Your Freedom – a case study in how not to run an online community

Excellent analysis of what went wrong with the Your Freedom site, focusing on its comments and community policy (or lack thereof).

LBC Radio vs. Ben Goldacre (A Perfect Storm of Bad Science)

[ UPDATE 10/02/09: The Times have now published an opinion piece on this story. Keep watching. ]

In brief: while cases of measles in children are increasing, presenter Jeni Barnett on LBC radio takes a very vocal stance against MMR immunisation. Blogger and doctor Ben Goldacre opposes, on the grounds of bad science while posting a recording from the show to make his point. Almost immediately, LBC issues Goldacre with a legal takedown notice citing copyright infringement.

Or in other words, LBC begins a virtual perfect storm in blogs and the mainstream media.

You can read more about it on Techdirt, Ars Technica and other places.

Look at the average number of comments on Jeni Barnett’s personal blog (currently 2 or 3ish per post) against the comments for the two posts about MMR (at the time of writing, 82 comments for Bad Scientists and 134 comments for MMR and Me).

The killer elements of the storm are:

  • an already existing health controversy
  • the welfare of children
  • in LBC, a popular media outlet with many listeners
  • a perception of LBC as “traditional” media
  • the nature of blogs as a fast, cheap and direct medium for expressing opinion
  • and likewise for online comments, although more so (see also: the recordings on YouTube)
  • “bad science”
  • a strong feeling of solidarity among bloggers
  • and particularly against lawyers as relates to copyright and freedom of speech

Search Twitter for LBC and MMR and you’ll get more reaction (that doesn’t even cover all the possible terms which relate to this story). There’s also a Facebook group called Defend Ben Goldacre from LBC with, for what it’s worth, 1048 members at the moment.

There’s a weary inevitability in the tone being used to tell this tale. As my colleague Tom remarked to me earlier today, someone should (if not already) document these frequent and grisly incidents in a dedicated blog. It could be called Blogging Blazes or something of that nature.

If you’re looking for scientifically sound advice about MMR vaccines for children, then it’s easy to find. Let’s just say that Goldacre, a qualified doctor, would certainly advise you to research more widely than a talk radio show.

Was Goldacre’s use of the copyrighted recordings a legally fair dealing? Interesting question.

But the main question I’m asking in a PR context is, why is this being considered a “fail” for LBC Radio? Their objectives are controversy and ad revenue. They’ve got the controversy and the free blog promotion (including this post).

To date, none of LBC’s advertisers has backed out over this. (Although this could happen and I’ll be certain to post an addendum here if this changes.) Whether it’s intentional or not, this situation is playing out very well for them.

Goldacre will have no trouble finding legal advisers or funding if it goes to court. And whatever the result, LBC still get headlines.

Let’s just hope it leads to better discussion and more conscientious and informed parenting, shall we?

(I’m going to try to focus on edifying things for the rest of this month! We’re working with a photographer who is doing some great work with some very diverse people and I can’t wait to tell you about it.)

How To Avert a PR Nightmare with Social Media – Ford vs Chrysler

[ UPDATE, 22/01/09: There’s a link to the Chrysler website in the post below. It appears the car company took action and deleted their entire blogpost and comments on Thursday after some serious action on the recommendation site Digg. The image of the ad is still there. If you want to read the post and the comment pandemonium, Google have a barebones archive version in their cache. In my opinion, Chrysler would be better off owning this series of gaffes and explicitly dealing with the issue on their blog. As it goes, they’ve attempted to cover it up and censor the comments, thus being seen to fail once more. It kind of makes you feel sorry for them. ]

Here’s an intriguing article on Fast Company magazine about how Ford cars dealt with some negative publicity online last month.

While it mentions the rapid responses by their head of social media, Scott Monty, it may leave you wanting more details about the incident. So here’s the full story and Monty’s own account.

The key to this, in my opinion, is that Monty possessed additional information which he was able to share to calm down the bloggers and Twitter users.

In the meantime, many people emphasise the power of the web to engender good reputation for a product. But it’s just as powerful in the other direction. Elsewhere in the auto industry, Chrysler are suffering from the heat of almost a month of commenting fury. Why? Because after receiving a financial bail-out from the US government, Chrysler placed expensive national press adverts – to thank the public for “their” financial support.

This was viewed by many as a crass and wasteful move. The comments are largely variations on this theme:

Your resignation and the resignations of senior executives who have mismanaged the business would have been much more appropriate. Posted Dec 29, 2008, 8:03 PM by California Initiative

Oof! We also have:

My response to being forced to bail Chrysler out was to immediately purchase a FORD Focus and I will NEVER buy any car that Chrysler has anything to do with.  This ad you ran “thanking” us was an example of you wasting OUR money. Posted Dec 30, 2008, 11:44 AM by redwood tree

I don’t pretend to know very much about the auto industry. Even so, being based in Cardiff, Wales, I probably wouldn’t have picked up the Chrysler story – if it weren’t for the blogging frenzy that ensued and brought it to my attention. A quick look at Google Blog Search reveals hordes of US taxpayers expressing this. Here’s one. Here’s another. And another. Yet another. That’s just the front page of results. Here’s Fox News for good measure. Chrysler never dealt with any of the individual comments. Eventually they did attempt to respond with a very brief post in their own defence.

There’s a good chance your brand or business will not be facing publicity issues of this magnitude. But these are useful reminders of the importance of monitoring what people are saying about you online. People won’t necessarily choose to make any of these comments directly to you. Nor will they necessarily come to “your space”.

Often it will be people saying complimentary things, which is a great way to improve your day. But at some point, you may need to respond appropriately to something negative, or indeed a full blown crisis. Preferably immediately.

Your own blog can be a good place to respond. (You don’t have a blog? It’s extremely handy to have an active blog ready for these situations.)

I must confess to being a collector of these kinds of stories.

Another one of my grisly favourites concerns Target, a retailer, and dates from January 2008. When a blogger complained about an image in an advert, Target’s PR people refused to answer properly. Instead they cited a policy that they don’t talk to “nontraditional media”, in this case a blogger (read: influential customer). Whether or not you agree with the nature of the original customer complaint doesn’t matter. This was a snubbing which backfired – even if Target did ignore the blogs, it ended up in the New York Times anyway.