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Are more companies attracting criticism on the social Web?

Photo courtesy of Pratheepps via Wikipedia

One of the most common questions PR professionals ask me is how to deal with criticism of their brands on the social Web. Books, blogs and conferences have been covering the topic of “social media crisis communications” for 2 to 3 years now, and the advice doesn’t seem to change much: listen, respond quickly, apologize and fix it.

As more companies have attempted social outreach online, the general level of anxiety about these swells of contempt toward brands seems to grow amongst communications professionals.

We see new examples all the time, from those cheese-snorting Domino’s pizza YouTube stars to snickers on Twitter about the name of Apple’s new tablet computer, the iPad. I’ve talked to people in the hospitality industry who can’t bring themselves to read feedback about their hotels on TripAdvisor, and small business owners who fear nasty Yelp reviews from every customer. But sometimes I wonder, as our repository of these case studies in crisis grows, is their frequency actually increasing?

In his 1997 book Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation, Hungarian sociologist Frank Furedi argues that we worry more the less we have to worry about. For example, people are living longer than ever but also worrying about their health more than ever. Similarly, more companies are successfully engaging with customers and constituents online than ever before, and yet the anxiety about backlash continues to grow.

I’m not suggesting that any given company or organization is now less likely to experience a storm of criticism than in the early days of the social Web. An angry comment on a blog or social site can indeed take on a life of its own and attract a critical mass of similar feelings as quickly as ever. But the pace of embarrassing episodes for brands on the social Web appears to be fairly constant.

Maybe the frequency of these incidents is being held back by PR professionals, community managers and client services professionals who are getting better at putting out fires before they do serious damage. (We’ve covered these firefighting strategies here, here and here.)

Jermiah Owyang keeps a pretty comprehensive running list of the gaffes that attract mainstream attention here, and these seem to run at a steady clip of about 10 or so per year. If anything, with our profession’s renewed focus on the importance of authentic, transparent conversation online (as evidenced by all those books, blogs and conferences), we’re better equipped to respond to these situations quickly than ever before.

What do you think? Are you more concerned about consumer backlash online affecting your company’s reputation than you were, say, two years ago? Do you feel better equipped to deal with a crisis if it comes up? The comments, as they say, are yours.

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