By Shabbir Imber Safdar and Jason Alcorn who spend their days conducting online PR, marketing, and advocacy campaigns for their employer, Virilion Inc. and spend their nights obsessing over frequency and duration of online discussions and conflicts.
[This article originally appeared on PRNews Online on September 24, 2008]
Clients and prospective clients routinely ask us how to respond to online critics. “Should we engage them
directly? Should we let it blow over? Will it blow over? How
should we respond?” People want to know the answers to these questions
when they experience a challenge like the one we profiled in last
month’s column about
There are three basic concepts you need to keep in mind when responding to an online critic: Target, Timing, and Tone. Get these three right and you’re on your way towards successfully directing the conversation.
Target: Who are you responding to?
Who you respond to is crucial, as responding can dignify the original criticism. In 1999, when candidate George W. Bush criticized Zack Exley’s Web site GWBush.com, Bush’s national profile raised an obscure, critical Web site to national prominence and created an audience of 100,000 visitors per day. Nowadays, there’s an additional problem: Google rank. Respond and link to a critic, and your raise their rank in Google. How much? It depends on how well trafficked your Web site is, but it’s never a good idea.
Timing: Is this the right time to respond?
Timing is one of the hardest things to get right with an online critic. If you view the verbal dog pile as damaging overall but the conversation has subsided, you don’t really want to reinvigorate it when you respond, especially if half the participants are likely on the other side of the conflict. You’ll simply restart the conversation and make it conversation-worthy for a longer time. What’s passed is past, let it go and do better next time.
Tone: Funny? Apologetic? Angry?
This is also tough to get right, especially for traditional communicators. If the public feels you did something wrong, you had better be apologetic. In last month’s article,
If you don’t owe an apology, you’ve got to consider how your tone will affect the receptiveness of your response. Unless your job is to fire up an already committed audience, outrage is probably not the right attitude to adopt in your message. It turns off a reader who is trying to decide if what you’re saying is more valid than what your critic has said.
When in doubt, go with cool, analytical and, if you can pull it off, funny. If you can make people laugh even though they disagree with you, you’ve just bought yourself another shot at convincing them you’re right.
Online Critic Case Study: Edelman vs. Calacanis
The efficacy of PR firms is a popular target of do-it-yourselfers online. This “Why hire PR?” debate pops up online every year, and it surged again in late August.
Here the opening salvo came on August 21st from serial Web entrepreneur Jason Calacanis. Silicon Alley Reporter published his anti-PR-firm-screed, “How to get PR for your startup; Fire your PR company” (Calacanis says he didn’t write the title, but it certainly fits with the tone of the article). Provocatively written, Calacanis goes through a litany of good advice for tech company startup founders. But he includes a few suggestions—notably, fire your PR company and do it all yourself—that riled many of the post’s commentators and people throughout the blogosphere.
Discussion on the topic was swift and heated. Tech
PR professionals and entrepreneurs who had both positive and negative
experiences with PR firms joined in on the comments area of the
original post at Silicon Alley Insider and throughout the blogosphere. But it was a short-lived discussion. Within 48 hours, as the graph below shows, the topic was no longer news. A trickle of comments on the original article and the blogosphere continued but steadily eroded as the conversation changed.
For an additional perspective, we pulled the data from digg.com, one of the Internet most popular places for stories to go viral. People who see stories around the Web vote them popular on digg.com. We pulled the timestamps of all the Digg votes to see how long this story was circulating and people still bothered to vote on it.
The data from digg.com clearly shows that the story was entirely dead the second day after it was posted.
However, an angry response came from Richard Edelman five days later, on August 26. Edelman, who had been on vacation, posted an outspoken refutation of Calacanis’ article, saying he wanted to “stop the open season on PR people.” When we saw Richard’s response, we immediately had three questions:
- Why is Richard Edelman, the President and CEO of a $400+ million a year global public relations firm, responding directly to a guy who is considered “small time” even among successful Internet entrepreneurs?
- What are Edelman’s communication goals with this response? Will phrases like “I am heartily sick of the ad hominem attacks and cheap shots” actually lead to undermining Calacanis’ credibility with entrepreneurs about whether to hire Tech PR companies?
- And, finally, we wondered to ourselves, if we criticize Richard Edelman in our column, will we ever eat lunch in this town again? (Presumably we’ll need Jason Calacanis to pick up the check)
Why Does Richard Edelman Respond to Jason Calacanis?
While we haven’t spoken with Richard Edelman, there are three obvious reasons he might have responded.
- Calacanis is a long-time critic of the PR industry, and the PR-is-dead mantra has been repeated by him and others since the Web first brought down many of the barriers to DIY public relations. Edelman’s ripe-for-headlines response is a statement from one of the industry leaders speaking for PR professionals everywhere. To wit, from Kevin Dugan: “I love it when Richard Edelman weighs in on, and authoritatively defuses, silly pissing matches. REPRESENT!”
- Edelman also has the advantage of a sterling reputation and an opponent who is better known for style than for substance. The Silicon Valley tabloid ValleyWag had already skewered Calacanis’s piece. He was writing on his own turf to an audience that he knew would generally be favorable to him.
- Finally, Edelman is in charge of a globally recognized company. He introduced his response by saying that he received this link from multiple sources, so perhaps he wrote as a way to speak to his employees, colleagues, partners and clients, as much as he meant it for to Calacanis and other PR detractors. Ultimately, it was his side of the story that made it into O’Dwyers PR blog, not Calacanis’.
