The Effect of Transparency in Commenting on the Public Relations Industry

The issue of anonymity has plagued the public relations industry ever since the advent of digital media. On one hand, anonymity allows for greater voice and opinion. As this theory goes, commentators, such as an employee at a company that is engaged in illegal activity, would not post to a media site if not for the protection of anonymity.

The same goes for consumers, who under anonymity feel more comfortable reviewing, chastising, and criticizing a company or product. Then, there’s the counter argument, that anonymity coarsens public discourse, and provides a water cooler for ugly, offensive remarks.

It also erodes the value of comments themselves. Without transparency, anyone can say anything at any time without impunity. The media knows that continued lack of accountability will kill what has become a golden goose of online reporting — comments, which can often attract more readership than the article itself and provide a scorecard for editors to determine what is most interesting to any given audience.

Some media are already moving to add a new level of transparency, and along with it, authenticity, to their reader comments. The Sun Chronicle in Attleboro, Mass., recently introduced a new system that requires commenters to register their names, addresses, phone numbers, and credit card numbers.

The Sun Chronicle charges a one-time fee of 99 cents to activate the account. Commenters’ names then appear online along with their posts. The Wall Street Journal has required names to appear with reader comments since 2008.

From a public relations point of view, there is real value in transparency. Anonymity makes it nearly impossible to assess the validity of an allegation or defamatory remark made against a client online.

At the same time, as an industry, we are bound ethically to disclose our representation when commenting online in response to the media or on review sites. In that respect, transparency would level the playing field, requiring both sides to come clean as to who is behind a comment online.

Yet, complete transparency is unlikely to happen. Right now, the media place great value in online reader comments as an eyeball aggregator and a way to score reporters and stories. Required transparency would put a brake on the number and frequency of comments.

What’s the answer? How about a hybrid system whereby commenters could chose to be anonymous or not? Those commenters who opt to give their names — and validate them with e-mail and credit card verification — would have their comments posted higher than those who remain anonymous.

Those who don’t take off the mask would be relegated to the end of the list of comments, defusing their impact. To further encourage transparency, reporters would be encouraged to engage with those commenters who disclose their identity through a special two-way feature of the blog or site. Such attention would trigger even more comments.

No doubt, those of us who read the media would be more likely to give greater credibility to named commenters. After all, these commenters are assuming the real risk that flows from public comments, even if it’s just a negative response from the crowd. And at the same time, this hybrid system of opt-in transparency would still allow the rabble to rouse and the media to score themselves against the visceral response of the masses.

So commenters could choose between transparency and anonymity. But we would all have a better understanding of who is saying what, for what purposes, and for which intended results. At the same time, the public relations industry would gain an additional, more credible tool for correcting the record, responding to misstatement of fact, resetting agendas, and gaining legitimate visibility.

If You Rely on Public Relations As Your Saving Grace, Think Again

One of the biggest misconceptions many people seem to have of public relations is that it is a guaranteed source of revenue. However, this is not the case. In fact, it is more valuable than that. A well-executed PR campaign is actually an investment for the long-term prosperity and success of a business, brand or individual. The only thing that one needs to have is patience.

A few years ago, a client recommended our firm to two friends who were about to introduce a semi-autobiographical, off-Broadway show to theatergoers in New York. The show would be opening in three months, with an indefinite run at the theatre, depending on its success.

Following a very successful meeting, our clear understanding was that they understood that publicity would only be used to build awareness of the show, but would be used in conjunction with other methods of exposure, such as advertising and marketing efforts.

Soon after, we hit the ground running and quickly acquired them a substantial amount of national press exposure, including everything from cover stories in magazines to blurbs to feature articles. But as the premiere of the show drew closer, the client’s expectations started to shift. What first started out as wanting any press, overnight changed to the expectation that we would need to score the show exposure in only top-tier media outlets. And to add, they had terminated their arrangement with their marketing and advertising firm with efforts ceasing before they began. And then the show opened, and the reviews were not kind.

We immediately went to Plan B. We made the recommendation to the client that we should start steering the focus away from reviews back to more feature-oriented press. But they didn’t agree. And shortly thereafter, the seats got emptier and emptier, and within only a couple of weeks, the show was playing to an empty theatre.

That is when we learned that they were clearly no longer on the same page. In fact, they had poured all of their finances, including their own home, into this show. And they were expecting us to fill the seats only with PR efforts. All of the pressure was immediately put solely on the PR firm, with the expectation that we would be in charge of driving ticket sales. And when that didn’t happen, the blame was irresponsibly pointed at us.

Shortly thereafter, we decided to terminate the relationship with them. But in this, we also learned a valuable lesson — one that we are faced with every so often — that all clients come bearing different expectations of publicity services.

Some expect PR to do exactly what it is intended to do, which is to generate awareness; some expect it to change a misguided perception of their product or service; some think it will immediately generate sales; and some think it will cause them to become an overnight celebrity.

There are five things you must bear in mind when thinking about hiring a publicist or a PR firm.

  • First – Even though press coverage produced by Public Relations efforts does generally end up indirectly yielding sales, PR is not meant as a means to do so. Instead, it is primarily intended to only raise awareness of a brand or individual, and to generate industry credibility. Consistency is the key.
  • Second – Do not rely solely on a Public Relations campaign to make your brand succeed. While very valuable, it is not a miracle drug. As with any business, there must be many different factors at work. For example, if you do not have a proper distribution strategy, consumers will have a harder time locating your products, so any press coverage produced will not work to its maximum potential. Also, if you do not implement a full marketing approach, including marketing and advertising efforts, you will limit the impact created by your Public Relations strategy. A true Public Relations campaign needs to work in tandem with all other aspects of the marketing “tree.” This would be similar to trying to drive a car with an engine and no transmission, or trying to ride a bike with only a drivetrain and no steering.
  • Third – Although it is difficult, albeit almost impossible to monetize Public Relations efforts, one of the most widely used methods of determining whether or not you have made your investment back is in measuring the cost of your PR services by the amount of ad equivalency value you have received. For example, if you spend $5,000/per-month to retain a PR firm, and they score you a cover story in a magazine, and the cost to purchase an advertisement of the same size in that publication normally costs $10,000, you have already recouped your investment. Now, think about that in terms of a year. In a year, your PR firm might generate over $1 million in ad equivalency value, when you only had to pay them $60,000. And that’s a conservative estimate.
  • Fourth – Once you commence a Public Relations campaign with your firm, do not consistently change your expectations or goals on them. If you start the campaign with the expectation that you would only like local or regionalized press coverage, don’t up the bar on your publicity team every time that coverage isn’t yielding the results you were originally hoping for. Doing so not only tells your PR firm and the public-at-large that you do not understand your own message, but it also creates a stop/start momentum that can be detrimental to your PR campaign, and your PR firm will constantly need to re-focus its strategy every time.
  • Fifth – Even though you might believe you have the best product on the market, not everyone will agree. Your product or service may be the best thing since sliced bread for one media outlet, and not to another. If you are expecting to get on Oprah or Ellen, but do not have the story to back it up, you may want to scale back your expectations.

Remember, if you start your PR campaign with an open mind and provide clear-cut goals and expectations to your PR firm, you will almost always come out a winner.