Constructive reaction: right of reply and response strategies
In our fictional example, having discovered a harmful photo and text, Janssens-Quidam had merely published a reply on its own web pages. Could it have reacted otherwise?
Under Belgian law, the issue of the right of reply is governed by different rules depending on the kind of media used (written press, audiovisual media and the Internet) [Note: P.-F. Docquir, ‘Le ’droit de réponse 2.0’ ou la tentation d’un droit subjectif d’accès à la tribune médiatique’, Rev. dr. ULB 2007/1, p. 303.]. As a result, unlike in some other countries [Note: For instance France, where the right of reply on the Internet is provided for under Article 6-IV of the Act of 21 June 2004 on trust in the digital economy (loi pour la confiance dans l’économie numérique) (view online, in French).], there are no rules governing the right of reply on the Internet in Belgium.
This means that if a company is mentioned in an article on a website, it will in principle not be entitled to demand that a reply be published. Had the article been published in the written press, it would have been entitled to do so.
Consequently, in Janssens-Quidam’s example, it could not have demanded publication of a reply to Patrick’s article with the photo of a factory employing child labour and with comments regarding the origin of the fur.
However, the absence of any right of reply on the Internet (for Belgium) does not remove the possibility of a reply.
As shown in the other sections of this website, e-reputation is first and foremost a question of communication. The company therefore has to find a way to communicate in such a way that it can minimise the impact of the harmful message. Such communication, which will be a response to the harmful message, can take various forms.
(a) Rectification request
First, a company may request the rectification of inaccurate (or false) information.
If the author of the harmful message (Patrick) was the owner of the website on which the message appeared, Janssens-Quidam could have attempted to post a public response to the message (this is increasingly possible on the Internet, with various websites allowing the posting of comments in response to published articles) and to contact Patrick and ask him to rectify the inaccuracies.
If the author of the harmful message was not the owner (examples of intermediaries will be examined in further detail further on), it remained possible for Janssens-Quidam to contact the owner of the website, informing him/her of the response. Janssens-Quidam could also ask the owner to place a note at the beginning of the article, with a view to showing that the allegations were strongly refuted by Janssens-Quidam.
It could also have been entirely transparent about the whole process and could have made public (through its own website) its attempts to contact the various parties.
In addition, it could repeat the process for each website that repeated the inaccurate information.
(b) Turning negatives into positives
The company can also attempt to use the negative trend to its advantage, rather than presenting itself as “in defensive mode”. This response strategy implies responding to a negative message with a positive message.
For instance, Janssens-Quidam could have announced that, because of the message and despite such message being without merit, it had decided to support the GAIA association (Belgian animal welfare association) in its campaign against the use of fur, or that Janssens-Quidam would increase the pay of all workers (all of which are adults) in its Asian factory.
Indeed, recognising weaknesses and attempting to remedy them can renew trust in the company. The example of La Redoute is worth mentioning. After the discovery of a naked man in the background of a picture on La Redoute’s website homepage, the company became the centre of a media frenzy, entirely against its will. A competitor (3 Suisses) was the first to react, adding a swimsuit on the photo of the nudist. La Redoute provided a positive response, broadcasting a humoristic mea culpa video and organising a competition for web users. In turn, this response generated a positive ‘buzz’ on the Internet.
Mobistar is another illustration. In January 2011, the Flemish television show Basta! criticised (in a tongue-in-cheek manner) the long waits on hold Mobistar clients had to deal with on the telephone. Subsequently, the company recruited 127 additional agents for its call centre [Note: See Mobistar, Half year results 2011 Mobistar, p. 11 (view online).]. One can nevertheless wonder whether the reaction did not come too late and without sufficient noise, such that the improvements made did not have all the impact they could have had on Mobistar’s e-reputation.
(c) Tailor-made response
Finally, to the extent possible, it is recommended that companies (rapidly) give a personal or tailor-made response to negative messages.
In February 2011, Telenet described the structure it had put in place so as to (attempt to) respond quickly and efficiently to negative messages spread by consumers on the Internet. According to the description, a four-person team (at the time) monitors various social media to find out what the public says regarding Telenet. If a problem persists, Telenet responds to the consumer, either on the basis of a list of answers to frequently asked questions or after internal discussion. According to Telenet:
Telenet customers appreciate our dealing with them personally. […] We’re not active in social media because it happens to be fashionable today. For us it’s an excellent means for supporting existing processes; it’s not a communication channel in itself.
[…] Customers are very strict with a brand that makes a mistake, but if you build up good relationships with them, you will see that other customers spontaneously stick up for you if something does goes [sic] wrong. [Note: Interview of Leentje Chavatte of Telenet by Clo Willaerts (view online).]
(d) Pros and cons of a response strategy
There are significant advantages to a response strategy (whether a “negative-to-positive conversion” or a tailor-made response), as it can create or strengthen the idea that the company listens to its customers and as it can also fix actual problems. It transfers the potentially negative message into a query that led to a positive reaction. Moreover, the positive reaction will be a source of ‘earned media’, as a satisfied customer is likely to talk about it to his friends and family or (better yet) on the Internet.
The disadvantages of a response strategy are mostly financial and structure-related: putting in place an effective response strategy requires both time and dedicated staff.
In some cases, reacting in a constructive manner to a negative message is not sufficient. Adopting a destructive reaction can then be the solution.