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.