Managing social network comment poses a new challenge

Analyst recommends responding and positive comment rather than going legal

Social networking has the potential to bring organisations into conflict with their own employees, warns analyst firm Ovum, and they should be careful how they react.

The rise of social networking create even more opportunity for employees to post negative comments about their employers and bring organisation into conflict with both employees and the operators of those social networks.

Ovum research director Steve Hodgkinson counsels caution, saying the “fire and forget” solution or a lawsuit against a network operator may work to the organisation’s long-term disadvantage by bringing down the wrath of “free speech” champions.

“Initiating court action against the owner of a social networking site would be seen as an unreasonable action by hundreds of vocal bloggers around the world — a threat to the freedom of digital speech,” he says. “People who had no interest in the company or the supposed failings of its products turn out to have a very big interest in its actions in attempting to use the courts to influence what can and cannot be said in the context of social networking. “The interactive nature of the medium enables a rapid and effective backlash.”

Instead, Hodgkinson recommends following the old adage that the solution to negative speech is more speech, not less.

“A better reaction would [be] to respond to the critical comments directly and positively — acknowledging them as valid feedback — and providing either a factual and constructive rebuttal or indicating what the company is doing about addressing the issues raised.

“The interactive nature of the medium means that interactions are transparent to a wide audience, and the flow of the dialogue needs to be actively managed. Active monitoring and follow-up is required to ensure that the desired message is created and if necessary additional content and comments added to the interaction to keep the messaging on track.”

Comment on a social network is also complicated by the multi-party nature of the medium, he says. This makes it hard to zero in on a single offending author.

“The reality is that content is now a hybrid of the original message intended by the author and the contributions and interactions of others who have an interest in it,” he says.

This further works against the effectiveness of a combative response and signals that a more effective reaction lies in “writing good over bad”.

The word “over” can be taken quite literally, in view of the vagaries of search engines, Hodgkinson says. Correctly angled, the positive comment can appear more voluminous, more authoritative and more recent — all factors search engines take into account in their placing — and search engines are many people’s first recourse when looking for what is being said on the networks on a particular topic.

“The solution to bad material on the internet is to keep publishing new good material about yourself until the old material is so far down the search response that in practice most people will never find it,” Hodgkinson says.

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