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Business - Written by on Tuesday, November 25, 2008 12:34 - 6 Comments

Denis Hancock
Dealing with backlash in the blogosphere: a personal experience

Last week I wrote about the Motrin Mom fiasco, and then spent a fair bit of time thinking about the best way for a company to respond to the backlash that can so quickly emerge in the blogosphere (My favorite idea was a “You think you have a headache? You should see what we’ve had to deal with over the last week…” video response). Then at 2:24 on Friday afternoon I received an email from a reader that stated he’d seen Ryan Holiday’s post about me about a few days ago, and nicely indicated that he found it really rude and quite off-base (before sharing a really neat story I hope to write about this week).

After reaching for a Motrin myself, I decided to check out what he was talking about. The article he was referring to was this one- The Worst Thing About Blogs. In the post, Ryan lumped my recent story about Starbucks’ wikinomics-enabled marketing success story with other posts from the likes of Guy Kawaski, Hugh Macleod, Steve Rubel, and Michael Arrington, with the lead-in sentence of (The Worst Thing About Blogs) is that they never let reality get in the way of a good post. Ryan then concluded his post with the following:

If we can deduce anything from the blogs above, it also makes you 1) Sound like an idiot 2) Act like an asshole 3) Always get it wrong

So it’s fair to say he wasn’t a fan of the post. As I read through the comments (some in support of his POV, others defending the posts including my own), Ryan again highlighted my post as particularly egregious, and for good measure pointed out again that it sucked. The reason he gave is that we don’t live in a vacuum – I can’t / shouldn’t be writing about only the Starbucks marketing story when there is another huge thing going on (Starbucks’ recent report of a 97% drop in profits).

So at that point, I had to decide what to do. In turn, I thought I’d share my thought process, and what came of it, since it might be helpful for other people and companies dealing with similar situations. You can see my first comment on his post (last I checked it was 4th from the bottom).

1. Decide whether to engage or not. The blogosphere, and particularly the comment sections, is notorious for maliciousness. As a general rule, if a writer starts dropping insults like “idiot” and the aforementioned a-bomb, I tend to prefer to just stay away. But this seemed like a special case. Ryan seemed like a fairly intelligent person, who’s job appears to be in relation to PR and social media, so I was intrigued by not only the message he chose to send, but how he chose to send it. And whether I liked it or not, based on the volume of comments it seemed like a fair number of people were reading it – so there could be direct benefit from engaging in the conversation.

2. Timeliness versus “Coolheadedness”. As another general rule, I tend to prefer to “sleep on” such issues, in order to avoid a hasty response that I might later regret. However, in this situation I was also dealing with a timeliness issue – popular blog posts can fade away quite quickly, and as I mentioned it was already Friday afternoon. I knew I had neither the time nor inclination to look at this on the weekend, and a Monday response might be a little too late, so I opted for an immediate response. Always dangerous.

3. Cede the point versus defend myself. All of us make mistakes. When faced with a criticism, it is of course important to decide whether you think the complaint is valid and cede the point, or instead defend your POV – noting that sometimes you can do a little of both and find some common ground. In this case, I felt Ryan was quite off base, and decided to actively defend my POV.

4. Choose the tone of the response. When someone is directly saying you sound like an idiot and act like an asshole, it is quite easy to fall into the trap of responding in a similar manner (hence, my “sleep on it” rule of thumb). I wanted to ensure my tone was different – a little more thoughtful and respectful. However, I did start my response with “As the idiotic a-hole who wrote the blog post on wikinomics, I thought I should respond to your criticisms”, so I didn’t fully succeed on this front. But if you read the rest of my comment, I think you’ll find it fair, reasonable, and respectful.

5. Respond directly to the criticism. In this case, I re-articulated what I understood his exact complaint to be, and responded directly to that. This helps to keep the response directly on-topic, instead of meandering into a variety of other tangential subjects, and helps make sure there is a common understanding of the “topic” both people can refer to. In other words, if I misunderstood, my misunderstanding would be clear and he could respond in kind.

6. Demonstrate knowledge in the area (if applicable). In this case it was fairly easy – in a former life I worked for one of Starbucks’ prime competitors in Canada (Second Cup), know a lot about their strategy and business model, and can talk at length about them on demand. I felt that briefly demonstrating I had this knowledge helped set-up my argument for why I chose not to share it in this particular situation.

7. Ask the critic to back himself up. In this case, it was again easy. Ryan was making a direct complaint about what others wrote in their blogs, on his blog. In turn, I asked a simple question – “if you scan through you last 20 blog posts, do you believe they stand up to the bar you have set for others here? Does each one represent high-level thinking, and provide full perspective on all the issues at play?” You can tell from the question what I think the answer is, but the bigger point is that a well phrased question, on-topic, can be valuable to the response. If Ryan can’t defend his POV by using his own posts, he’s clearly got another issue to deal with here.

8. Get a peer review. This one is self-explanatory, and is particularly valuable if you pass on the “sleep on it” option. However, in this case I didn’t go through a peer review process.

I think that covers most of it. So how did it work out? Well, it’s hard to say. After I posted my response the comments section on his post was basically dead, but I can’t necessarily claim responsibility for that – the post was now several days old, and we were heading into the weekend. But it is perhaps notable that of the two comments that followed, one was from a person admitting they didn’t understand most of the blogs he referenced, and the other (perhaps picking up on my question) indicated Ryan’s post should be added to the list of posts Ryan was complaining about.

