Google’s Turn On The Hot Seat: A PR View

Considering he is “one of the most powerful people on the planet,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai has kept a low profile. But this week, after Google had skipped earlier Congressional hearings involving his peers at Twitter and Facebook, Pichai had his high-stakes moment. And in PR terms, he may have dodged a bullet.

No wonder Google’s PR team was wary of his appearing before the House Judiciary Committee. The hearing offered a golden opportunity for members of Congress to grill Pichai on a host of issues — data privacy, Google’s use of location data in advertising, hate speech on YouTube, or its controversial experiments with a government-censored Chinese search engine, among others.

Fortunately for Google – and maybe unfortunately for the American public – the hearing’s headlines and video bites were largely about the tech illiteracy of congressional committee members. It was capped by Rep. Steve King’s question about why a nasty item about him popped up as his granddaughter played on her iPhone (“iPhone is made by a different company,” Pichai responded, looking slightly pained.) The Google CEO was in the embarrassing yet sympathetic position of trying to explain search algorithms to willfully ignorant Baby Boomers. You couldn’t help but feel bad for him.

Google broke the rules of PR and reputation management when it failed to appear at a similar Senate hearing in September. Senate staffers capitalized on its absence by placing a name placard before an empty chair reserved for Chief Executive Larry Page. Conventional PR wisdom dictates that Google would have fared better at a hearing with Facebook and Twitter; there is safety in numbers, after all.

It’s better to be lucky than smart

Yet, the gamble to skip the September hearing may have ultimately paid off. Maybe the attention was greater before the midterm elections, and Google won by waiting for its day on Capitol Hill. And since the September hearings, Facebook itself has weathered fresh reputation assaults. It was rocked by revelations that it hired a PR agency to smear competitors and malign the reputation of George Soros, a fierce Facebook critic. Google may have benefited by separating itself from Facebook. More predictably, it gained advantage because the congressional committee members this week were  – surprise! – largely ineffectual and absurdly partisan.

As in past hearings, Republican committee members were determined to browbeat Pichai over what they see as search results rigged in favor of liberals, while Democrats baited their colleagues across the aisle. Only Democratic Rep. David Cicilline drew anything like blood; when Cicilline pressed Pichai about the controversial Chinese “Project Dragonfly” Pichai was cornered into a series of evasive answers about government-sanctioned censorship.

Sure, there were the usual protests, but they were mostly comic relief.  TV cameras caught my favorite, the Monopoly man (aka activist Ian Madrigal), in a perfect photo-bomb position directly behind Pichai. But the anti-Google trolling was relatively mild, overshadowed by video like Democrat Zoe Lofgren’s question about why a search for “idiot” results in images of the current president. She was apparently being sarcastic to shame her Republican colleagues for their conspiracist questions, yet it came off as a cheap shot.

Google was also helped by Pichai’s demeanor. Compared to Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance last April, the 46-year-old CEO was mild-mannered, patient and helpful, with none of Zuck’s youthful arrogance or the stilted, overcoached delivery that characterized his remarks. As summed up by Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, “Google came away unscathed.”

Sometimes it’s not just about top-flight communications strategy and crisis management, but good luck and even better timing.

Google Earns Positive PR On Diversity – Under Duress

Simmering issues of diversity and gender discrimination in the tech industry were spotlighted this week when an internal memo penned by a Google engineer went viral, causing a public relations earthquake for the company. Although the 10-page “anti-diversity” memo was actually more nuanced than some reports gave it credit for, its thesis triggered a quick backlash. The engineer was fired in the tumult following what was perceived as a screed against diversity and inclusion efforts at the company.

In the memo, the engineer – who has since been outed as James Damore – acknowledges that both men and women experience bias in the technology workplace, but that “it’s far from the whole story. On average men and women biologically differ in many ways.” He presses his case by saying that women “prefer jobs in social or artistic areas” while “more men may like coding” and – though professing to reject stereotypes – refers to a “higher drive for status” among men and a female dislike for long hours and stressful work. The bottom line, according to Damore, is that Google should stop assuming that gender gaps mean sexism is at work.

