BLOGS AND BLOGGING
Some of the biggest threats to organisations arise from blogs. These are in effect online diaries or articles. The vast majority-and there are now an estimated 126 million blogs according to BlogPulse-and little more than gossip and chat amongst friends or like-minded people and pose no threat, other than extreme boredom, to those who chance upon them. However, there are a relatively small but influential group of blogs written by people who see themselves as ‘citizen journalists’ and either wish their views to be widely known or want to punish an organisation.
Many writers of bogs care passionately about publicise activity that mainstream media have yet to pick up on, or have chosen not to cover. Overnight, and without warning, an organisation can find itself discussed all over cyberspace and, with only a short delay, the subject of scrutiny by more conventional print and broadcast media.
Some blogs are set up specifically to attack particular organisation. Dell, the direct-selling American computer company, was attacked for its poor service under the title ‘Dell Hell’. Within no time at all awareness of the phrase mushroomed until ‘Dell Hell’ started ranking higher in search engines that ‘Dell’ alone. Dell had to launch its own corporate blog to counter the criticism.
MacDonald’s, the fast food eatery, continues to be the victim of blogs attacking it for everything from its environmental record to its treatment of animals and its working conditions.
However, it is important to keep a sense of perspective. As it was mentioned, almost all organisations of any size face online criticism, and most survive and thrive. Individual postings online do not always resonate as effectively at the examples above which does not mean that one should not be vigilant, only that one should not overreact and perhaps even draw attention to what might be a very small problem.
According to TNS Media Intelligence only 3.5% of news actually breaks in the blogsphere. Instead blog news content is still overwhelmingly drawn from mainstream media. But it would be foolish to dismiss blogs altogether. A recent piece of research in America showed that 59% of journalists regularly use blogs for story ideas.
What blogs can do is to keep an issue going long after conventional media have moved on. In essence, what the online worlds has meant is that it is easier than ever to complain, and once it is on the internet a complaint or an attack can linger, be found quickly by search engines and hence come up again and again. It is easy for others to research an issue, add fresh comments, email or blog post is not only faster and less trouble to execute than a letter or phone call but also, once posted online, can be viewed globally.
Organisations have 3 options when it comes to deciding how to respond to online complaints and criticism:
1. Listen in
2. Take part
3. Take Cover
To listen in organisation need to monitor what is being said. Fortunately online resources make this is easier than one might expect. Not only are there devices such as Google blog search and Technorati, Blogpulse and Feedburner but, for bigger volumes, there is also specialist software. Media evaluation companies will also monitor online comment about an organisation and its competitors and the issues that concern them in chat-rooms, and examine those blogs with the most links, comments, ratings and bookmarks. FInally, there are specialist consultancies such as SIGWatch who will monitor pressure groups that may impact on the organisation.
Having listened in and found things it does not like on the blog or critic’s web-site, an organisation needs to decide whether to take part or taker cover. As a general rule it is probably better not to respond. There is a danger of fanning the flames and making the story bigger than it might otherwise have been. Many bloggers are naturally anti anything they see as ‘the establishment’, such as business and government, and will take a response as an admission of guilt and weakness and step up their criticism.
However, if the criticism are valid the best response is first to correct the shortcomings, and second to apologise. A greater difficulty is when a complete untruth is published in a blog or on a critical website. Uncorrected the untruth may gain popular currency-there have, for instance, been allegations of products being carcinogenic when they are not. But trying to correct the untruth may just amplify the rumour and increase the damage caused by what might otherwise have been a story of limited interest. There can be no hard and fast advice in situations like these: you just have to weigh up the risks and make a judgement.
One way of handling persistent detractors is try to get them onside. This can be done by a mixture of flattery and dialogue. For example, an organisation can offer to meet with a critic which will make them feel important. Detractors can be consulted about new products or future plans and even offered new products to review. The difficulty is that some bloggers love such approaches while others feel insulted and believe that you are trying to corrupt them. Microsoft came under fire in 2006 when its PR agency in America, Edelman, sent laptop computers with the Windows Vista operating system to influential bloggers. Some protested at what they saw as an attempt at bribery. This sort of problem may lessen as the whole blogging culture become better established and more similar to traditional media.Indeed, some successful blogs are already turning themselves into money-making enterprises, though this raises the question of whether blogs will lose their special impact when they start to behave and be seen like other mainstream media.
As an extension of trying to get blog critics onside some organisations have tried to join the blogsphere, This is usually done in one of two ways.
The first technique is to post a rebuttal or correction on the offending blog. At the best you may correct serious errors and at least communicate your point of view. At worst the posing may stir further controversy and attacks. Some firms, or their PR consultants, have attempted ‘disguised’ postings whereby they try to hide their real identity. It is possible to say how often this ethically dubious and potentially illegal approach works. What is certain is that those who have been discovered doing this have usually found themselves in a worse situation than one from which they started.
The other technique is to create a corporate blog. One big advantage of a corporate blog is that it can greatly increase you search engine optimisation (SEO). However, the danger with corporate blogs is that they end up looking like a boring corporate website rather than a real, personalised blog. This is more likely to offend critics still further rather than win people over. The essence of the blogsphere is its informality, frankness and openness. Running an effective corporate blog takes time frequent updates are usually necessary-and a willingness to show the skeletons in the company’s cupboards. If you write a corporate blog you must be serious and honest about it.
As mentioned at the start, the giant American retailer WalMart ran into trouble when it emerged that a pro-Wal-Mart blog was in fact funded by ‘Working Families for Wal’Mart’ (WFWM), a front group or organisation set up to show Wal-Mart in a good light. Transparency is paramount for corporations trying to go head on with critics in cyberspace.
At their best corporate blogs can be an extension of customer service, provide consumer insights, and even open up new areas of business. At their worst they can do far more harm than good. So before creating a corporate blog make sure you have a first-rate online press office.