"It's quietâtoo quiet;" with a digression into online social media

Other people are doing NPG vs. CDL link roundups better than I am, so I'll limit myself to a few links:

Official press-release salvos have ceased for now; I can only assume that heavy-duty negotiation is going on behind the scenes. I'm well content with the last public word being CDL's. It's quiet—very quiet.

In the meantime, NPG is leaving boilerplate comments on blogs that have discussed the matter. Two such comments have appeared here on Book of Trogool, apparently left by different NPG employees. Their substance is identical.

Boilerplate comment shellack is a poor substitute for genuine engagement with online critics. (I note with raised eyebrow that even NPG's official Twitter news outlet is avoiding this contretemps aside from bare news tweets.) Fair warning, NPG: any more boilerplate comments, like or unlike the previous two, will be deleted as spam as soon as I see them. Also, I have removed the link to your press release that your second commenter left as your URL, not wishing to give it any more Googlejuice, and I recommend that my fellow bloggers do likewise. If your employees wish to engage here, responsively, as human individuals with human rather than corporate voices, I welcome that.

Now, this is not the worst reaction NPG could have, not by a long shot. At last count, I know three library/higher-ed bloggers who have had their work supervisors contacted by vendors over posts critical of the vendors on non-work blogs. (Just to eliminate any potential confusion, I myself am not one of the three. Also, I will not identify or link to any of them; one wrote me via a private Twitter feed, and given the sensitivity of this issue, I don't feel comfortable identifying the others.) I shouldn't wonder if the count were much higher. I congratulate NPG for not being stupid enough to do this… and I hereby leave NPG be for the nonce, to talk more about vendors and online social media generally.

I shan't argue that going up a blogger's chain-of-command behind the scenes is meanly vindictive, though it is; vendettas are anything but unusual either online or in the Just Bidness crowd. I argue, as I did at UKSG 2010, that doing it is bad tactics, liable to backfire.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that this isn't a blogger easily ignored—not rabid, not penny-ante—and the issue at hand is substantive, not contentless. Let's also leave the "who's right?" question off the table; disagreements are normal, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle, and all that good philosophy and sociology stuff. Let's just follow what happens when our vendor goes up the chain.

The first thing that happens is that word gets around. Perhaps the blogger is too intimidated to blog the contretemps himself; that doesn't mean he doesn't tell ten, a hundred, or a thousand of his closest professional friends via Twitter or Facebook. That's a lot of people who now have a personal bone to pick with our vendor.

The next thing that may happen is that someone who isn't the original blogger blogs the contretemps—I've seen this! How many more people are now angry at our vendor, over and above those who are upset over whatever was being blogged about? Was it worth it? Truly?

The next thing that happens at most workplaces (and all intelligent workplaces) in libraryland and higher-ed-land is that the supervisor does nothing to her blogger employee. No reprimand on file, no punitive action, nothing. Leaving aside that libraries are vendors' clients and usually not under any obligation to hush a problem up for a vendor's sole benefit, libraries and universities are not run as straitly as businesses. For most, freedom of expression (especially off the clock) is a major professional value; others recognize the tactical outreach value of bloggers saying openly what the strictures on official institutional communication organs might otherwise forbid. In many cases, in fact, the supervisor (who may wield budget power, let's not forget) will herself become displeased with the vendor: for trying to scare her employee, for wasting her time, and for whatever the problem is, as likely as not. How's this tactic looking now?

And finally, if this happens often enough (and it may only take once), the vendor attaches the adjectives "secretive," "manipulative," and "retaliatory" to its brand in the general consciousness. I'm guessing this is not ideal, especially if negotiation and reputation for fair dealing are a major aspect of sales.

Note what does not happen in most (though admittedly not all) cases of vendor-blogger conflict I know of: the critical blog post does not come down. Vendors, you do not and cannot control the conversation about you any more, if you ever did, and you cannot stop that conversation going public on the Web, as many conversations have. You can, if you choose, participate in the conversation, but note well that this is an open conversation. There's no way I'm aware of to participate in an open conversation privately. This doesn't stop people from trying, of course, but I don't know of any successes.

Well, but look, says our vendor, I'm only trying to repair a troubled client relationship here! Fine, but you're going about it the wrong way. The gold standard is public participation in the conversation, but if you can't bring yourself to do that, the way to proceed is to contact the blogger out-of-band first. If you and the blogger can reach a mutually beneficial arrangement, the blogger will rehabilitate your brand all by himself by posting something about your fantastic service. If the blogger isn't the right person to resolve the problem, he will (if he thinks it worthwhile) point you to the right person himself, and will not think any the worse of you for it.

Finally, if you don't have any way to resolve the problem, and you are pretty sure you'll lose if you engage about it publicly, the right thing to do is clam up. Anything else makes the black eye you're suffering worse.

My advice is worth what you're paying for it. As for NPG, comment spam is the least of their worries just now, but that doesn't at all mean they are improving their situation by engaging in it.

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