Why You Should Never Delete Negative Comments

Transparency.

It’s one of those words that has almost become synonymous with social media. So much so that communicators are starting to get sick of hearing it (re: Ragan.com’s list of the “Top 10 Most Overused Words in Social Media“). However, no matter how “overused” it may be it still has value for companies in the blogosphere.

Transparency gains trust. And trust is one of the most important aspects in relationships with constituents. So how can companies be transparent online? There are many different ways to do so, which include having a designated company blogger, speaking candidly on company policies, and even owning up to corporate missteps. This post focuses on comments; specifically why companies should never delete negative ones.

It’s typical to receive complaints. As the post “Corporate Blogging Do’s and Don’ts” points out, allowing these complaints and then responding to them honestly will cause your company’s credibility to rise. Think about it: a blog with only positive comments praising the company just looks fake. There should be room for both praise and criticism of the company, its products, or even its policies. Also take note that if some complaints keep reoccurring then it’s a sign that there’s a larger problem you need to fix corporately.

In an interview with Ragan’s PR Daily, SAS explained their philosophy behind transparency and commenting. According to Jim Davis, the senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of SAS, blogging is built on trust. He points out that incorrect controversial comments will get corrected by the by the community without intervention. At the same time, however, true controversial comments will gain supporters also voicing their concerns. These are the negative comments companies need to pay attention to; the comments are pointing out problems that need to be fixed.

Posting and responding to negative comments can actually help you gain more customers. According to Research Brief, the Retail Consumer Report from this January, 18% of consumers have turned into loyal customers after receiving responses from retailers to their posted complaints or negative reviews online. Doesn’t seem like a large enough percentage? Just remember: that’s still 18% of customers you would’ve lost without any response. Responding can also promote positive reviews. In the same report, it was found that 33% of disgruntled customers who had received responses later posted positive reviews. Also, 34% eventually deleted the original review.

Finally, how does this all tie into ethics? Look back to the six guidelines presented in the Social Media Code of Ethics from the first post. Numbers 2-5 (welcome criticism, respond to comments quickly and appropriately, be credible and transparent, deal with errors honestly) all relate. Following these guidelines and the suggestions set forth in this post is to act ethically online.

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Would You Give Up Your Password for a Job?

Recently, Robert Collins, a Maryland resident applying for a position at the Division of Corrections, was told to give up his facebook password to the potential employer. Here is a short video recorded by the ACLU of Collins giving his own account of the incident.

 

Collins holds that he was informed this information requirement was part of a new policy on social media for the department. However, the spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services denied any policy of the sort when asked by NBC4 in Washington.  Collins holds that he was told the information would be used to check for any sort of gang affiliations or illegal activities. Either way, this case leads to many new questions regarding social media and the job search. Is it ethical for employers to check private information on a social media profile? The American Civil Liberties Union took up his case and said it wasn’t.

Many have heard of employers checking out Facebook profiles before hiring; however this is taking it a step further. With his password the employer could have access not only to his basic profile but also to his private messages with other users. They could see his religious and political beliefs, even his sexual orientation, and base their hiring decision on what he had posted about himself. Employers could essentially base their hiring decision on his personal information and private life instead of his skill level and qualifications. If this practice becomes commonplace, then, in theory, companies could end up with less qualified employees.

How? Well, if it comes down to a hiring decision between a well qualified individual with party pictures on Facebook and a lesser skilled individual with a well-mannered profile then the company may decide on the latter as being the “safer” pick. Unfortunately for company, the former applicant (the one with party pictures) may have been the better employee and could have contributed to more productivity and advancements.

Ethically speaking, is it ok for employers to check anything other than public information? Would you ever give up your Facebook password for a job?

Ghost Blogging

A recent class discussion on CEO blogging brought the topic of ghost blogging to my attention and lead me to further research the subject.

First off, I feel that a simple definition of ghost blogging is necessary. It is the practice of writing blog posts for others and is becoming increasingly common in the corporate blog world.

Why does this happen? Executives may not have the time to write their own posts, they may be terrible writers, or they may not be well versed enough in one particular aspect of the company to feel that they can construct a meaningful post. Although this may seem like a great idea for your organization, there is a huge debate going on about whether it’s an ethical practice or not.

All of the key points in the debate are articulated in an excellent podcast by Six Degrees of Separation. The host of the podcast, Mitch Joel, argues against ghost blogging (and ghost microblogging on Twitter) whereas Mark W. Schaefer, author of the popular post “Why it’s ridiculous to argue about ghost blogging” plays devil’s advocate and argues for the corporate use of ghost blogging. To make the 40-minute podcast simple here’s the basic bullet points from the arguments:

PROS (Schaefer):

  • Allows executives to express their opinions and give a public face to the company even if they do not have the time in their schedule to blog themselves.
  • Some CEOs may be terrible writers. Expressing themselves in writing may not be their expertise.
  • Opinions and statements can be monitored and controlled through a ghost writer. There is less risk involved of the CEO saying something out of line.
  • Usually chairmen don’t write their own speeches; so what is the difference between that and blogs? It’s a well known practice that usually isn’t questioned by the public.
  • Along the same lines, CEOs may see personal connections and community as lesser aspects of their jobs. These then take a backseat to other tasks.

