A Tale of Two Writers: What Happens When Blogging Goes Bad?

I’m sure you’ve heard it all before: You’re starting a new professional business venture, and you’re getting advice that establishing your professional image online is an important step you must take toward helping your business find success. So you create a website, carefully populated with information relevant to your customers/clients. You sign up for Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. And of course, creating a professional image isn’t complete these days without a blog. To be seen as an accomplished, experienced professional leader in your field, a blog is nearly as vital these days as a cell phone. Blogging can build your reputation as a knowledgeable professional and connect you with professionals and clients that you might otherwise never meet.

Or you’re in the job market, which is increasingly moving online as employers move away from traditional sources. Word of mouth searches conducted via online job sites and social media outlets like LinkedIn groups are replacing the “Help Wanted” ads.  Placement firms and professional associations urge you to post data and publish ideas online to develop and promote your “personal brand” – your credibility and expertise in your field.  Establishing that reputation online takes time, patience and strategy. And it can vanish in an instant.

When Blogging Blows Up

Just this past week, two online flameouts had the PR world tweeting, buzzing, blogging and every other noise it could make as it passed around these examples of what not to do. First was a prime example of how NOT to handle criticism online. Jacqueline Howett, a self-published “indie” author demonstrated an incredibly thin-skinned response to a review of her book by prominent indie book blogger, BigAl.

BigAl actually offered some praise for her book, tactfully pointing out that the novel actually had a good plot, but was littered with so many distracting typos, grammatical errors and awkward phrasing that the story was lost in the muddle.

Howett alternately made excuses for the condition of the review copy, claimed there were no errors and criticized the reviewer in the comments section. She copied and pasted the words of other reviewers to demonstrate the four and five star ratings she received for her work. Other readers of this blog immediately went into detective mode, pointing out that one of those great reviews was from someone with the same last name, and that the description of the book on Amazon had the same egregious grammatical problems as the book itself.

After posting several strange comments and accusations in response to the review, including demanding the negative review be removed, Howett fired the F-bomb. Several times, despite the urgings of other posters to calm down. She reacted emotionally, almost irrationally, to the advice of others:

My writing is just fine!

You did not download the fresh copy…. you did not. No way!

As to annoymous

Al was given the option of a free copy from smashwords the following day to download in any format he preffered.

Look AL, I’m not in the mood for playing snake with you, what I read above has no flaws. My writing is fine. You were told to download a new copy for format problems the very next day while they were free at Smashwords, so you could choose any format you wanted to read it in and if their were any spelling mistakes they were corrected. Simply remove this review as it is in error with you not downloading the fresh copy i insisted. Why review my book after being told to do this, and more annoying why have you never ever responded to any of my e-mails?

And please follow up now from e-mail.
This is not only discusting and unprofessional on your part, but you really don’t fool me AL.

Who are you any way? Really who are you?
What do we know about you?

You never downloaded another copy you liar!
You never ever returned to me an e-mail

Besides if you want to throw crap at authors you should first ask their permission if they want it stuck up on the internet via e-mail. That debate is high among authors.

Your the target not me!
Now get this review off here!

And this was just a single response. Several indie (self-published) writers joined the discussion, counseling Howett on how to handle the situation her angry outbursts caused, pointing out that regular readers of the blog in question were publishers, editors and other publishing professionals with whom she was committing professional suicide by her poorly written rants, piled atop her poorly written prose. Several commented that her antics on this blog guaranteed that she would never be considered for publication by their publishing company. Some promised they would never purchase anything written by her again or wondered if she were “on something.” Others took it a step further by carrying the debate to the Amazon listing for the book, giving it the lowest rating possible while directly referencing the blog battle. The reviewer was forced to close the blog to other posts and even offered a defense of Howett book to those attacking her through the Amazon review option.

The second incident was much less incendiary, but no less problematic. Jessica Epperly wrote an article, Advertising vs. PR: How to Measure the Value of Editorial Content for her agency’s blog on the subject of the differences between public relations and advertising, and had it picked up by Ragan’s Daily. The article started by attempting to explain the difference between advertising and public relations – and failed utterly, instead giving the definition of publicity and calling it PR. That was bad enough, but she really drew the ire of legions of PR professionals by resurrecting an old PR myth we all thought dead and buried: Using ad value equivalency (AVE) to value publicity in financial terms, and stating it as fact…without supporting evidence….in one of the most respected publications in the PR industry….And did I say it was an online publication?

So this “expert” made a glaring professional error and created a public relations problem for her firm in an arena where millions of professionals have the freedom to express their opinions – and did they ever!

I’d never heard of her agency, but the sheer volume of retweets, with pity comments attached, ensured I (and many others) would read the article. I was so stunned­ by the fact that someone would write this that I checked out her educational and professional background on her firm’s website. I wasn’t surprised by what I found – no evidence of professional involvement with PRSA, IABC, or other professional industry groups, no evidence of any educational background in the profession, nothing. Even the firm’s website appeared to lack any reassuring evidence of professional expertise to support the author’s assertion. The agency principle’s description of “growing up in a family of un-official socialites” as giving her “the opportunity to learn firsthand the ins and outs of event planning” didn’t reassure me of the agency’s expertise in public relations.

In all fairness, there were other qualifications for the professionals that make up the firm, but it’s difficult to take them seriously after reading that. Nothing says that membership in PRSA or IABC is a guarantee of professional expertise. But the lack does seem to speak volumes. Needless to say, both Epperly’s professional reputation and that of her firm have taken a hit, albeit probably a minor one in the long run.

