Should PR pros engage people in the comment sections of articles or blogs?

Comment sections are not going away anytime soon.


Paul Rand, Ketchum's chief digital officer and president and CEO of Zocalo Group
Nearly 30 years of experience in comms and marketing

It wasn't that long ago that the best way - often the only way - to respond to a print story was through a letter to the editor. It was, and in some ways continues to be, a core weapon in the PR pro's arsenal.

Of course, times have changed as one of the most notable evolutions in corporate and media relations is the ability for companies to use social media to bypass the media to take their message directly to target audiences.

Every communicator knows that while the physical print story is fleeting, the digital version seemingly lives, and influences, forever.

The future viability of online comment sections is not guaranteed. Online comments first gained popularity in the 1970s with bulletin-board systems, but the tsunami of link spam that hit in the mid-2000s began making comment sections increasingly unwieldy. Thankfully,

filtering technology got better and some news outlets and blogs began re-engaging comment sections through active moderation - recognizing them as a key part of the process.

Gawker Media recently made news when founder Nick Denton unveiled a comment-filtering system named Kinja that gives both its authors and readers the ability to filter content based on previous stories they have liked or given a star to. The system, which is somewhat similar to Twitter's conversation view, where readers can easily see the back and forth between people they follow, allows readers to cut out trolls and gadflies.

Readers are, in many ways, able to become their own content moderators, keeping comments they see as worthwhile.

Communicators should respond online when it makes strategic sense, for instance when there is factual information that is wrong or to clarify information, as we would with a letter to the editor.

Information has a long tail - and leaving misinformation uncorrected would be negligent.

And soon, if more outlets pursue Gawker's path, communicators will have an even greater, but important challenge - ensuring readers see their feedback as relevant.

Jeffrey Zack, senior MD at RF|Binder
Two-and-a-half decades of expertise in business journalism, corporate and crisis communications, and PR

In this digital age, PR pros have more channels than ever to carry out client messages, shape corporate reputations, and influence public conversations. Of those available channels, the comment sections of blog posts and news stories are just about the worst avenues to attempt to correct inaccuracies or rectify perceived injustices.

Comment sections tend to be - how can I put this delicately? - sewers. For every insightful observation, there seem to be 100 bilious rants.

To avoid these sections, however, does not mean avoiding engagement, as this is key to building relationships, ensuring accuracy, and setting the record straight. So, how can a PR pro engage without wading into the fetid waters?

First, it is vital to distinguish between factual errors and unfair coverage. Responsible outlets will correct factual errors, but when they are wrong, it does makes sense to request a correction or clarification.

The second issue is when a reporter or blogger weaves a story that is at odds with a client's desired positioning.

We have all been there: the story cherry-picks selected facts, leaving out key information. The post quotes competitors or third parties with their own agendas. Data from dubious sources is cited as gospel. Yet the reporter's take on the issue, while misleading, falls short of being factually incorrect.

Companies hire PR pros to manage such situations. Firing off a rebuttal in the comments section may satisfy the human impulse to do something, but it is almost always better to consider other approaches. For example, the blogger may be open to a guest post in which the company can briefly explain its position or social media can be used to emphasize the company's desired messaging.

Today, the risk of a negative story gaining traction should not be underestimated. If a company is vulnerable to such negative framing, it is imperative to have a communications strategy in place to manage that issue and protect the company's reputation. For those who disagree with me, I look forward to reading your feedback in the comments section.

PRWeek's View
Comment sections are not going away anytime soon. PR practitioners should use them, but only when it is appropriate. They should also be careful not to give any unnecessary credibility to dubious outlets or blogs.

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