A late, but thoughtful response to a divisive situation

So, how should Google have handled the controversy? The storm was a trial by fire for its recently hired head of diversity Danielle Brown, and the response was a little slow by internet standards. This was possibly because the memo itself had been circulating inside Google for some time, but on Saturday it was leaked by Motherboard. Initial reaction came in the form of internal memos that were shared on social media and quickly picked up by the mainstream press. Brown criticized the memo as advancing “incorrect assumptions about gender,” yet seemed to be trying to defend the internal debate on principle, while making it clear that the company did not support Damore’s view. Her email explained, “Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.”

It was a thoughtful response to the furor, and under other circumstances, it might have helped calm the debate, or at least move it in a constructive direction. But, as with the memo itself, nuance is lost amidst emotionally charged reactions shared furiously in 140-character tweets and posts. On Monday CEO Sundar Pichai told employees that the memo had violated company rules. Given the wording of the Pichai’s communication and the social environment, Damore’s days at Google were numbered. He was fired late Monday.
Sexism and gender discrimination in Silicon Valley has been a topic of debate – and litigation – for years. The subject is complicated and one can make the argument that internal debate, even dissension, is a healthy sign.

But Google can’t afford to be seen as defending views that challenge diversity. The US Department of Labor is investigating it for “systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce.” Bottom line, Google had little choice but to let Damore go, even though it may suffer legal consequences from the firing.

A lack of diversity drives reputation problems

Google enjoys a reasonably strong brand and corporate reputation. It leads a ranking of companies perceived as the most responsible by the Reputation Institute three years in a row. More importantly, it faces major antitrust issues outside the U.S. and regulatory burdens at home. Legal counsel will always trump reputation counsel if the two are at odds. In this case the specter of sex discrimination – along with other, even less manageable issues like privacy and anti-competitive practices – is the last thing Google needs. In fact, in discussions with PR colleagues, some even speculated that the company leaked the memo on purpose so that it could be seen as rejecting the thinking it espouses. I doubt that, but who knows?

What can communicators learn from the situation?The larger issues here will continue to be debated but there are some PR takeaways.

Prepare for leaks. When it comes to hot-button issues, you can expect internal  communications to to be shared outside the company. It pays to be prepared.

Articulate a clear POV and stick to it. This is where Google was caught in a developing situation,  because the memo  leaked over the weekend and it attempted to navigate fast-moving internal and public reaction.

Act decisively. There will be disagreement on  whether Damore should have been let go, but Google did the right thing in moving swiftly and articulating its motives for doing so.
I believe Google has made a true commitment to diversity and inclusion, but even if that commitment isn’t fully baked, it has been forced to choose a side. Now it must work hard to lead in the process. It’s the right thing for its workforce and its reputation. And with the government breathing down its neck, good PR is good business.

When Brands Get Political: Is It Good PR?

PR.TweetA couple of weeks ago, I was called by two journalists wanting public relations insights on companies hit with blowback for comments about our new president. Should brands get political, they wanted to know? I shared my perspective that brands shouldn’t always shy away from controversy, summarizing with, “You can’t put your head in a hole, shrink back, and avoid the entire dialogue.”

The quote seems almost quaint after this weekend’s events. Social and media channels were blazing following the president’s executive order restricting travel to the U.S. from seven primarily Muslim countries. Even for those favoring a tighter refugee policy, the execution of the ban, which stranded travelers and caused confusion at airports and among government agencies, left a lot to be desired. But for the public relations community, the instant reaction of many large companies also signaled a change in our little world. For major brands, it’s getting harder sit on the sidelines.

Pressure to speak out, but risk either way

On Saturday, Uber stepped over a picket line when it failed to honor a New York City taxi strike in solidarity with those affected by the travel ban. #DeleteUber began trending almost instantly. Rival Lyft was quick to ride into the breach by pledging a $1 million donation to the ACLU, which dispatched lawyers to assist those stranded in airports and elsewhere. Then, Airbnb’s Brian Chesky announced his company would offer lodging to refugees stranded by the ban.

