Home Archive May 2009 @loggerheads
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.

Hi Kewal,
Obviously individuals and corporate entities should be responsive but whether that encompasses public responses to blogs is questionable. If direct communication via email to a blogger inviting them to call a given number to discuss their criticisms is an option, why is it necessary or desirable to air even clean laundry in public? A phone call allows better communication using the full range of tone, and will actually get to the heart of criticism more effectively without an audience.

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.
Best wishes,

Hi Elly,
A phone call may enable ‘better’ communication but you miss the point. If an individual criticises you on a
blog, that criticism is out there for anyone to read. If you reply via a phone call, the wider world won’t have the opportunity to see your side of the argument. Those who ignore the power of online media do so at their peril. Social networks and blogs are all about two-way communications, so organisations should look to use them as a forum to reply to criticism. Just as in the offline world, organisations should take a
measured response to criticism, but no response at all risks damaging their brand and reputation. It leaves the criticism there for all to see and without an alternative viewpoint it’s all too easy for people to believe.

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.
Best regards,

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?

I think it’s important to keep our cool. We may have less control where something goes when it’s been said online, but we still control what we put on record in a public place. The internet speeds up news, but we can slow down or at least shape its development by withholding the sanction of participation. Blogs can seek to sustain a story and generate more links to improve their findability. Anything but the blandest spokesperson response in a hostile blog can be used to keep a story alive for the entertainment of others.

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
is the internet. ISPs can be informed that, if defamatory or libellous content is not removed, liability will be theirs.

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.
Best wishes,


Hi Elly,

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 –
understanding the journalist/publication (or in this case the blogger) and the audience they are writing for. Yes, some blogs are far more influential than others, and it should be the role of the PR to highlight how and when to respond to specific blog posts.

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
first place.

Increasingly, today’s media outlets are using independent blogs and social networking sites, as sources of news content

I think the question of whether you can phone a blogger is a really interesting one. Quite frankly, if you can’t work out someone’s identity sufficiently to obtain a phone number, and if they don’t respond to an email giving a number to call, I think you can dismiss the idea they genuinely wish to communicate in a cooperative fashion. If all you know about someone is their blog and its content, how can you adequately advise on how to engage?

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
the watchmen.

As regards ‘rules of engagement’, it seems rather confrontational to choose a forum and then refuse the
use of another forum to permit response. Is it not potentially an ambush, all the more so when identity
is concealed? It’s best to avoid a situation where you are automatically on the back foot.

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.
Best wishes,

Many bloggers do have day jobs, so in many cases it simply isn’t possible to get an immediate response from them. Equally, if the blog is associated with a national newspaper, the writer actually has less control managing and updating the blog as this is often done by the web editor. So even in the event of you speaking to the writer, your verbal response has a long way to go before making it onto the blog. So if speed is of the essence, responding to criticism publicly can be the best course of action.

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.