A few days ago I wrote about the crisis engulfing the Richmond, Va., SPCA and how I believe the public furor over the incident might have been minimized if some basic principles of effective communication and public relations had been followed.
Two days after the news broke, the incident is no longer a national news story but is still in the local headlines. It’s also still the subject of a lot of commentary on local news websites and blogs — including the SPCA’s own blog on its website.
As of this writing, 239 comments appear under the RSPCA’s blog post titled “A Personal Family Tragedy.” And here is the amazing thing, given the RSPCA’s earlier communication missteps around this incident: A great number of the comments are negative. In fact, many are not just negative, they are vitriolic.
Give the RSPCA credit for not whitewashing the comments on its own blog. The RSPCA makes clear that comments are moderated, but it has published the bad with the good.
This is how it must be when an organization decides to use social media as a communication vehicle. Discussion must be open and free-flowing. You can’t shut down the conversation when the comments turn negative. Social media are all about engagement — getting in there and taking some punches now and then. This is what frightens many organizations’ leaders. They’re afraid of the candor. They’re afraid they might look bad. They believe it’s better not to engage at all.
The truth is that the conversation is taking place whether or not your organization participates in it. Clearly, there are times when disengaging is appropriate — but those times are rare and usually involve legal or regulatory concerns. Otherwise, organizations have a lot to gain by being part of the discussion that’s going on. Participation can help an organization gain credibility with its stakeholders. It can lead critics to become part of the solution of problems. It can also isolate extremist points of view. Most of all, participation in social media give organizations a close-up view of what their stakeholders are thinking and saying.
So far, the RSPCA has not responded in any of the online conversations taking place, other than to post a new entry to the blog. In it, the RSPCA thanks its supporters and reprints a few supportive messages it has received in the last few days. Still, the fact that the RSPCA has allowed the community to process what has happened and to vent about it — even on its own blog — is admirable.