As outrage grew, more tech companies spoke out against Trump’s action, and Google’s Sergey Brin even showed up at a protest at San Francisco airport. Brin, who emigrated from the Soviet Union at the age of six, emphasized that his motive was personal, but there wasn’t much doubt where Google stands on the order. CEO Sundar Pichai announced a $4 million “crisis fund” and criticized the ban in an internal email, calling it “painful to see the personal cost of this executive order on our colleagues.”

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings capped the outcry by calling the ban “un-American” and Slack cofounder Stewart Butterfield tweeted that “every action seems gratuitously evil.” In one of the more dramatic commitments, Starbucks’ Howard Schultz — never one to shrink from a principled position — vowed to hire 10,000 refugees in 75 countries over the next five years. Schultz’s announcement, naturally, triggered a #boycottStarbucks hashtag that trended throughout the day Monday.

All this in the first 48 hours after the executive order. Certainly, large technology companies are invested in a progressive immigration policy and it’s in their interest to make those views known and to reassure their workforce. Studies show that CEO activism is safest – and probably most effective – when it involves issues with direct relevance to their business. But the new administration is setting up daily challenges for all kinds of companies and their leadership, as well as the communications teams who advise them. As the Trump administration moves forward, it will be critical for major brands to carve out their own positions on a range of hot-button topics.

A cost for remaining silent

There are risks in taking a stand on any controversial matter, particularly in our divisive political environment. You’ll never please everyone, and dealing with the inevitable customer response is a distraction from the day-to-day business at hand. An errant quote or hasty decision can precipitate a social boycott or worse. And as we’ve seen, a nasty tweet from Mr. Trump can cause a public company’s stock to drop.

But there’s also a cost in remaining silent. It’s more subtle, but it’s there, and it’s looming larger these days. Especially for our biggest and most socially visible corporations – from global technology companies to major consumer brands – the expectations are growing. Look at the pressure on Sheryl Sandberg, who until very recently had not spoken publicly about Trump’s policies or rhetoric. Expectations of business leaders, particularly those who’ve articulated social values, are very high. They’re driven even higher by those who set an example, like the CEOs who spoke out over the weekend on the immigration EO, or the many who publicly condemned North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” last year. Both situations evoked a response that merged business concerns and social values, and both grabbed public attention for the companies involved.

Millennials expect more

Another reason for the growing pressure on big brands to speak out is that most crave the approval of millennials, the customers of today and the future. This rising generation wants to know where the brands they support stand on key issues, and they’re quick to use the power of their pocketbook to support, or punish, where they see fit.

So, what’s a brand to do? The task for most organizations is to understand the attitudes and values of their own employees, customers, and other stakeholders on high-priority social and political matters. Their engagement with their best customers and advocates should transcend traditional marketing and PR research to work at a gut level. Then they must articulate their own corporate values relevant to burning issues and communicate them consistently and thoughtfully.

Above all, authenticity matters. For any brand that jumps on a breaking story for some quick publicity without a true commitment to the issue, or absent preparation for all types of customer reaction, there will be a steep downside.

It’s not easy. But something tells me the tough and divisive issues aren’t going away any time soon. As one protestor’s sign read, “We’ll be here tomorrow.”

Teams are choosing sides; companies and their brands should be ready.

Google Hasn’t Killed The PR Industry

It’s good for any profession to have a few bomb-throwers, and PR is no exception. People who challenge, bait, or even criticize an industry can make it better. That’s why I’ve always been interested in Tom Foremski’s take. His 2006 post, “Die! Press Release! Die! Die! Die!” remains my favorite attack on the lowly press release, and, indirectly, on PR.

Foremski’s most recent post, Did Google Just Kill PR Agencies?’ is in the same hyperbolic vein. It comes in response to new rules that Google handed down regarding press releases. Essentially, Google has further tightened its policies in an effort to rid the industry of keyword-stuffed announcements of dubious quality. Google is now requiring that “anchor text” and URLs within press releases be converted to no-follow links, or links that don’t count towards page rank.