Ryan himself didn’t respond to my comment on his blog. He did, however, send me an email. This message was notable on several fronts. Perhaps most importantly, there was an absence of inflammatory terms, which either indicates a subtle shift in his thinking, or that it’s more difficult to say such things to someone directly than when referring to someone you’ve never met on a blog. He also re-affirmed being a fan of the book itself.

Ryan also generally stuck to his POV, and re-articulated it in a slightly different / better way. Notable inclusions were that my post was kind of like enthusiastically writing about Nero playing the lyre while fires raged in Rome, and that my not acknowledging the strategic decay of the company within my Starbucks story was almost negligent.

In my mind, this puts us in a much better space. I’m fine with relatively cordial disagreements and differing POVs, and even noted in my response to Ryan that based on what I can piece together about his story Don might be interested in talking to him (think Wikinomics meets Grown Up Digital). However, my POV has not changed, and to sum up this now exceedingly long post I will share three points I made as to why I felt it was not important to put the other strategic issues in perspective in my piece. If you disagree, feel free to share below – but please keep the swearing to a minimum :) .

The first is an issue we have to deal with regularly in our research. Often times the best examples on the “bleeding edge” of innovation are being done by companies (start-ups and old alike) that have fundamental and fatal flaws in other respects. Some of our best research comes when the rest of the world is focusing on how Rome is burning, but we manage to find a “Nero playing the lyre” that not only other companies can learn from, but they might otherwise not hear about (because everyone is focused on the fire). The challenge for the reader is then to triangulate that information with everything else they know about the situation to draw their own conclusions.

Second, it’s important to remember the context in which a particular piece is being presented. We have heard complaints from readers if/when we stray off-topic on our site – the brand “wikinomics” indicates what type of information they expect. When we write about particular companies, it is perspective on the “wikinomics” part of their strategy and initiatives that people want to hear about. If they want to read about the other aspects of (for example) Starbucks, there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of stories covering 97% drop in profits and associated issues in Google News. If I search for Starbucks Lexicon, there are three hits, and none of them are on topic. It is by telling that wikinomics-related story few others are talking about that we create value for readers and keep them coming back.

Finally, space constraints are an important consideration. The piece I wrote was a little over 300 words. When you write short pieces, as I’m sure you well know the blogosphere demands, it is generally crucial to maintain a laser focus on a fairly narrow topic – every word giving context or providing background is a word that’s not being used to describe the issue at hand. Not everything is supposed to, or can, present the “big picture”… or it would be like boiling the ocean every time you want to make a pot of spaghetti.



6 Comments

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Clay Harkins
Nov 25, 2008 14:00

Although I have to agree that the tone of the post was pretty harsh, the guy does have a point. Some of these blogs are incredibly insular and that sort of twisted perspective often makes them just plain wrong.

Denis Hancock
Nov 25, 2008 14:13

Clay,

That’s a good point. I must admit I’ve focused 99.9% of my attention on the reaction to my post in isolation, and probably should have spent more time checking out the others. Something to add to my list? :)

Mark Pegler
Nov 27, 2008 11:15

Vince
Dec 3, 2008 2:04

You have to realize that Ryan Holiday comes from a very different organizational culture than most people do. Basically, if you have something to say, don’t just say it, crow it. Being insulting is not nearly as much of an issue as being both right and amusing is. If you can’t hold your audience’s attention, why the hell are you writing in the first place? That he changed his tone in his email to you is not surprising. The tones used in email and in blog posts are very different for good reason. One is personal communication, and the other is mass communication. The different purpose necessitates different approaches.

Of course, he’s not going to explain the things I just said to you. He expects you to know them already. What he said in his blog post had substance, you just refused to see it through the invective. If you don’t get it, that’s just another reason to mock you. You need to be able to see the greater points behind the invective. If you can’t, then you’ll never be able to hack it in the Rudius Media world. (Ryan’s organization)

Just a disclaimer: I came about this post through Ryan’s del.icio.us feed. His comment was, “haha,” indicating that you still didn’t get it and that your fumbling around trying to understand his point is highly amusing. I tend to agree, but I happen to be more forgiving and willing to explain the whys to someone willing to listen.

Ben
Dec 4, 2008 14:02

Vince, interesting comments.

But wouldn’t the main point of all this be that Ryan; while commenting freely on various “un-disciplined blogs” as it were, fails to include his own blog?

Isn’t this just representative of the prevalent poor neo-hipster logic that floats around blogs? Isn’t this specifically what Ryan was reaching for with his diatribe shouldn’t he apply his complaint to himself first?

What good is trying to make his point if he suddenly stops trying to get his point across? Where was he hoping to take this? Just to get noticed to get another minor project started?

Disclaimer: I enjoy reading RH’s posts, I have found his reading suggestions fantastic but one has to admit he lost credibility on this.

Denis Hancock
Dec 8, 2008 12:41

Interesting comment Vince. But the thing is I wasn’t distracted from his point by his “invective”. I was responding directly to the point, made in relation to my post. I think that’s a key point here.

I wasn’t really focused on the tone / language. I was pointing out that, from my perspective, his argument about my post didn’t have a lot of credibility, and I explained why, in detail. As noted, I’m fine with dissenting opinion, but I’ve heard from quite a few people that Ryan missed the mark here.

Also, as Ben notes in his comment above, Ryan seemed a tad bit hypocritical…

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