It was interesting to observe the adventures in the blogosphere in September involving Queensland-based software company 2Clix. The company took exception to comments about its products that were made by contributors to a popular telecommunications industry networking site. 2Clix raised a court action against the site's owner - not against the person who made the comments - alleging that the statements were false and damaging, and seeking financial compensation. This sparked a storm of blog entries and media commentary, drawing even more attention to the alleged problems in the company's products. Within days, the court action was withdrawn, and 2Clix retired to lick its wounds out of the media spotlight.
So legal action is not the way to go if you are offended by something said about you or your company on a blog or social networking site. But what do you do?
It would be best to start by understanding the characteristics of the new media. Content in the Web 2.0 world is:
Globally and instantly scaleable: immediately visible, linked to, forwarded and rapidly referred around the world through the network effect.
Enduring: Stored indefinitely in a widely distributed, globally accessible repository.
Searchable: indexed by search engines and tagged by individuals for easy and virtually instant retrieval.
Mashable: readily cut, pasted, edited and remixed with other media by computer users with minimal technical skill.
Available: accessible to unknown users with unknown interests and motivations.
The reality is that content is now a hybrid of the original message the author intended and the contributions and interactions of others who have an interest in it. If you need convincing on this point, have a look at the Prime Minister's videos on YouTube and the spoofs and remixes they spawn.
In the case of 2Clix, the company failed to anticipate that initiating a court action against the owner of a social networking site would be seen as an unreasonable move by hundreds of vocal bloggers around the world - a threat to the freedom of digital speech. People who had no interest in the company or the supposed failings of its products turned out to have a big interest in its attempt to use the courts to influence what can and cannot be said in the context of social networking. The interactive nature of the media ensured a rapid, effective backlash.
It would have been better for 2Clix to respond to the critical comments in a direct and positive manner, by acknowledging them as valid feedback and providing either a factual and constructive rebuttal or indicating what the company is doing about addressing the issues raised.
The interactive nature of media now means that exchanges are transparent to a wide audience, and that the flow of the dialogue needs to be actively managed. It is not a "fire and forget" media. Active monitoring and follow-up is required to ensure that the desired message is sent. You may have to add content and comments to the interaction to keep the message on track.
A good way to think of this is to imagine all the material that exists on the internet about yourself. Google your name and see what you find. If you find material that you don't like, you typically cannot delete it unless it's on your own website!
So the best defence is active offence, by publishing new, desirable publicity that is more current than the unwanted material. Most searches operate, in practice, on a last-in, first-out basis - with the most recent and popular material tending to filter to the top. Not many people scroll past the first few pages of search returns to view older and less popular material. So the solution to bad mentions on the internet is to keep publishing newer, positive material about yourself until the old stuff is so far down the search response that most people will never find it.
Write good over bad. Respond to critical or negative comments with positive, constructive and authentic responses. This is an interactive media and success now requires that we all develop the skills to create and shape our own and our company's brand perception in social networking dialogues. This is done by winning the respect of your audience - not by challenging your critics to battle in the courts.
The author is research director, public sector at Ovum.