Public comments are a beautiful thing. They often influence the content we consume even before we decide to click and read. This is especially true in social media, where trending topics and flashing headlines constantly fight for our attention.

When we do come across content that piques our interest, it’s our natural urge to seek confirmation through social proof—“I have an opinion about this, but what do others think about it?” Again, comments have strong, subliminal role in reassuring the information we consume. On any social media platform, it is the discussion—the public reaction, the outstanding opinions—that draws and wins my attention.

Now apply this knowledge to social media marketing and community management. The ultimate goal in social is to foster engagement, spark discussion and promote reach, right? There are several ways to do this, but one peculiar method that’s been the source of my intrigue is publishing “controversial” content to encourage honest discussion. This blog will explore that intrigue.

Brand Controversy

When I say controversial, I’m not referring to the squabbles and dramas of our nation’s political parties or public figures (think Kim K. on Paper Mag). These are controversial topics, and social media is definitely a place you can find heated debates over these issues, but I’m talking about content that is controversial to your brand mission. Let me explain…

Say you’re managing the Facebook account of a brand that makes a product or offers a service. This brand is B2C (customer facing) and has reached the level of recognition to the point that users create their own content (user-generated) to review and judge the products and services you, as a marketer, are assigned to promote. This earned media can be any type of content—a personal blog, a review, a comment, a tweet or a video.

Not all of that user-generated content will align with your brand identity; in fact, some might be highly critical of your brand. However, it is often the highly opinionated, unpopular contribution that adds an outstanding “color” to an otherwise passive-positive community. When a fan, follower or customer generates controversy he or she also opens an opportunity for discussion and transparency.

For example, read some of the comments attached to this Facebook post from Canon.

[facebookpost https://www.facebook.com/CanonUSA/photos/a.136648476413746.34567.130901453655115/728316177246970/?type=1]

The comment section of this post was the only place the Canon community could discuss the product. Upon inspection, you’ll notice a mixture of enthusiasm, complaints and honest testimony.

Yet Canon does a great job on addressing concerns and, in doing so, joins the community discussion by addressing customer service issues. The comment thread also highlights valuable product concerns Canon can (and should) resolve internally.

This is the strange benefit of controversy in social media management. When negativey percolates in public posts, vaulable insight into PR and community sentiment becomes available.

Yes, community management best practices tell us to delete the haters and ban the trolls, but what about the middle ground? What about the blog, comment or video that is overwhelmingly positive, but in its honesty, addresses flaws and wants? This type of content, when properly curated (reused) into your social strategy, may be some of your most valuable pieces of content solely based on the discussion attached to it.

Why? Because the authenticity of peer-to-peer, user-generated content is more trustworthy than other forms of media, and therefore encourages honest contribution from its community.

Hmm… “honest contribution.” Doesn’t that sound ideal to a web user? Isn’t that what you and I are looking for when searching for a product or service? Then why do some brands neglect and hide criticism? Here’s a better question: Where does honesty fit into today’s marketing and PR model?

Selective Honesty

OK wait a second! It’s hard to equate honest opinion with valid insight, especially in the scroll-click-skim world of social (some people just read a headline and rage), but there has been extensive research on user-generated trust and the loyalty it produces.

A recent report from marketing startup Crowdtap and global research company Ipsos found user-generated content was 35 percent more memorable and up to 50 percent more trustworthy than other forms of traditional and sponsored media.

Here’s another example. This time, PocketNow reviews an update for the first Galaxy Gear smartwatch from Samsung on its YouTube channel.

Hypothetically, can you imagine Samsung sharing or reusing this review on its social media platforms? What about Android? The answer: Probably not. But if they were to share it, these companies could leverage the honesty of the third-party review, and in doing so, open the opportunity to address any misconceptions or questions presented by 1) the creator of the review, and 2) your followers who engage with the shared content.

It’s the transparency, and how the company handles that transparency, that proves to be beneficial in social media marketing.

Here’s another example of honesty in social media. It’s not related to marketing, but more so to social-news reporting (which some would consider the same thing). KUT, the Austin-based NPR affiliate, posted a story about a proposed golf course for Austin’s east side.


[facebookpost https://www.facebook.com/kutradio/posts/10152481674245920]


Did you read the swarm of unhappy comments? Yes, this piece of content was overwhelmingly perceived in a negative light, but the discussion it generated fueled passionate contributions and honest opinions. As a news entity, it’s not KUT’s responsibility to “address” negativity about the golf course, but if the aforementioned golf course were to share this same story to its branded social platforms, the opportunity to address any negativity and clarify concerns would be theirs for the taking.

Social is all about controlling your (or your brand’s) image. A sense of equilibrium sets in as we remember that although fans and followers have the ability to instantly broadcast their complaints, businesses have that same power to control and respond accordingly.

Final Thoughts

Trust. Authenticity. Transparency. Honesty. These are assurances we as digital natives are constantly looking for in the information we consume. So why not use the tools at our disposal (social media) to share with your audience that these are characteristics your brand stands for?

In life it’s the good, the bad and the ugly. In social media marketing its the same thing, but it doesn’t have to be! Remember, when a door shuts, a window opens. With diligent community management, controversy becames opportunity.

What do YOU think about the relationship of social media and public relations? When it comes to honesty and transparency, is there a line we shouldn’t cross? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Image credit: Vitaly Shchulkin