Why Crowdsourcing Is Problematic for PR
There are a lot of definitions for crowdsourcing. The original pre-Wikipedia iteration of the word was meant to describe an open-call to a crowd to bid on work previously done by employees. Sufficed to say, that is an inadequate description of crowdsourcing anymore.
Sure, there is a lot discussion around “crowdsourced PR,” and of crowdsourced campaigns such as the McDonald’s Germany “Mein Burger” campaign, which was a contest around creative content (Netflix did a similar campaign soliciting fan art for the release of the fourth season of Arrested Development). And while this sort of crowdsourcing provides PR practitioners with a useful toolset, these are easily controlled and fall spectrally closer to the original definition than what we might now collectively understand crowdsourcing to be.
Wikipedia. Yelp. Facebook. That’s the sort of crowdsourcing that is problematic for PR professionals. Because public opinion is no longer finessed by press releases and press conferences, it is increasingly influenced by the crowd.
What I want to do in this piece is take a look through this lens at informational sites like Wikipedia, review sites like Yelp, and social media sites such as Facebook, to describe why this crowdsourced content is both important and problematic for PR.
The strange case of Wikipedia
In his book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson discussed Wikipedia relative to Microsoft’s Encarta. How could an online encyclopedia that was crowdsourced by a bunch of volunteers put encyclopedia software (generously funded by one of the world’s biggest companies and written by professional writers) out of business? He concludes that the crowdsourced model for an encyclopedia is better because of the addition of broader content and the ability to publish immediate updates to a (comparatively) static publication. And it’s low-cost.
Whether you buy Anderson’s interpretation of the advantages of Wikipedia or not, what you should know from a PR-perspective is that Wikipedia has become a trusted source of information not only for users (It is the sixth most trafficked site in the world, as well in the U.S.) but for the search engines themselves. Google and Bing both use Wikipedia entries to populate the sidebar in their search results.
Because of this, PR agencies have made it common practice to try and editorially control Wikipedia’s content. Pieces of paid editorial content placed by writers pretending to be volunteers are known as “sockpuppets” on Wikipedia. There are a handful of editors who are entrusted to vet sockpuppets and amend their promotional content, which has created a somewhat adversarial relationship between Wikipedia and PR firms.
In one of the most egregious examples of sockpuppetry, PR firm Wiki-PR overtly sold Wikipedia-editing services to clients, utilizing black-hat techniques such as bogus referral pages to lend credibility to their sympathetic content.
As recently as last week, a Russian Government official was caught updating the Wikipedia page for the Malaysian Airlines flight that went down in the Ukraine.
The overt aren’t the only PR firms editing Wikipedia, though. In June it was widely reported that the 10 largest PR firms committed to greater transparency on Wikipedia, including conflict of interest declarations when they edit a client page. What was underreported was that Wikipedia changed their editorial guidelines specifically to require conflict of interest declarations. In other words, the PR firms agreed to follow Wikipedia’s terms of service.
For your review…
Imagine you own an Indian restaurant in the greater Cincinnati or Seattle area, and you serve Palak Paneer (a spinach puree with spices and homemade cheese) on the menu. There’s a high likelihood that I have contributed to the crowdsourcing of your PR efforts and written a Yelp, Google or Urbanspoon review about your restaurant. On the surface this may seem like a great deal for your restaurant, but what if I leave a negative review?*
This inherent subjectivity is excruciating for businesses and PR professionals. After all, a handful of reviews could determine whether people buy your stuff or frequent your business. One study found that 90 percent of people say that online reviews influence their buying decisions (which incidentally is not true since 90 percent of people don’t agree on anything, really – but should be seen as anecdotal evidence corroborating the greater point).
Some businesses have even filed libel and defamation lawsuits against reviewers. This daycare sued a mother who left a negative review, this auto shop is suing a customer who left a negative review, this lawyer is suing a client who left a negative review (is he representing himself?), and this church is suing a former congregant who left a negative review. In one case, a group of doctors sued Google for publishing negative reviews.
So, the PR best practice around review sites is to embrace the positive reviews and to sue the negative reviewers (just kidding!). Reviewers are a crap shoot, but most review sites will allow businesses to respond to reviews. This is a pretty common best practice, even though it involves many more crisis responses than businesses are accustomed to.
Some review sites such as Amazon (and in a peripheral sense Klout through their Perks program) offer businesses the opportunity to engage influential reviewers by comping them goods and services (for Amazon this is their Vine program). Yelp specifically discourages this practice, but in some instances it may be an opportunity to earn positive reviews from more influential writers.
*(Note to Indian restaurants of the greater Cincinnati area – I never leave a negative review.)
If you thought Wikipedia was a tough nut to crack, try Facebook.
In May, Facebook changed the default post setting to “friends.” While this may seem somewhat innocuous, it isn’t. It changes the visibility for businesses who want to do social listening on the site. According to the Pew Research Internet Project, 71 percent of online adults use Facebook and no other social network boasts more than 22 percent use. The average Facebook session lasts 20 minutes per user, far greater than any other social network.
The social network that is significantly advantaged for the mass-market now hides most of their content behind a login. Google won’t retrieve it and you can’t find it, which is a horrible disadvantage for businesses if there are critiques of your business or products hidden in local networks. And there really isn’t much to do about this.
Where there are opportunities to influence public perception on the review pages of Facebook (available if you have a brick and mortar location). There is opportunity to intervene for any critique that is posted. And you can also respond if Fans are allowed to post directly to your Facebook Page.
For other social networks (most prominently Twitter), most posts are public and thus easier to find and respond to. And people are more apt to use Twitter for social care from businesses that they follow. The downside to Twitter is that it is far easier to write a small microblog than a thoughtful critique, which leads to a potential volume issue. Hundreds of tweets could be sent in a matter of minutes in response to a specific event, presenting a lot of message management concerns.
What I wanted to show in this piece was how third-party crowdsourced websites make public relations management more difficult. There is a struggle to control messaging on Wikipedia, and this struggle is amplified on review sites like Yelp where messages have increased volumes. On Facebook, there is a possibility that public perception is influenced within local networks without any public visibility. Decentralized influence is a byproduct of crowdsourcing that PR professionals will be trying to manage in perpetuity.
In the immortal words on Lucy Liu in Kill Bill Vol. 1: “You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?”
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