Can we do anything about it?

Yes, you can. Maybe you should, and you may even avert a disaster.

The traditional attitude to handling criticism

First, here’s the traditional attitude. Imagine that you’re walking down the street when you overhear strangers—across the street—telling other strangers something incorrect and/or hurtful about your organization. Do you cross the street and run up to each stranger and try to correct those false impressions? Of course not, unless you want to hear laughter behind your back after each encounter. Very uncool. Instead (assuming it’s important enough), you would stay on your side of the street and walk to the nearest outlet for the mass media: newspapers, radio, television. There you would make your point, safely removed from personal contact.

Managing criticism on social media

How things have changed. Yes, the social media (such as Facebook and Twitter) are on the other side of the street, but the street is narrowing. The distinction between impersonal mass media and personal social media is blurring. And now your organization may have to cross the street and converse with total strangers individually. The new reality is interactive, personal and fast, and organizations that don’t adapt to this new attitude may field a lot of pain.

Wait! Major objection! Does that mean I have to spend valuable time tracking down the 10,000 people tweeting rubbish to each other about my organization?

No. Fortunately no. Back to the street analogy. Imagine that the people across the street are clustered around certain influential individuals who do most of the talking. They’re the individuals you work with.

On Twitter, for example, you can swiftly tell which individuals have the most followers, and there are other on-line ways to check how much influence an individual has. And it could be anyone—a housewife, a plumber, a sports fan—they may not have any kind of establishment title or position.

Engage the most influential individuals

Engage the most influential individuals just as you would a traditional reporter, with respect even though he or she is making outrageous assertions and asking tough questions. For that, see my book Media Easy (below).

This has jogged a memory. When I was a television reporter, I once brought two opponents together for an off-camera discussion—a CEO and a company union man who had been slamming each other at a distance through the mass media. Within minutes, they solved the problem. When I told the chief reporter that there was no more story, he was furious and said, “What are you? A social worker?”

The new media reality (and of course PR reality) will increasingly involve both mass and social media. Which means that you'll need to be on your toes. Your media communication team no longer has the luxury of taking 24 hours to put out a news release.

Finally, a confession. Until recently I was ready to rubbish the whole idea of dealing with social media. My grateful thanks to social media expert Lewis Bostock www.lewisbostock.com for opening my eyes.

Michael

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