Social media has ushered in a new age of transparency for organizations. With that transparency comes a desire, especially in consumer-centric industries, for authenticity. I’ve spent much of my research career seeking the perfect definition and model of authenticity, and the short answer is…there isn’t one. The perception of authenticity of anything (a restaurant experience, college recruitment materials, green packaging, etc.) varies based on the person who perceives it. However, there is one universal truth about authenticity–it is a highly desired characteristic in interactions, especially in digital environments.
With the mandate to be “authentic” in today’s digital environments, public relations and other communication professionals are advocating more intensely for open, two-way communication. Given these expectations, allowing comments on organizational blogs and websites (even if they are first screened) seems like a no-brainer. You don’t want your clients’ or organization’s digital presence to be viewed as using an out-moded, one-way “megaphone model” of communication or stifling opinions of those who engage online. As a PR practitioner, I too, convinced clients that enabling comments are signs of transparency and authenticity, and necessary as a tool to invite dialogue and engagement … but I’ve changed my mind.
Just as the social media landscape continues to evolve, PR professionals must continue to re-examine our practices and beliefs–even seemingly “transparent” practices like enabling comments. There are three main reasons I’ve changed my position on enabling comments. The first is that comments have become suspect on popular consumer ranking sites, such as Yelp or Amazon. A Harvard study of Yelp comments indicated that the worse the reputation and the fewer reviews, the more fraudulent reviews. Even the official response posted on Yelp’s blog noted the study’s results did not surprise them. Fraudulent reviews corrupt the credibility of all comments.
In addition, if your client or organization wants to broaden reach, maintaining a conversation on an organization’s owned channel (such as a company blog) will have less impact than sharing the conversation with a broader audience on shared social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (or whatever shared channel your research indicates your community uses). Yes, all social media has the potential to have fake posts, however, with a broader audience, you’ll achieve higher search engine optimization results, and will earn the goodwill of others who can boost their presence by sharing your content.
It may be difficult to approach the idea of disabling comments with clients or your organization’s C-suite, especially if you were the one who convinced them to enable comments in the first place. However, credible outlets, namely Reuters and Bloomberg, have disabled their comments to help pave the way for the conversation. Bloomberg’s former Chief Digital Content Officer Joshua Topolsky (who has since left Bloomberg Media) said external social platforms are likely to reach a more representative percentage of the audience. Reuters said it was “realities of behaviors in the market place.” I like the honesty of blogger Everett Bougue who, in a debate featured on Fizzle, admitted that the engagement was unwieldy to manage and by using shared media, it produced more “google juice.”
The last reason to disable comments and move conversations to shared media channels is to facilitate better monitoring and quicken response time by using the analytic programs built into the shared media channels (like Twitter Analytics) or an analytics dashboard (like Hootsuite, Netvibes, Cision, etc).
Not everyone agrees that now is the time to disable comments. (You can read an alternative view by Pat Flynn here.) However, if you build-in easy access to the shared channels on your owned site, equip your readers with hash tags or short links to encourage sharing, and dedicate space to those shared feeds in adjacent space to your article, readers may even sense a greater transparency (especially since you are willing to have comments be directed through a site that you don’t screen). Even if the leadership for your client or organization decides not to disable comments, your attentiveness to their place in the evolving media landscape will be appreciated.
I welcome feedback to this article via Twitter @JKelsoSandlin