In this case, the conversation had almost entirely died when Richard Edelman waded into it. Comments on Jason’s original article and blogosphere echoes were all dwindling. It wasn’t even generating votes on digg.com anymore. They were briefly re-invigorated when Edelman’s blog post went up on the 26th and several online outlets, such as O’Dwyer's, subsequently covered the tiff as a result. The
night before Edelman’s post, PR maven Gina Rubel had made a similar
mistake and stoked the previously dead embers of this discussion.
The fact is that no tech CEO is going to be convinced to hire a PR firm based upon the recommendation of a PR firm CEO because of the obvious conflict of interest. The resurgent discussion just gave a little more coverage to Calacanis’ original article which appears to speak to many tech company executives.
In this case, Richard Edelman directly named and
responded to Jason Calacanis and linked to his article. We find this to
be poor strategy because:
- Richard Edelman just helped raise Calacanis’ article’s Google rank by linking to it from his very prominent blog, something that he clearly probably wouldn’t have wanted to do compared to his stated goal of ending the hostility.
- By responding to Calacanis directly, he also unwittingly treated Calacanis as an equal on this topic, something that is not true. Calacanis’ experience with PR for startups can be counted on three fingers, one for each startup he’s managed. Richard Edelman can draw upon the experiences of dozens of successful Edelman tech PR clients.
- Edelman’s stature is miles above Calacanis. Edelman sits at the top of a very competitive heap of a large industry. Calacanis
is a small time entrepreneur who’s had some small successes, but
nothing of the caliber of Edelman’s global enterprise.
Richard Edelman should probably have responded to the “fire your PR firm” concept here, and avoided directly identifying Calacanis in his response. At the very least, he shouldn’t have linked to him. On behalf of people who do public relations everywhere, we don’t appreciate one of the world’s leading PR people raising the Google rank of that article. Let’s not do that again.
In the case of Calacanis and Edelman, Calacanis
didn’t criticize Edelman directly for the flaws of Tech PR, only the
industry at large. Richard Edelman’s angry tone did nothing to refute the very cogent arguments presented by Calacanis’ article. Edelman
provided some very good reasons why Calacanis’ method won’t work for
everyone, but they’re buried in the middle of his blog post and
sandwiched with his opening and closing vindictive. In
fact the tone probably led some observers to believe that Calacanis’
hit a little close to home for Edelman, thereby implying that it had
some truth to it.
Some examples of better responses
Much more entertaining and eviscerating was a funny response captured in the Internet cartoon, BitStrips, where they made fun of Calacanis’ giving the same bizarre advice (“Be Amazing. Be Everywhere. Be Real.”) to someone urging them to “Fire Your Bomb Squad”.
One of the commentators on Silicon Alley Insider, which published Calacanis’ piece, actually left a comment we think would have been more effective coming from Richard Edelman. Not surprisingly, it came from a public relations professional—specifically, Arthur Yann from the Public Relations Society of America.
Jason makes a number
of excellent points, and if I was starting a company, you can bet I’d
take many of his suggestions. Firing my public relations agency,
however, wouldn’t be one of them. Here’s where I take issue with what
First, he seems to use
"public relations" interchangeably with "publicity." Publicity is only
one component of what public relations practitioners do today. In
reality, the public relations value proposition provides key benefits
cutting across professional, business and societal needs. If my
business was facing a product recall or other serious crisis, I sure
might like the help of public relations firm.
Next is the broad brush stroke that journalists hate public relations people and hate being pitched. Do journalists hate being pitched by public relations professionals who take the time to read their work, build a relationship with them and offer relevant news and insights they can’t get elsewhere (client-related or not)? Doubt it. Is that all public relations professionals? Of course not, but it’s also not cause for categorizing an entire industry of honorable, hard working men and women as "lazy and clueless." It’s like saying that all journalists are careless and stupid because a handful of stories contain errors and omissions.
Finally, many of the CEOs I have worked with already do the things Jason suggests in bonding and working with journalists. Only they do it through their public relations firm or team, because they don’t have the inclination, skills or time to do it themselves. Heck, even Jason himself admits that his "liaison" Tyler "keeps tabs on our journalist and blogger contacts ... reads their work, stays in contact with them ..." and "will hand me a stack of stories and background information on the people we're meeting with on the flight to another country so I can play catch up." Sounds like something a good public relations person would do.
(Arthur Yann is vice president of public relations for the Public Relations Society of America.)
We are conscious of the fact that Richard Edelman’s blog post response was probably written in haste. He
probably just came back into his office after being out for a few days
to an e-mail box full of anger from employees and prospective clients
who claimed that Jason Calacanis was dissing his profession and making
it harder to land new clients.
However, Richard Edelman is the President and CEO of a global public relations company that claims a strong digital expertise. By
setting out with a communications goal to “stop the open season on PR
people,” we expected a more effective response What followed was
disappointing. Were someone to ask us as online
communications professionals how we would have responded, we would have
recommended either ignoring it until it flared up next time, or
responding with something that acknowledged that the do-it-yourself
approach recommended by Calacanis is not realistic for anyone but Jason
Simply spitting back an amount of vitriol may
exorcise your emotions, but it does little to actually deal with an
opponent’s objections. When the final evaluation is done, nothing was
really accomplished by Edelman’s response. It didn’t meet his stated goal of “ending the open season on PR people”. It
made some cogent arguments, but did it at a time when the attention of
the online public had moved on to other issues, and obscured his best
arguments in the angry invective that undermined them.
However it also didn’t blow up in his face, which is good. A severely bad response would have actually led to an enormous resurgence of the conversation, with people pointing at Edelman’s angry response as proof that Jason had hit a nerve. It appears nobody really cared, and that saved him from re-invigorating a conversation he ostensibly was trying to terminate.
This issue will inevitably resurge again online. We hope someone else with a high-profile platform will respond with more expertise.