At a recent PRWeek event, a group of in-house and agency leaders discussed the challenges of responding to negative online comments. Some participants spoke about the best ways to go about “changing opinion” – the standard phrase for these types of interactions – of disaffected bloggers and those who comment on blogs.
I wonder, however, if that terminology dangerously misses the mark. Do PR pros have the power to change opinion? Indeed they do, over time, and through a range of channels, as well as consistent and clear messaging through all touch points of the organization. But opinions are not changed through isolated responses to random, angry blog comments. At best, intelligent responses to online rants might positively (and sometimes negatively) impact a person's perception of a company in that particular moment.
Perceptions inform opinions, of course, but they are only one part of the deep process that actually drives individuals to engage in meaningful interactions with an organization over time.
Is this just semantics? I don't think so. There is always a danger, I believe, of losing context because of the easily accessible ire that one can tap into about virtually any significant organization or brand at any time, simply by searching online. Plenty of people recognize by now that you shouldn't pursue every naysayer down the digital rabbit hole. But it's very difficult to reconcile that intellectually with the emotional response of actually seeing rancid posts online and knowing that anyone else can see them, as well.
It's vital to keep a focus on the big picture, even while we are discussing the very practical realities of managing an online customer community. Reaching out to bloggers or those commenting on blogs to correct facts or offer a dialogue is a good start, provided that the individual is deemed to be truly influential and credible. But in itself, this activity does not change opinions, and should not take precedence over the full range of deep stakeholder relationship activities that provide the best return on investment.