CONS (Joel):

  • Social media is all about transparency. If it is found out that your CEO isn’t actually authoring his own blog then your company will lose credibility.
  • Ghost bloggers ultimately do not know as much about your company as the CEO. For a wider knowledge base on all things your company it is better for the CEO to blog.

Note: While it may seem like the pros outweigh the cons, remember the worth of transparency, credibility, and trust in your company by publics.

Another post by blogger and PR professional, Gini Dietrich, summarizes the two points of views from the podcast and gives the arguments greater contexts. As she points out, one of the main reasons for the differences of opinions lies in the fact that Joel works with much larger companies than Schaefer.

Smaller companies may not know exactly how to go about blogging or using any form of social media and for that reason would hire another company to do it for them. In Gini Dietrich’s own experience she has found that, generally, regardless of the amount of coaxing and preparation given, smaller executives just won’t make the time to blog. Instead, she ghost blogs for her clients but makes sure she includes their views. She does this by talking to the CEO at least once every week and then creates the post from this conversation. However, she always sends the drafts to the clients first for approval and editing and finds that they usually end up changing at least a few sentences of their own in the post. She also stresses that questions on the posts need to be answered directly by the CEO; her company will not respond to the community for them. In this way Dietrich believes she has found a middle ground with the ethics of ghost blogging.

Brandjacking

According to a recent article, the brand protection service MarkMonitor has recently released a new report on the instances of brandjacking online. This report states that brandjacking takes 28% of all branded search terms online. What does that mean? When a user searches for a specifically branded product, say Lacoste shirts, 28% of the results are actually from other companies making fake Lacoste products.  The most frequent instances of this, called brandjacking, occurred in the luxury brands industry and the sports apparel industry.

Why is this a problem? Well, to begin, brandjacking pertains to anything that uses the likeness of a brand, company, or even person for personal gain. So this means that someone else could be using your company’s logo to make a profit for themselves (like the Lacoste shirt example). Essentially your company is losing profits because your customers are buying fake products from someone else.

However, brandjacking doesn’t stop just with fake products. Cypersquatting, or purchasing domain names similar to brand’s real web addresses to either sell false products or to gain revenue in pay-per-click advertising, is still on the rise. It is important to note that cybersquatting doesn’t just happen to well-known companies; it can happen to anyone. A recent example from Pittsburgh shows that cypersquatting can even occur in the service industry – a plumber was using his competitor’s domain name to direct traffic to his own website. The plumber was eventually found guilty in court and forced to pay up to $100,000 in damages to his competitor.

Phishing is yet another form of brandjacking. These are online email scams made to look like legitimate companies such as Mastercard or Visa in an effort to gain your personal information such as credit card numbers. Phishing is generally referred to as identity theft, however, it is also a form of brandjacking because the phishers use the guise of a legitimate company to create falsely branded emails and websites. Consumers can easily fall for the scam without careful criticism of the website or email. According to an article in PR Newswire, both companies and customers should be on the lookout for phishing scams. The article points out that banks, credit card companies, and other businesses would never send requests for account numbers, logins, or passwords through email and would only request such information on their secure websites.

All of these forms of brandjacking go against the number one rule online: transparency. Deceptive practices are the complete opposite to corporate transparency. As such, companies cannot ethically conduct business online while engaging in these practices.

Facebook, Microsoft, and make-my-baby.com

In 2010, Facebook made a reported $1.86 billion in advertising revenue. Large corporations such as AT&T and Verizon compose the majority of the top 10 purchasers of ad impressions in the U.S. version of the site. However, according to AdAge there was an interesting outlier in the group: make-my-baby.com. The site was ranked as the 3rd largest advertiser on Facebook, purchasing a little over 1.75 billion advertisements on the social network.

Screenshot from the original make-my-baby.com

Never heard of it? You’re not alone. Make-my-baby.com was a website where you could add things like mustaches, glasses, and hats to a baby’s face. In order to use it, though, it required that users download a free plug-in. Here’s where the catch comes in: after ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick did a little more investigating it was found that the plug-in actually reset browser homepages and default searches to bing.com, the Microsoft search engine. Why? Well according to Kirkpatrick, Microsoft could have actually been paying the site to switch users from Google and other search engines to Bing. After Kirkpatrick questioned Microsoft about the practice they issued a response saying that they were unaware the publisher was not following their guidelines and that they had severed ties with said publisher. Interestingly enough, when Facebook was asked for a comment they replied that make-my-baby.com was never an advertiser on the site and that AdAge had gotten their facts wrong.

