I saw an interesting quotation this morning from a Social Media Club event in DC that focused on crisis communications: “Every negative attack is the start of a conversation.“ I’m not sure I agree.
“Conversation” is perhaps the hottest buzzword of Web 2.0 – your customers are having conversations, companies should participate in conversations, new media marketing is a conversation, if you’re not part of the conversation it’s happening without you, and so forth. Entire books have been written on the topic. Even I’m guilty of promoting this idea in the government space.
And conversations are fine. But is every negative attack truly the beginning of a conversation? Does every frown have the potential to be turned upside down? (And how does that scale?)
Having a conversation about some one’s negative reaction to your brand, company, government office, situation etc. is a nice strategy, but the concept of negative attacks leading to positive conversations is based on the assumption that people will always engage in rational discussions with you.
They don’t. Naivety, ideology, and stupidity are all common in society’s discourses. People make emotionally-fueled arguments all the time (this Fox News “discussion” about views on abortion and the President receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame isn’t a bad example). People often cling to strongly-held beliefs, even in the face of contradictory information, or data that oppose their views. Many conversations are irrational, or at best only partly rational. I would go so far as to say that partly rational discussions are the norm.
Economics is perhaps the field of study most heavily influenced by the finding that people behave irrationally. Traditional assumptions about economic behavior included participants in financial markets having perfect information and making rational choices related to adding value (i.e., obtaining money). But more recent research has shown that this is often not the case, and that this irrationality can spawn larger effects through complex systems.
Perhaps also with the field of communications. As hip as the concept of “communications as conversations” is, sometimes it’s best to not touch your detractors with a ten-foot pole. When peoples’ comments are irrational, when their views ignore available facts, when they’re too busy or too dumb or too angry to care what you have to say, a negative attack isn’t the start of a conversation. It’s the end of a relationship.