Responding to blog attacks

BusinessWeek’s new Tech Beat blog has a post from Stephen Baker about the challenge corporates face in responding to blog attacks. It’s certainly an interesting issue since clearly a customer or commentator is entitled to his or her view. Responding at a corporate level to a personal opinion could come across as overkill or heavy-handed. Yet a blog attack has the potential to impact a company far more than a disgruntled customer writing a terse letter, complaining to the customer service department or moaning to friends in the pub. In fact, a blog is an excellent forum for a rant. It’s public and there’s little right to reply.

The challenge from a PR perspective is what to do. To respond formally may exacerbate the problem. To ignore it can cost you dearly (ask Kryptonite). And so here we enter a realm where crisis public relations meets customer service. I think the best starting point is to establish the facts internally – does the attacker have a point? Here you have to be candid and try to see the offended blogger’s perspective.

The next step is to assess the seriousness of the attack. So in our Kryptonite example where the lock could be undone by a biro, the nature of the attack was potentially serious if the story became widely known. Had it been that the key occasionally gets jammed in the barrel, then it’s less critical. Part of this assessment also needs to evaluate the connectedness and influence of the blog itself. We may decide that even if the problem is minor, i.e. the key gets jammed, but the blog is high profile, we’d rather not leave the remark to spread unchecked (or at least uncountered).

The response needs to be considered carefully. The phrase ‘Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel’ applies here. A blog has a lot of space which has the potential to be filled with a personal diatribe of unfounded tosh. If the response is ill-judged or taken wrongly, the situation could be made worse. As a default, my approach would be to watch but say nothing – crises frequently blow over without turning into a wildfire, despite the initial smoke.

Selecting the medium to respond is important. The options range from a counter comment on the blog, which would encourage dialog, to a direct email, a corporate blog posting linked to the attack, a call, a personal letter or a formal statement. It’s important here not to undervalue the blogger’s viewpoint, not to be emotional, heavy-handed, impolite or incorrect. Brevity is important then, and a certain amount of humor or self-deprecation can diffuse a situation which is emotionally fraught.

There’s no silver-bullet or standard procedure to addressing a blog attack, just in the same way there’s no single approach to handling customer complaints via the phone, mail or in person. With blogs, though, there’s the potential for a complaint to spread or even cascade into the media, so speed and vigilance are important. Thankfully, the potential for harm from a blog attack is also a power for good, so an effective and transparent response can enhance corporate reputations and demonstrate a true customer dialog.

Caveat – I would just point out that this approach is just IMHO and not meant to be prescriptive. In fact, it would be good to discuss other approaches to what I’m sure will be an increasingly important public relations responsibility.