then refuse the
Not for nothing is there a range of options for how to communicate on Facebook. Everyone knows when to take something ‘offline’ from their wall to a message. Communications advisers should aim to navigate different currents of response on public blogs and avoid the risk of public embarrassment. There has always been, and will always be, criticism. It is excessively controlling to think a response will always adequately stem this. More important than the battle is the war, and always taking your own decisions in a manner aligned with your identity and principles.
In today’s internet age, it is important to not simply disregard blogs because they aren’t associated with a leading publication or respected author. Increasingly, today’s media outlets are using independent blogs and social networking sites, as sources of news content. So dismiss them at your peril. Here’s where the PR can deliver value, by helping to gauge the influence of particular blogs and shape your response.
On your point on rules of engagement, blogs by their very nature do encourage responses by allowing users to post comments. Unlike, traditional media, blogs do give readers the right to reply in a much more unrestricted fashion – the best and most authoritative blogs are there to create debate not to stifle it.
The fact is communication is changing, and individuals and organisations need to adapt. PR is all about public perception – the public is increasingly annoyed with behind the scenes discussions and secrecy. Organisations that are seen to be open and responsive will continue to gain a better reputation than those that don’t.