Responding To The Conversation

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What if everything just went quiet? If you close your eyes and cover your ears, does it all just go away? Is no comment worse than actually saying, "no comment"?

The ability for anyone and everyone to have thoughts and publish them to the world has brought us all to a very interesting and curious intersection. There is tons of discussion around the value of these online conversations. From how to monitor them and analyze their worth, to how to comment and respond. Along with that, there are countless debates about which sectors are best suited to lead these conversations on behalf of brands. Is it the traditional advertising agencies, the public relations sector or the digital marketing agencies? Some of the better discussions are around forgetting all of that and working with a team that has experience, knowledge and a high level of strategic insight.

The conversation even shifts to the validity of those who dare call themselves, "Social Media Experts". Some say, the best people to engage are the ones who are actually, "walking the walk." The ones that have a healthy Blog or a reasonable amount of Twitter followers. Whatever path you choose, there might be one unique and strikingly obvious way to see if the people or agencies are the right fit for you:

Look at how they respond to the conversation. Both the kind and the critical.

Judy Gombita actually highlights this in the comment section of a post on PR Conversations titled, Who are you to criticise? What is the point of PR in social media?:

"…I’ve noticed a tendency lately in the social media realm where an ‘active’ individual (i.e., active in the space) has been criticized by name, usually relating to their online behaviour, and most often the critique is done in a blog post. In at least four cases, the individuals in question have not responded to the criticisms. Not as a comment, not as a blog post, not even as a tweet. (And we know that SM people are all into self-monitoring tools for personal and blog names, so it’s not like they don’t know about the criticisms.). The lack of response has been noted by more than one person and the feeling is that s/he hopes the ‘problem’ (or issue) will simply ‘go away’ with time, so there’s no need to address or respond, in any channel."

It’s pretty hard to sell clients on the power of these conversations, while at the same time some of the so-called "experts" and "gurus" are doing the exact thing that they would admonish their clients for.

This exact scenario has happened to me on numerous occasions. Someone will take something posted here, put their own spin on it (sometimes with obvious mistakes), and when those errors are pointed out in their comment section, they suddenly go silent. While this is personally insulting, it’s not really the worst part. The worst part is when that Social Media Expert’s readers see the post, don’t bother to read through all of the comments, jump to their own conclusions and Blog, tweet and spread the maligned content further.

The real question is:

How are we going to sell the power of these online conversations to clients if we – as the leading practitioners – don’t hold ourselves and the conversations accountable to a higher standard than the silence of no comment? 


  1. This “walking the walk” topic is a relevant one to discuss to be sure, however, I think there needs to be more calling out of the so-called experts to begin with.
    I think the reason why there isn’t as much engagement on behalf of the challenged as there should be is because of a lack of confidence in their own leadership and expertise. In many cases, this lack of confidence is well-founded. I think the ones with the real chops do/will join the discussion, because they are the ones that know when they’re right and are comfortable with being wrong.

  2. It depends how valid the criticism is. Some trolls just feed on the attention and responding can actually make it worse.
    Valid, reasonable discussions with differing points of view are healthy and constructive. Anonymous trolls spewing venom are just a waste.

  3. Agreed. But I am not talking about trolls. I am talking about the people Judy is talking about. People we know. People who are respected.
    These people have – time and time again – simply gone silent instead of commenting, resolving or even agreeing to disagree.

  4. Well put. There’s a big difference between talking and walking.
    It seems that many people cant do both at the same time. Too bad.

  5. i get beat up for my posts all over the place. i generally respond and try to engage in conversation. comes with the territory. most of those things play themselves out pretty quickly.
    but i’ll only respond to people who are civil. and if it becomes clear that someone really is just beating me up, i wish them well and move on.
    you have to choose your battles, i think.

  6. Interesting. For anybody who wasn’t paying attention, they wouldn’t notice this sort of behaviour at all, but it says a lot about the person they might hire.
    There are so many negative consequences ideologically from doing it.. It even goes beyond the whole “Here are the positive benefits from entering a conversation like that”. Though I think if calling them out on it might be the wrong move. It would just pump more negativity into the system, even if it was justified or not. Best option would to be candid on where you stand on that behaviour, and keep in mind, or state publicly again, that the person failed that particular test.

