People can be mean on the Web. Those thoughts that you normally suppress find means of escape, primarily through the increasingly omnipresent social networks.
A recent Euro RSCG Worldwide PR study found 43% of consumers "feel less inhibited through social media," while 20% use social media to "lash out about companies or brands."
These people are not, I'm quite sure, taking several hours to carefully polish a well-crafted debate. The online argot is more akin to the running commentary in your head about everyone on the subway, like how one character eulogized Tony Soprano's mother at her funeral on the HBO show: "Between brain and mouth, there was no interlocutor."
Conventional PR wisdom has held that one must engage with critics proactively. In the early days of online social media adoption, that ideal remained the same as if you were dealing with angry letters from consumers coming through the mail, or even e-mail.
For your typical angry customer, those tenets still hold true. But as we've grown accustomed to the social media universe, it doesn't stand up to the most extreme examples of online attack. Depriving the fringe of oxygen is emerging as the only way to deal with it.
"When [an online post] is filled with venom or designed to grandstand at your expense, the only way to stop them building the grandstand at incremental heights is to not help it along," says Marian Salzman, Euro's president.
Extreme online critics will take any form of communication as ammunition. They will treat all information coming from a brand or corporation as suspect at best, outright lies at worst.
The trick is to distinguish between those worth engaging and those to avoid because the vernacular of social media naturally lends itself to extreme ex-pression and snark. Salzman says this is where experienced heads are vital to assess which attacks are authentic and which to ignore.
Experienced pros will also avoid adding more heat to difficult situations, whereas less-seasoned types - who are often running these social media engagements for companies, by the way - might tend to let their emotions take over and make a bad situation worse.
More than ever, public relations is about engaging the actual public directly. As consumers increasingly lose their inhibitions, it is even more crucial to retain and refine our own self-control.
Julia Hood is the publishing director of PRWeek. She can be contacted at email@example.com.