In other words, Google has just made it harder to spam the web through crappy content disguised as news.

So the problem with Foremski’s conclusion is that, while inflammatory and entertaining, it’s wrong, and any agency person can tell you that. The reports of our death are greatly exaggerated.

The majority of PR firms don’t spend time posting irrelevant press releases crammed with keywords for temporary search traction. That’s the purview of small businesses and bargain-basement practitioners who can’t really claim to be professionals.

The irony of Foremski’s latest is that Google’s new rules will probably strengthen the hands of legitimate practitioners. Here’s why:

PR is not about manipulating search results. Ninety percent of professionals spend their time identifying, shaping, and telling stories on behalf of clients. And most don’t have enough SEO knowledge to game the system even if they wanted to.

Press releases amount to a fraction of what we do. They’re a tool, and like any tool, they can be used well or poorly.

“Earned” media is still the heart of publicity results. That’s the opposite of paid, which is what the Google crackdown is all about.

Press releases should be written for….the press. Yes, PRs today interact directly with customers and others through social media, but there are still journalists out there, and releases should fill their needs.

Good clients don’t use press releases as an SEO tool.  Any business using enhanced releases for SEO or online marketing deserves to be downgraded by Google.

SEO isn’t the new PR. In fact, PR just may be the new SEO.

The Top Ten PR Blunders of 2011

When a serious setback or crisis occurs, not even the most talented PR pro can make it go away. Yet, a poor response invites reputation damage, while proper handling can help mitigate or limit it. Here’s my “Top 10” list, from a communications perspective, of the most badly handled public situations of the year.

10.  Governor Sam Brownback.  Something tells me the governor’s not in Kansas anymore – at least as far as his reputation goes. Brownback looked like a bully and created an unlikely teen hero with his handling of a nasty tweet about him posted by high school senior Emma Sullivan. Brownback’s staff, who tracked down the teen, put pressure on the school principal to extract an apology from Sullivan. When she ultimately refused, it was Brownback who did the apologizing. Meanwhile, the student’s Twitter following soared from 65 to over 14,000. Who’s sorry now?

9.  Delta. The airline hit rough PR weather when U.S. troops returning from Afghanistan were charged onerous fees for extra baggage, with one squadron spending nearly $3,000 out of personal funds. The disgruntled troops took the story of their rude welcome home to YouTube. Delta reacted about a day late to the video, which swiftly went viral, triggering hundreds of complaints on its blog.  It did end up changing its baggage fee policy for members of the armed services but not without reputation damage.

8.  Groupon.  Groupon’s reputation issues come in contrast to its previous image as a media darling. It started 2011 with that ill-conceived Super Bowl ad, followed by a halfhearted apology after it went wrong. It then ran into more PR hot water later as the company prepared for a much anticipated IPO. Founder Andrew Mason made impolitic remarks in an internal memo that was leaked to The Wall Street Journal, raising questions about “quiet period” violations. The Groupon IPO was a success, but its toughest reputation challenge will be to prove its business model actually works.

7.  Burson-Marsteller.  It’s notable when the world’s largest PR firm handles a crisis this poorly. In May, mega-agency Burson-Marsteller was busted by The Daily Beast‘s Dan Lyons after a clumsily executed “whisper campaign” against Google. The campaign was carried out on behalf of a mystery client who turned out to be Facebook. Not only was Burson guilty of a major ethical breach, but its response seemed to blame the client, which made it look both weak and defensive.

6.  AOL and CrunchFund.  TechCrunch Editor Michael Arrington’s plan to start an investment fund immediately raised conflict of interest questions. More troubling was the response from corporate owner AOL. CEO Tim Armstrong excused the move by referring to TechCrunch’s “different standards” of journalism. He was immediately contradicted by Arianna Huffington, who announced Arrington’s departure from AOL, which was then “clarified” by a subsequent announcement that he remained with AOL Ventures. While AOL struggled to get its stories straight, the incident undermined the credibility of senior management and its content standards.