Regardless of the specific facts of the case, the example here still raises a significant question: When do online marketing practices cross over traditional boundaries and become deceptive? Andy Lark, a marketing and communications professional, wrote in a recent post that companies should have ethical standards for their affiliates, especially when online. It is clearly unethical to have deceptive marketing practices online, especially when users are having their browser settings changed without realizing it. Holding affiliates to high ethical standards means that parent companies can avoid potential PR scandals like this recent one.

A quick note about make-my-baby.com: The site was reportedly taken down on January 18th, a day after the AdAge article appeared and the same day Kirkpatrick began investigating. Now when users try to visit make-my-baby.com they are instead redirected to a different site called predictmybaby.com which has no hint of a plug-in.

Astroturfing: It’s Not Just Political

Astroturfing isn’t just about grassroots political campaigns anymore.

It is being increasingly used by advertisers and PR professionals to promote their companies and products online under the guise of consumers. It creates rigged word of mouth marketing usually in favor of one organization.

Why is this a problem? Well for one, word of mouth marketing has proven to be the most effective way of persuading consumers for years, and social media has now made it even easier. Now anyone can create an account, gain friends or followers, and spread their messages. However, the person behind that tweet, status, or blog post may not actually be a real consumer. The entire profile or blog may in fact just be a well planned marketing campaign.

Wal-Marting Across America

According to the Guardian online journalist Alex Wade in a recent article, the creation of a false persona online to support an opinion is called sockpuppeting. He cites the example of Orlando Figes, a well known Russian professor who created fake accounts to place negative comments on other historian’s works on Amazon.com. However, sockpuppeting doesn’t just happen at the individual level. The “Wal-Marting Across America” example from last week’s post shows corporate sockpuppeting.

Is astroturfing worth the risk? Keep in mind the 6 rules in the social media code of ethics presented by the Bundesverband Digitale Wirtschaft. According to this code, companies should be transparent and credible. Neither of which would apply if fake accounts to promote products and services are being created. Trust is one of the most important aspects in the corporate-consumer relationship, and according to an article on congress.org, it is just as easy to get caught with a fake twitter as it is to create one.

With new FCC and Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) regulations on social media coming into place this year, getting caught astroturfing can have even greater consequences than just loss of consumer trust. An article in New Media Age entitled Extension of ASA remit helps make social media safe for marketers,explains that online advertising will now be regulated in the same way as traditional advertising mediums. Astroturfing and flogging (or fake blogging) will not be tolerated. The FCC also will pursue cases in unfair or deceptive advertising practices online according to Information Today’s article Drafting Social Networking Policies.

Finally, it is also important to note that organizations can also be charged at a more local level. The New York attorney general received $300,000 in 2009 from a case brought against Lifestyle Lift when it was found out that the cosmetic surgery company was having employees write false testimonials online for the service.

An Introduction to Ethics

The use of social media for companies has given rise to many different ethical concerns. Issues such as privacy rights, brand-jacking, ghost-blogging, and astroturfing are on the minds of many social media practitioners especially with regard to what exactly is the proper ethical approach to handling them.

However, to begin, you need to know exactly what is ethics. Simply put, ethics are moral standards that one chooses to live by. This means that ethics is the determination of right and wrong, as according to an established set of personal guidelines usually influenced by a larger group such as culture or religion. It is important to note here that ethics and morals are not synonyms. Morals are much more individualistic ideas of good and bad whereas ethics is usually associated with some kind of larger group or institution. An individual’s own personal morals can clash with his/her organization’s ethical standards.

Note: To see a much more in depth explanation of ethics then take a look at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. If you’d like further clarification on the differences between ethics and morals then go to buzzle.com’s article on the subject. This is just a summary of the two sources.

Just as the law and ethics sometimes clash, ethics and business practices online can also clash. A clear example of this would be a blog from 2006 entitled “Wal-Marting Across America” which appeared to chronicle the adventures of a couple traveling from Las Vegas to Georgia in an RV and stopping at only Wal-Marts along the way to park for free. The catch of this blog, however, was that it later appeared to be a stealth PR campaign for WalMart. Is it ethical for a company to use social media to promote itself without being outwardly open about it from the start? This topic will be addressed more in depth in a later post but it points to the larger question of what is ethical practice in social media?

With so much gray area about what is acceptable, many organizations have seen the need to clarify what exactly is “best-practice” for social media by creating social media ethical codes. The Bundesverband Digitale Wirtschaft, a German organization focusing on interactive marketing, published a “Social Media Code of Ethics” in early 2010. The code gives six guidelines that companies must follow when interacting through social media. An article in MediaBuzz explains that these guidelines are to:
1. Respect other users
2. Welcome criticism
3. Respond to comments quickly and appropriately
4. Be credible and transparent
5. Deal with errors honestly
6. Be attentive to copyrights, privacy rights, and data protections.

Other organizations have amended their code of ethics to include social media, such as The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (or WOMMA). WOMMA has also included resources on their website to aid organizations wanting to create their own social media ethical codes.