Within minutes of the official launch of the Queen's Facebook page this week, site moderators had to start axing out dozens of comments by anti-monarchists who clicked the "like" button to join discussions and then posted abusive messages about the Royal Family or called for abolishing the monarchy.
While it's good to be the Queen, who can seemingly banish a complaint with a royal wave, even she should not assume she can simply smite or ignore online critics, experts warn.
The meteoric rise of blogs and social media is throwing out conventional wisdom about protecting personal and organizational reputation, said Jeff Ansell, principal of communications consultancy Jeff Ansell & Associates in Toronto and author of a new book on media handling, When the Headline is You.
"Social media is the fastest growing factor in discussions of you and your organization's performance, and it is essential to have a strategy to react and stay involved in the conversation to protect your reputation," he said in a recent interview.
This is far different from the traditional media strategies involving newspapers or television; when readers wanted to respond on subjects, they sent letters that were acknowledged, often days later, only if editors deemed the comment worth reporting.
"The difference with social media is its immediacy; all comments appear immediately and are seldom edited. Social media opens up a two-way conversation in real time," Mr. Ansell explained.
"When a company or organization tries to shut out social media, it speaks volumes. It dismisses comments and concerns raised by people with opinions and tells them loudly and clearly that it won't put up with criticism," he said.
"For the Queen and her foray into Facebook, she might have been better off not even going there. But now that the site is up, her handlers could initiate a dialogue about the value and relevance of the monarchy," he suggested.
Mr. Ansell said the reaction to the Queen's Facebook site provides a lesson for all sorts of organizations: "The lesson for the rest of us is that it's inevitable that businesses and their leaders have become fair game for often exaggerated criticism by self-proclaimed citizen journalists, who can sit in their basement in sweat pants and literally cover the globe with a posting that can ruin a reputation and make someone's life miserable."
Clearly, business leaders have to get into the conversations from the start and have a credible voice, said Joseph Thornley, chief executive officer of public relations company Thornley Fallis in Toronto. "If you get caught flat-footed or make no response, it makes you look unresponsive and uncaring,"
That means that just to stay on top of what's being said about both your company and personal performance you need a personal presence on social media sites, especially Facebook and Twitter, Mr. Thornley said.
With social media, if you wait to develop a presence and respond only when there is a problem, you won't have a base of people who are ready to support you, he added. "A company and its people can get their reputation back quickly if they have channels available to respond immediately. Having a network of people who know you and follow you and trust what you say and will pass on their messages to others in their networks, will defend you when a crisis hits," he said.
To gain that trusted following, you must be responsive and open, said Toronto-based communications adviser Barb Sawyers, principal of Toronto-based Sticky Communication and author of an e-book, Write Like You Talk - Only Better.
"Things can go viral in seconds online. Companies that aren't upfront about accidents or incidents that show up on social media can find it comes back to haunt them" she said. "The big thing with social media is video, and you can't deny that an oil spill is dangerous and then have videos of dead birds posted on a blog. That would really catch you out."
Leaders need to respond immediately, even if they don't have all the answers, agreed David Alston, chief marketing officer of social media monitoring software company Radian6 Technologies Inc. in Fredericton, N.B.
"On social media, there is a growing expectation that you are listening and that you will respond and try to help them. Without that, the impression is you just don't care," he said. Individuals and companies alike need to acknowledge the comments and criticisms, and indicate that they will respond to the posting. "That doesn't mean you have to answer their question off the cuff. You can still take time to think through your answer."
When it comes to comments on blogs, you have about 24 hours to respond and stay credible, Mr. Alston said. "Obviously the sooner the better, because you want to have a comment early to be high up on the conversations trail, before a lot of people pile on and your message gets lost in the stack."
On Twitter, the critical response time can be reduced to minutes because of its immediacy, he stressed. "Conversations tend to move on very quickly and if you want to be part of it, you want to be in on it," he said.
"You could decide to ignore it and hope that it goes away, but Google and other Internet sites archive conversations and a critical post will keep coming up when people are doing a search about you. Literally, the whole world is watching."
ONLINE TIP SHEET
What to respond to
Mentions of your company as part of presentations or events
Compliments or criticisms of your product, service, or people
Recommendations of or referrals to your products and/or
Customer service/support issues or inquires
What you don't need to respond to
Mentions without any positive or negative commentary
Sarcastic, snarky comments intended to inflame an issue
Retweets of postings you have already responded about
Discussions between individuals that refer to your company in passing but for which your involvement could be perceived as intrusive
Examples of effective Twitter responses
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Source: Radian6 Social Media Playbook