  7. Maybe this issue is a little like the mechanic’s car, the plumber’s kitchen or the designer’s website? We are all so busy serving our clients needs that sometimes we forget our own needs.
    It’s not a good excuse but it seems that it certainly is common problem in every industry.

  8. I hear you Mitch – but Seth Godin seems to be able to sell his clients on engaging even though he doesn’t. I assume he must engage a lot offline to challenge his own ideas…

  9. This is an interesting topic and, being someone fairly new to social media, I think this question is on alot of peoples minds. I know that right before I got laid off I kept trying to get my company involved in a blog, but they were afraid of bad press and how to deal with it. I think that people just need to be honest and deal with it as it comes. In the end it may just be – agree to disagree. IMHO

  10. good post Mitch!
    Hope to see more posts on how to spot self-proclaimed experts. It is true that the noise is becoming rather disturbing.

  11. I’m sure you had not meant it like that, but it isn’t possible for anyone and everyone to publish content to the internet.
    It is easier for a middle-class white man who lives in America to publish content than it is for a lower-income POC living in a shack in Cape Town.
    Back to your post:
    I’ve also been guilty of not responding to someone calling me out on something. It usually happens because I want time to think about the problem and give a decent response. And then it never happens.
    But mostly this happens because the SME wants to exercise power over the commenter. It often works, too.
    However, nothing irks me more than they who do not respond to even positive comments.

  12. Joy-Mari (and others).
    I just want to make sure that I was clear in my Blog posting. I was not talking about people and their access to this content, and I was not talking about listening and responding to everything and anything that is said about you in these spaces.
    I was talking about those who start conversations in these spaces, comment along with the flow, but become silent or “go dark” when the conversation takes a turn.

  13. I think the standard of behavior should be the same as in Face2Face or Ear2Ear life.
    Going dark when the conversation takes a turn is rude but more importantly takes away an opportunity to learn from another
    (dissenting) perspective and with it the chance to become even better.
    my 2 cents,

  14. As a social media blogger and so-called thought leader, I find your view definitely stimulates conversation. In many of the nonprofit communities I monitor (or helped add content to), the dialogue tends to be a bit more muted, more passive. So individuals do not always respond to controversial topics. But in media-focused communities (those based on local newspapers, for example), the conversation is often much more aggressive. Members seemed to be much more open and pointed with their responses. Also, do you think the behavior could be different based on culture (U.S. versus U.K., for example)?

  15. The issue of resources-to-respond is very large. If there is a critical mass of comments (positive or negative) then the protagonist will/ought to respond. It can be up to the “expert” to weigh those comments and provide advice on how/when to respond. One lone voice in the wilderness … on a witch hunt … simply costs too much to respond to. A decade we saw how Bullboards and Yahoo message boards in the Tech stock markets had infrequent, but extraordinary influence on stock prices. We (every stakeholder group) are hopefully becoming desensitized to extremes.
    How to measure that critical mass, or define an extreme? For me (personally), one voice is significant. For Coke, the “weight” of comments is the determinant. (Weight equals Volume * message power/tone/content). Experts have not yet standardized or branded that “weighting”.
    Once an “expert” establishes an accepted standard metric, (clear, concise, repeatable) it will define the space, and provide a stake in the ground around which new experts will monetize the SM space.

  16. Sorry Mitch et al – To respond specifically to Mitch’s clarification:
    There is the compromise between value-added comments – saying the same thing over again – blended with the “Rational Man” thesis. The dialogue has to be rational and add something new. my read on many of these exchanges are that they become ad hominem – or too granular in the detail, and the central, high-level message becomes compromised.
    It is simply not possible for “experts” (including you, Mitch) to respond to every blog stream. Perhaps there is an implicit or acceptable or polite time limit to which the SM world will migrate. ie: perhaps, after 6 weeks, turn off the old topic, and open a new one, capturing that “turn” about which you speak.

  17. Backing up a bit and taking a more philosophical look at this discussion, it seems we are still in the period of “ironing out the kinks” (or the more accurate “période de rodage”) when it comes to social media — hard as that is to believe for those who have been involved for years. It takes a long time to establish a long-term reputation as an expert. And those who would put themselves forward as such are learning what “experts” in other areas have learned over the centuries: while the pioneers increase their chances of acclaim by innovation, it takes more to maintain widespread respect in the long-term than simply being there first.

