Online harassment as a 'weapon'

Gripe logeThis week, a new website launched - gri.pe - that is in my opinion a fine example of how organisations are forced to adapt to new ways of communication. The idea behind it is that people can use their online influence to resolve conflicts with local organisations. While this in itself is nothing new, Gripe adds an element that can have some interesting consequences for local organisations and clearly illustrates why Public Relations (online and offline) is so important:

Gripe basically works like this: when somebody has an issue with an organisation - for example in a store - he uses his smartphone to create what is called a "Gripe Card". On it, the user states the organisation's name, the complaint and - if possible - the name of the representative he is dealing with. He can then confront that person with the Gripe Card suggesting the organisation fixes the issue, in which case the user changes the 'gripe' into a 'cheer', applauding the organisation for the resolution. However, if the organisation does not resolve the issue, the user uploads the Gripe Card to the site, releasing it to (among others) the Twitter and Facebook network. Also, the people behind Gripe will sent an e-mail to the organisation, pressing for a solution to the problem. (I should note that I did not download the apps for Gripe, so I am reporting from what I learnt from their website.)

online harassmentHere is how Gripe describes it on their site:

"A gripe is a customer-report of a specific incident with a merchant. It contains details of the incident, along with photos and, many times, a specific demand from the customer about what needs to happen to resolve the situation and earn a cheer. Each gripe has its own unique tracking number and url and is designed to be shared and commented on via social media and to be forwarded to responsible merchants so it can be resolved. in fact, every gripe immediately spreads through the friends and followers of whoever started it and keeps spreading until it is resolved, at which time it becomes a cheer for all to see!"

The language may be nice, but in my opinion this is still a form of harassment. But no matter my opinion, the reality is that organisations will have to deal with sites like this. And as far as your image is concerned, it does not really matter if the 'gripe' was reasonable or not. Once posted it is out there for the world to notice.

The effect on organisations

The question of course is how to deal with websites like this. An organisation can not have a separate policy on how to deal with each and every website (or other entity) that might cause problems. And from time to time you will disappoint people or handle situations badly. That's just a part of running your organisation. However, if all the people in your organisation are aware of the fact that everything they say and do is Public Relations chances of encounters going wrong are greatly diminished.

In our "new world" almost everyone has access to a broadcast channel - so to speak. Be that YouTube, Twitter, Google Buzz or any other social site, people are able to reach potentially huge numbers with either their praise or criticism of your organisation. And with smartphones on the rise, they have access to it anywhere, any time. Sites like Gripe organise these channels to target specific situations, potentially increasing the reach and thus the influence (on their site they talk about Gripe as a "weapon"). The traditional ways of handling communication with the public do not apply any more in this reality.

Reassessing strategies

In the past century, communication strategies were largely centred around curated broadcast media: print at first, later radio and subsequently television were added to this. Today, many organisations still hold to this model. While it still has its uses, the situation has changed so drastically that this is no longer enough. That is why Public Relations should be a main strategic function within your organisation: every interaction with everybody you interact with (clients, employees, suppliers, etcetera) has an effect on the image the public has of your organisation and thus on your bottom line. Being pro-active in this area is already a requirement in today's connected world. This is more a matter of attitude through your entire organisation than it a matter of "campaigning". Is your organisation prepared for this reality?

If you have any questions or want advice on this matter, feel free to use the contact form to contact me directly or leave a comment below.

Update 13/10/2010

After publishing this article, I shared it on Google Buzz where a lively discussion took place in which Farhad Mohit, the CEO of Gri.pe made the following statement that I would like to share here as well:

  • Thanks for the great discussion... as founder and CEO of Gri.pe, let me add a few points:
    1. Our current ratio on the site is 52% Gripes, 48% Cheers.
    2. Gripe derives it's power from your actual reach and influence. You have to log in with your Facebook or Twitter account, meaning that the first people who will see your complaints are your friends, family and followers. That really reduces the chances of false / exaggerated claims. Who wants to be seen like a jerk in front of their friends.
    3. Note that if you create a fake Facebook or Twitter account just to file gripes, these will not be heard by anyone (fake accounts don't have friends or followers).
    4. Every gripe comes with a field "What can the business do to resolve this gripe and earn your cheer") When you put that upfront where the person knows it will be broadcast to all their friends, family and followers, they are likely to be quite conservative / reasonable in their demands. In fact, the number 1 "ask" right now to resolve a gripe is just a simple apology.
    5. Every resolved gripe becomes a shared publicly broadcast cheer (organic word-of-mouth praise) for the business. So, even if the company has to go as far as issuing a refund, in return they turn a net detractor into a net promoter who is helping them get more customers. The efficiency here is incredibly high... and a business can see upfront, that a gripe that has spread to 1,000,000 people will turn into a cheer to those same people! it's just aligning business interest with that of customer service and that is a good thing. The people who should be worried about this are the Brand Marketing agencies... who love to waste corporate resources to run huge campaigns that "proclaim the greatness of a business." We instead hope that companies will funnel some of those funds into making their customers happy, after which they earn positive word of mouth that is much much more valuable. Here is an article today on TC that covers this point.

    Again, thanks for your feedback and please keep it coming!
    Farhad Mohit
    CEO - Gri.pe

Much of Mr. Mohit's reaction was prompted by other remarks made in the discussion, but I think it still clearly conveys that Gri.pe is trying to genuinely solve a problem that a lot of people struggle with. It also reinforces my opinion that organisations need to anticipate initiatives like these. As I stated above: everything any member of an organisation says and does is Public Relations. In this respect, acting with integrity goes a long way.

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