5.  Netflix. The famous Netflix mea culpa is a good example of a public apology that backfired in a rather spectacular way. Instead of letting its admission of “poor communication” regarding a price increase stand, Netflix used the occasion to announce its split into two units – doubling the cost, and the hassle, for customers. It made the classic mistake of focusing on its business rationale rather than the customer interest and was forced to backpedal.  In the end it was Netflix that paid the price in lost business and a depressed stock value.

4.  The U.S. Congress.  One way to read the summer’s debt ceiling gridlock is a case of too great an emphasis on PR – to the detriment of real issues or progress. Both sides of the debate were so focused on their public posture — Tea Partiers hewing to the no-tax-increase line and progressives preoccupied with blaming the GOP — that everyone looked bad and absolutely nothing was done.

3.  Bank of America.  Its move to institute a $5 monthly debit card fee was not only poor judgment but terrible timing. B of A made the announcement just as the Occupy Wall Street movement was gaining steam. The new fee wasn’t tested, pre-announced, or even particularly well explained to customers, who responded with predictable outrage. Although the bank tried to justify the fee by tying it to new regulations, its argument was ineffectual. It ended up retreating a month later in the face of harsh criticism by consumers, bloggers, and even government officials.

2.  Herman Cain.  Political scandals were rife in 2011, but Cain’s meltdown stood out because he showed real mastery of public communication at the outset (remember “9-9-9”?). Yet when the candidate was hit with allegations of sexual harassment, the campaign’s response was amateurish. Politico sat on the initial story for ten days – an eternity in crisis response time – but Cain’s reactions ranged from denial, defensiveness, and hostility to humor and a plea for privacy. Consistency, credibility, and message control deserted the Cain campaign, and the result is history.

1.  Penn State. No shock here. Penn State will end 2011 taking the trophy for most egregiously bad handling of a crisis. Granted, the allegations against Jerry Sandusky would have been damaging no matter what, but it’s even worse when you consider that the Grand Jury investigation started in 2008. The university had plenty of time to prepare its public communication strategy. But when Sandusky was arrested in November, the statement by ex-President Graham Spanier, in which he called the charges “troubling,” was a study in what not to say.  Its focus on closing ranks and defending those in the know helped turn a shocking scandal into a serious breach of responsibility by the top players.

A version of this post was originally published on MENGBlend.

Facebook Wants You To Like This – All Over The Web

Does Facebook have a problem with commitment? Or, on the flipside, has it fallen in like so hard that it wants to own both the word and the concept all over the Web?

There are a couple of ways to look at this week’s announcement that the Facebook fan page will soon be a thing of the past. Instead of clicking to become an actual fan of a brand or company – that is, really engaging with it – we’ll only be able to “like” it the same way we do personal updates.

I think of “liking” something, in Facebook terms, as fairly tepid, even lazy. Sure, it’s more natural, as Facebook executives point out. They say users click to “like” something twice as often as they become a fan of a page. But, to me, it’s the social media equivalent of a greeting card. It’s what you do when you have no time or can’t think of anything much to say.

So, why the thumbs up for like? Clearly, Facebook intends to create more opportunities for corporate advertisers. “Liking” a brand lacks the psychological hurdle of becoming a fan, and users can “like” the page’s content also, so the move will presumably expand page interaction and ad revenues. AdAge has a summary of the implications here. It’s not without problems, and there will surely be confusion among both users and marketers.

My first response to the move was that it devalues and dilutes the relationship between a Facebook user and a favorite brand. True, it might actually be good for small businesses like, say, a creative PR firm. It’s easier to put out content that others endorse (however casually) than it is to generate thousands of fans. But, if I’m Coca-Cola, I want to know where my hardcore enthusiasts live.

But, Facebook has big plans for that “like” button. As developers have heard, Facebook wants to expand it throughout the Web. It has visions of browsers instantly “liking” all kinds of content virtually anywhere. That way, Facebook can funnel more engagement onto its pages and enhance the virality of just about anything. Once the “like” button is popularized outside of Facebook, it’ll be easier for users to find the “most liked” content – as well as the preferred products and services – in their areas.

