The public relations industry should push for transparency in commenting

July 20, 2010
Eagle's quarterback Donovan McNabb playing the air guitar

The more credible commenting becomes, the more valuable of a tool it becomes for clients and firms.

This morning, as with many mornings, I woke up to read The Philadelphia Inquirer sports section and keep abreast of DooDooFresh. DooDoo is a daily reader-commenter who is obsessed with former Eagle’s quarterback Donovan McNabb and his habit of playing the air guitar while in uniform.

DooDoo’s irreverence brings an air of lightness to the daily drama of Philadelphia sports. But would DooDoo do the voodoo that he do do if the Inquirer required him post under his real name? It’s a question that underscores the ongoing debate within the media as to whether readers’ comments should stop being anonymous and rather should be accompanied by the name of the writer.

The issue of anonymity has plagued the public relations industry ever since the advent of digital media. On one hand, anonymity allows for greater voice and opinion. As this theory goes, commentators, such as an employee at a company that is engaged in illegal activity, would not post to a media site if not for the protection of anonymity.

The same goes for consumers, who under anonymity feel more comfortable reviewing, chastising, and criticizing a company or product. Then, there’s the counter argument, that anonymity coarsens public discourse, and provides a water cooler for ugly, offensive remarks.

It also erodes the value of comments themselves. Without transparency, anyone can say anything at any time without impunity. The media knows that continued lack of accountability will kill what has become a golden goose of online reporting — comments, which can often attract more readership than the article itself and provide a scorecard for editors to determine what is most interesting to any given audience.

Some media are already moving to add a new level of transparency, and along with it, authenticity, to their reader comments. The Sun Chronicle in Attleboro, Mass., recently introduced a new system that requires commenters to register their names, addresses, phone numbers, and credit card numbers.

The Sun Chronicle charges a one-time fee of 99 cents to activate the account. Commenters’ names then appear online along with their posts. The Wall Street Journal has required names to appear with reader comments since 2008.

From a public relations point of view, there is real value in transparency. Anonymity makes it nearly impossible to assess the validity of an allegation or defamatory remark made against a client online.

At the same time, as an industry, we are bound ethically to disclose our representation when commenting online in response to the media or on review sites. In that respect, transparency would level the playing field, requiring both sides to come clean as to who is behind a comment online.

Yet, complete transparency is unlikely to happen. Right now, the media place great value in online reader comments as an eyeball aggregator and a way to score reporters and stories. Required transparency would put a brake on the number and frequency of comments.

What’s the answer? How about a hybrid system whereby commenters could chose to be anonymous or not? Those commenters who opt to give their names — and validate them with e-mail and credit card verification — would have their comments posted higher than those who remain anonymous.

Those who don’t take off the mask would be relegated to the end of the list of comments, defusing their impact. To further encourage transparency, reporters would be encouraged to engage with those commenters who disclose their identity through a special two-way feature of the blog or site. Such attention would trigger even more comments.

No doubt, those of us who read the media would be more likely to give greater credibility to named commenters. After all, these commenters are assuming the real risk that flows from public comments, even if it’s just a negative response from the crowd. And at the same time, this hybrid system of opt-in transparency would still allow the rabble to rouse and the media to score themselves against the visceral response of the masses.

So DooDoo would still be allowed to do the voodoo that he do do. But we would all have a better understanding of who is saying what, for what purposes, and for which intended results. At the same time, the public relations industry would gain an additional, more credible tool for correcting the record, responding to misstatement of fact, resetting agendas, and gaining legitimate visibility.

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Steven Spenser
8 years 9 months ago
Requiring commenters to identify themselves *may* give practitioners “a better understanding of who is saying what, for what purposes, and for which intended results.” But simply knowing someone’s name—which may not even be real—on a comment board is not necessarily going to reveal the purposes or intended results of her comment. I agree with you that transparency would be extremely useful in “correcting the record, responding to misstatement of fact [and] resetting agendas.” But PR practitioners already can do all of that whether a commenter’s identity is known or not. We just have to determine whether or not to take… Read more »
Steven Spenser
8 years 9 months ago
(Part 2 of lengthy comment. Apologies if a graf or two here might have been included in first part's cutoff.) As a former journalist, I doubt the lack of transparency in online comments will lead the news media to use comments less. Online audiences have been used to anonymous comments since the dawn of the Internet, and I don’t think they necessarily will refrain from adding to the comments dialog simply because an otherwise reply-worthy comment comes from an anonymous individual. We all know that once interest is engaged, or passions inflamed, online comment boards can erupt as new visitors… Read more »
Steven Spenser
8 years 9 months ago
I don’t see that lack of transparency is the serious problem that you believe it to be. Let me play devil’s advocate. “How about a hybrid system whereby commenters could chose to be anonymous or not?” Well, this already exists: Nothing prevents any commenter from choosing to reveal her identity. But I predict that very few people will actually pay—even 99 cents—for the privilege of seeing their names in print (as it were) at a Web site. And I doubt that many users will gift their precious credit-card numbers to corporate Web sites with loophole-ridden privacy policies. Your entire thesis… Read more »
Greg Matusky
8 years 9 months ago
Steven: Thanks so much for taking the time to respond to my post. I really appreciate your passion and welcome your input. A couple of quick points. The purpose of the post was not to suggest some serious problem with the lack of transparency or to do away with anonymous comments. To the contrary, the hybrid system I suggest allows for both anonymity and opt-in transparency. I just believe that the PR community could benefit from more transparency with the end effect being more engaged constituencies. And I think a hybrid system could provide such a vehicle. As you so… Read more »