No Comment: PR Pros Need to Be Transparent

PR professionals comment on blog posts for a number of reasons. We might seek to correct information, share additional resources or simply thank the author for the original post. We may recommend that our clients’ spokespeople participate in the blogging community to build their reputation and credibility, leverage SEO opportunities or help manage customer relationships. However, a poorly planned and irresponsible comment from a PR pro can lead to an unpredictable and often damaging response from the blogging community.

Earlier this year, an Atlanta Journal Constitution restaurant reviewer wrote a fairly negative review of a Buckhead steakhouse. Although he enjoyed the atmosphere, the journalist was very unimpressed by the quality of the food, and he gave the spot a “Fair” rating. AJC readers responded in kind.

But one dissenting voice stood out from the criticism. Posted under a vague alias, this positive and enthusiastic review disagreed strongly with the journalist’s critiques.

What that commenter did not mention, however, was that she was a member of the PR team representing the restaurant. The journalist was not so oblivious: as a website administrator, he could see the commenter’s email address, which clearly identified her, and he called her out.

To quote one of the subsequent comments: Busted.

Transparency is not a luxury in PR. If that PR professional had identified herself in her comment—simply writing “I work for Company X, but this has been my experience” would have been sufficient—I would be writing a very different post. But the professional instead attempted to sway the conversation by using an anonymous account, and history has proven that the Internet is not kind to those it deems inauthentic.

It seems like common sense advice: Identify yourself. Identify your conflicts of interest. But the temptation to sway the conversation is strong, and some of our colleagues in PR, perhaps due to inexperience or perhaps because they don’t believe that they will get caught, continue to make the same mistake. Pretending not to have a conflict of interest—and that is exactly what these types of comments are doing—rarely ends well, and it reflects poorly on the industry as a whole.

Strong commenting policies and guidelines rooted in transparency and disclosure, like those set out by the United States Air Force, can help prevent these unfortunate outings. As publicists, we recommend that our clients are transparent and authentic in interviews. Shouldn’t we hold ourselves to the same standards when commenting on blogs?

Holly Grande is the social media manager for Cookerly Public Relations, an Atlanta-based PR and marketing agency. Follow Holly on Twitter @hollygrande.

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  • “It seems like common sense advice: Identify yourself.” – So much of “magic” of PR is actually common sense, so it just floors me when people don’t follow it. Not only is being transparent the right thing to do, but it’s so obvious when one isn’t. That, in turn, is more detrimental than no response at all. Thanks for the call-out!

  • Geoff Barbaro

    Holly, the point you’ve made is fair, if obvious. However a real professional in this situation should also see there’s work to be done – whatever happened to acknowledging the experiences, being the conduit for the two-way information flow between stakeholders and organisations (chefs and diners in this case), working on strategies that help the organisation meet the needs of its customers, things that actually give PR its meaning and value? It’s one thing to call out bad behaviours, but a bigger issue again when this practitioner apparently has no concept of real PR – and we don’t highlight these issues as well.

    • Very true, Geoff, but I think that is an issue that can take up a blog post on its own. Guidelines, like those I linked above, can help professionals better see the opportunities for turning a one-time-customer with a bad experience into a loyal fan.  In this situation, the PR pro was off-the-clock (are we ever off the clock?), and the failure to acknowledge a conflict of interest was the foremost issue. I agree that online community outreach should be a component of the business strategy, but before such activities can be put into place, all spokespeople must understand the importance and value of transparency.

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