So, Facebook becomes not only a social utility, but a search engine that harnesses the power of social recommendations, which can be a great tool for marketers, and a benefit for consumers. Most of all, it helps Facebook. As TechCrunch and other sources explain it, Facebook will become more like Google.

Yet, while Google spends billions to index the Web, Facebook is trying to get the Web – or a big chunk of it – to index itself. And, what’s not to like about that?

CES Gets Its Mojo Back

To me, the international PR and gadget-fest that is the Consumer Electronics Show has always been an adrenaline-charged kick-off for the new year. For starters, it’s in Las Vegas, where everyone’s welcome, and anything – and I do mean anything – goes. Both the show and the town are an orgy of imagination and commerce, and both are over the top.

Yet, last year’s CES was the lowest-wattage one in recent memory. The 2009 show came on the heels of the economic meltdown, and last January, Vegas was a subdued, almost gloomy place. It was actually easy to hail a taxi…and to get a dinner reservation. That may sound like a good thing, but, trust me, it’s not.

Well, I’m happy to say that CES is back. The attendance numbers might still be depressed, but the mood is pretty upbeat. That could be because the e-reader craze has attracted a whole new industry to the show. Then again, it might be the slightly surreal presence of pop icon Lady Gaga, who’s here today as Polaroid’s new Creative Director. (More on that later…) Or, maybe it’s just because we’re all so damn grateful that 2009 is over.

One aspect that’s bigger than ever is the show’s power as a PR platform. It’s not by chance that Google launched its Nexus One smartphone earlier this week, even though it was in Mountain Valley, not here. And, Apple seems to have timed another “controlled leak” about its much-anticipated tablet for CES week. Here on the floor, CES 2010 is already pulsating with news around 3D  TV, VUDU apps, solar-powered cell phonesKindle-killers, new four-color LED TV technology (debuted by my client Sharp), and mobile everything.

But, what feels different this time is the buzz outside the Vegas bubble. It’s always attracted high-decibel media attention, but this year the news is flying at what feels like 4G speed. The day before the show opens is a press day, which means back-to-back media briefings that generate bursts of coverage and help drive crowds to the exhibit floor over the next several days.

We’re accustomed to having our client’s news posted before the room has emptied. But, this year’s flood of tweets, live-blogging, and micro-posts was unprecedented. Not only did Sharp’s new LED TVs get a flurry of pre-promotion, but there were instant updates about every detail of the set-up, powerpoint slides, even one speaker’s sudden scratchy throat.

Social media has definitely added some extra fizz to an already exciting CES and maybe even changed how it’s experienced by those of us here. What happens in Vegas just doesn’t stay in Vegas anymore. It’s everywhere.

Ready Or Not, Here Comes SideWiki

sidewiki
Lately I’ve been involved in discussions about companies who don’t want their brands to engage with consumers online. Most PR practitioners agree that there can be legitimate reasons for a business to avoid social media – be they regulatory issues, a narrow or niche positioning, or lack of preparedness. It’s a brand’s choice, after all.

Until now, that is. If Google’s new Sidewiki toobar application takes off, brands and businesses might be facing a hypersocial Web, whether they’re ready or not. Sidewiki’s only been out a month, but already it’s the subject of controversy. It’s been called “brand anarchy,” a communicator’s “ nightmare,” and “borderline reckless.” Could it lead to brandjacking? The nicest thing I read compared it to a heckler at a press conference. Not very comfortable for brand reputation pros.

Sidewiki is just what the name implies. It’s an application that acts as a wiki, open to participation by anyone. It allows users to post comments on a sidebar just next to a given site. It looks like this. As Google describes it, Sidewiki is a wonderful tool that enables all of us to contribute “helpful” information next to any webpage. Nice, right? And, there’s that term “wiki.” To me, it conjures images of a sober-minded editorial administrator, a la Wikipedia. A stern-faced, detail-oriented academic who’s ever-vigilant for incorrect, slanderous, or obscene comments.