Several comments expressed surprise that Ragan’s PR Daily would actually publish such an incorrect article, so Ragan CEO Mark Ragan invited social media expert Shonali Burke to contribute a rebuttal article to the original. Several industry bloggers ripped the article on their sites.

I too was surprised that Ragan would have published this, so I asked PR Daily managing editor Michael Sebastian how they obtained the articles for the publication. He explained they use a variety of methods to obtain articles, from stories written in-house by staff reporters to reposting interesting blog posts found with permission of the authors. Others are submitted by regular contributors, or submitted through their “Submit News” section. Michael told me that PR Daily does vet stories that go on their site with at least three editors who see a story in some capacity before it’s posted.

But having editors review a story does not mean they will stop you from writing an article that’s unpopular or supports a practice that is no longer accepted as valid by the public relations profession – that’s your responsibility. In writing an article, you are positioning yourself as an expert source, so you’d better make sure you know what you are talking about.

As strange as it may seem to the rest of us, there are some who still cling to AVEs as a measurement tool. In defense of both authors, they may firmly believe in what they wrote. They may have simply had bad days. Either way, in the online ether, that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the Internet is permanent – and so now they have a professional reputation problem.

So what do you do when faced with a damaging social media backlash? It’s obviously too late to follow the first rule of effective social media: Try not to create one in the first place.

As a professional, especially in public relations, your reputation is who you are. What you post on social sites – whether your own or in response to others, whether professional articles, photos, videos, jokes or even retweeting something someone else posts could rebound negatively on you. Just consider the current firestorm surrounding GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons and his African vacation.

You won’t be able to make 100 percent of the people happy 100 percent of the time. There will always be those who are determined to find fault or take offense. That’s not the issue.  You have to remember at all times that people talk and share their opinions faster and more freely now because social media makes it easier to do so. It takes less than two seconds to retweet a post, and your reputation can be permanently stained. And it will be there forever. That doesn’t mean you can’t rebuild your reputation. How you handle yourself online from that point forward can go a long way to showing your true character and abilities. If your negative online activity ends up being a one-time aberration, you can recover, with determination and hard work.

The best way to handle a social media disaster is the same as in traditional public relations:

1) Stop digging a deeper hole. Howett continued her disastrous behavior with repeated vitriolic posts, defending her actions without acknowledging the truth that was staring her in the face – she was wrong, the review was right: the writing was filled with errors. Parsons defended himself with hollow excuses and explanations, without ever acknowledging there was a problem.

2) Acknowledge the comments of those who posted calmly, legitimately pointing out the reasons for their disagreement. Epperly simply failed to respond at all to the comments on the AVE article.

4) Apologize and make amends immediately and sincerely. Insincere apologies are instantly seen through and appropriately ridiculed.

5) Promise to learn from the situation. This goes hand in hand with #4.

6) Don’t crawl in a hole and refuse to participate online, like Epperly appears to have done, but be careful in all your future activity and grow a thicker skin. There will be those who seem to delight in throwing past transgressions in your face. You’ll never be able to atone in their eyes, so ignore them. Interact with those willing to hear you out and engage in a rational discussion.

7) Do not demean or make sarcastic comments to those who disagree with you. You will simply inflame the situation. Sarcasm and humor in particular do not translate well online, and can easily be misunderstood, making the situation worse. You can criticize responses, but don’t personally attack those who make the responses. It’s unproductive.

3) Don’t adamantly defend your actions without addressing the concerns of your opponents the way Parsons did. In the case of the AVE article, several people raised legitimate questions about support for the claims made in the article for a practice that has been officially debunked as a professional tool. If you are making a radical assertion, make sure you know what you are talking about, and can back it up. You may legitimately be ahead of the rest of us creatively. In the case of the AVE article, this author simply rehashed outdated and disproven information and published it as fact, without supporting her claims.

5) Don’t continue fighting the battle with controversial comments on the original or other social media sites – no one likes bullheaded, abrasive people, hence the increasingly biting responses to the Howett’s comments.

And finally, before you hit “send” on that response to a review, or post that professional article, ask yourself if it’s accurate and appropriate. What are the consequences of what you are about to post? If you’re angry about something that was said, DO NOT POST. Walk away from it for a couple of hours. Take a deep breath and examine what about the post is making you so angry. If you are compelled to write a response immediately, do it the old-fashioned way: use a paper and pen, then crush it into a ball and throw it across the room if you must, but DO NOT POST. When you are calm and rational, THEN you can prepare a response.

Don’t give up when you embarrass yourself online. We all will at some point in time. You can recover, if you are patient and persistent enough.

Share

3 comments

  1. Thanks very much for referencing my post, Debra.

    I get that Ragan looks for content from a wide variety of sources, and I’ve had my content featured there as well. I have nothing against them doing so – they’re a media organization, so they’ve got to do everything they can think of. My concern with this particular article (which I rebutted at their invitation, as you point out), was that it propounded a line of thinking that does our industry a disservice.

    Is it ok for Ragan to make sure a wide variety of voices are heard? Yes. But given that it is one of the most widely-read publications for our business, I believe they also have a responsibility to ensure the content they publish, or promote, supports industry best practices. In this case, they didn’t do that, and my post called them out on that, as you saw. I was, however, impressed that they let my criticism stand, so they earned back some Brownie points for me with that.

    1. As usual, you are spot on, Shonali. I was trying to make the point that writer’s shouldn’t use editors as a crutch. If you’re going to set yourself up as an expert, you’d better make sure you at the very least know what you’re talking about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.