  18. For me, the key take-away is more about whether the “experts”, who, when the going-gets-tough or controversial, go quiet. Are they really all they claim to be?
    The nascent state of social media holds tremendous opportunity and promise, and has brought out of the woodwork a seemingly endless supply of Social Media experts – some of whom are more hype than substance.
    When that expertise is truly called upon or challenged, people may realize that this “expert” is dressed in the “Emperor’s New Clothes.” This will likely detract from the positive vibes brought about by the efforts of the true experts and pundits, especially as business grapples through 2009 with the continued adoption of and engagement via Social Media.

  19. Be happy you live in North America. I’m from Belgium. Here you find almost no comments on blog postings. You guys are way ahead of us. Maybe it’s because of a stupid reason (the distances are bigger within one language zone), maybe it’s because you operate at the edge of marketing. I don’t know. Anyhow, keep going at it and try to go on working on the fine limit between the fish bowl and a more general audience. Your posts are very interesting and so are your podcasts. What a wonderful world, being able to learn from guys like you from out here.

  20. In the quest to have the loudest voice or the most consumed content, too often we rush past engagement. If we say (or write) something, we must be able to back it up.
    If someone comments on our material, the essential part of the conversation is our involvement. If they disagree with our view or make a valid addition or correction, it is okay to make those revisions during the exchange.
    If we fail to engage, we may as well stay in our basements and paint on canvases for ourselves. If we want to be respected, read and viewed as ones with a valid opinion then we must allow the exchange to occur. Our part is certainly not silence.
    This all falls under the assumption that those who comment actually wait or come back for our response. If not, the room can get crowded with soap boxes.

  21. Thanks for highlighting my comment, Mitch. I’m also glad this post a introduced a wider audience to the “Who are you to criticise� post by my PR Conversations’ co-blogger, Heather Yaxley.
    I’ve read through the post and comments (wouldn’t dare not!) and appreciated the resulting directions and layers of discussion. What I would add, though, is that I don’t think all criticisms need to be treated equally. Sometimes the criticism is subjective or relatively minor. Sometimes the critic has a personal agenda (e.g., antipathy towards the individual or simply looking to “score points� or have a greater social media profile). Sometimes it’s a slow day all around and a throwaway post generates more attention than it deserves (i.e., the “pile-on� effect by SM cliques). I think there are a lot of “manufactured criticism and conversations,� but also a lot of genuine interest in healthy debates.
    The most valid criticisms are objective, not subjective. They are facts- or trends-based, not simply opinions, particularly ones coloured by past histories and relationships.
    If familiar with both the commenter and individual being criticized, often I’ll try to assess the past and present relationships while monitoring the conversation. Not only some suspected history or root causes of the actual criticism being levelled by one against another, but also of the individuals commenting, pro or con. Again, you can have individuals commenting simply to become known or to impress (either party). What is most gratifying is when you find a total stranger (maybe from a different employment sector and half a world away) whose comment on a topic or individual action is almost identical to your own POV. “I’m not alone in feeling this way!� or “This added to my appreciation of the issue being discussed.�
    Is the criticism aimed at an individual’s reputation…or is it directed at a specific incident or longer-term course of action? Generally I’d say the second and third cases are more deserving of “conversations� than the first.
    When it comes to specific criticism, the conversation can only go on for so long. You either have: 1. Acceptance of the criticism (basically in full), 2. Partial agreement (and an indication that future behaviour will be considered and likely modified) or 3. A well-argued (and generally accepted) case as to why the criticism isn’t valid…and a request that the main parties agree to disagree.
    To the part in your post about counselling clients, I’ll end with a quote from one of the pre-eminent public relations scholars, James Grunig about two-way symmetrical communication in public relations and social media. (This in answer to a question in our PRC group interview):
    “…organizations should sponsor a blog to engage directly in dialogue with people who want to communicate. It’s a judgment call whether to simply listen to what people are saying and when to intervene. If bloggers are interpreting the actions of you or the organization accurately, stay out, so as not to change the nature of the discussion. If being interpreted inaccurately, intervene to try to correct or enlarge the interpretation.�
    That’s a criticism worth responding to and a conversations definitely worth having.

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