That’s not the case here. With Sidewiki, the people are in charge…which is both wonderful and awful. The comments belong to the toolbar, not the site. It’s not Wikipedia; it’s more like someone standing just outside your fence, posting notices, spray-painting graffiti, or even yelling taunts or chucking rocks your way.

It can be beneficial to learn about the experiences of others when it comes to a specific business or brand, sure. But, playing nice isn’t always the nature of the Web. As I’ve mentioned before, social media is the new bully pulpit for disgruntled consumers. It’s a whiner’s paradise. With Sidewiki, any site can become  a social media platform. We can vent about horrible customer service, complain about a tasteless ad, or slam a product we just tried. And there it is, right next to the company website.

And that’s not all. There are all kinds of implications if Sidewiki takes off. Competitors could theoretically place ads on the sidebar, just as they do now alongside search engine results. And, healthcare marketers already have a migraine just thinking about how pharmaceutical brands would cope with a sidewiki outbreak. By law, prescription drug brands cannot interact directly with users. And, let’s not even talk about the spam potential.

So, what’s a brand to do? Well, Google says not to worry…or something like that. Its algorithm won’t rank comments by recency, but by “quality” and “usefulness,” and it will take into account user feedback and a commenter’s previous posts, as well as “other signals.” This is Google-speak for downgrading or deleting gratuitously nasty posts. I’m assuming there will be a similar solution for spam.

Wikis have a spotty history, and Sidewiki might not even catch on. But, even if it doesn’t, brands and businesses are being mentioned every day online. If someone takes a shot at a brand on Sidewiki, chances are it’s not the first time. It’s up to us – the communicators, the brand reputation gatekeepers – to monitor, engage, and respond. Whether we like it or not, the Web is getting more and more social. We need to see the writing on the wall.

The Face Of Online Anonymity

After becoming a parent, I was briefly obsessed with the anonymous online community UrbanBaby. UB was ostensibly about parenting, but it became known as a place where sleep-deprived moms would confess embarrassing secrets. As New York magazine put it, the anonymity was like a blend of “truth serum and a very strong cocktail.”  Beyond the oversharing, UB could be snarky, even nasty. Insults flew over issues like social status, income, race, and – that hottest of hot buttons – school rankings. (Yes, even that.) I doubted if the moms posting hateful or bigoted comments would dream of such behavior in real life. Who were they? Could the jealous troll behind those noxious barbs possibly be anyone I knew?

I quit UB, but I’m still fascinated by how we behave if we’re incognito – or think we are. The recent lawsuit brought by Liskula Cohen is a reminder of the hazards of crossing the line, online. Cohen brought charges against an anonymous enemy who posted vicious insults about her on a blog called “Skanks in NYC.” The judge ultimately ordered Google, its Web host, to give up the blogger’s identity. More interesting, though, is the countersuit — the outed blogger is now suing Google for $15 million for violating her right to privacy.

The case is troubling for a couple of reasons. First, it doesn’t bode well for online privacy, even in situations where it might be considered essential, like political dissent. Second, Cohen will forever be publicly associated with the so-called “skank suit,” which is probably not what she intended when she set out to identify her antagonist.

Most of us have experienced Web discussions that get out of hand under cover of online pseudonyms or no identification at all. Studies call it “disinhibition.” More like the online equivalent of a barroom brawl. The barroom effect, however, is both good and bad. Anonymous discussions are far more likely to deteriorate into gossip, trivia, and worse. But, they tend to be livelier, more interesting, and more robust than those where real names are used. Bottom line, they’re more fun.

So, what to do? There are practical suggestions known to many of those who manage Web communities. In most cases, tight guidelines and effective moderation of online discussions help. Mandatory registration also tends to screen out the truly disruptive players. A club, it seems, is better than a mob. But, as the digital culture and technology increasingly push the limits of free expression, one thing is clear. On the Web, very little is secret, and no one is truly anonymous.