Businesspeople and organizations are rethinking the concept of allowing comments on their websites. While interactivity has been one of the major goals of social media, they contend that the fallout from downright nasty verbal venom has gone too far and is destroying a constructive dialogue, despite efforts to use filters.

At one time, companies had shuttered their comments sections because they were too lazy or cheap to monitor or cultivate legitimate conversations. In some cases, they had thin skins and objected to criticisms which they claimed were cheap shots and unfair.

But now, even respected companies and nonprofits, such as venerable National Public Radio, discontinued its comments pages last August, saying, After much experimentation and discussion, we’ve concluded that the comment sections on npr.org stories are not providing a useful experience for the vast majority of our users.”

No matter that social media is now one of the most powerful tools for audience reaction and interaction. Before the comments were walled off completely, NPR listeners blasted the decision. And the ‘public’ in public radio goes away, except for the pleas for money,” one irate listener wrote.

Another criticism of comments sites is that they have been cliquish, inhabited by a few regulars who try to dominate the conversation. The result is that there is a false sense of the participating demographic vs. the actual composition of the brand user’s audience.

Companies use various techniques to deal with negative comments. One is to simply ignore them in the hope that the issue will fade away. Another is to delete the comment in the hope that not many had seen it, which, in some cases, leads to a bandwagon, piling-on effect. A third is to respond in a defensive tone. Another is to apologize in a halfhearted manner, and the fifth, and best, approach is to apologize and offer a solution.

When you think about it, this last approach makes perfectly logical sense, because if you had a customer in front of you, chances are you would not ignore him or her or simply walk away, or, worse treat the customer in a shoddy or condescending manner.

Many social media experts pan the lack of expertise that businesses nonprofits and governmental entities have in executing an effective online strategy, especially in dealing with the comments of customers, clients or residents. Social media consultant Thom Fox advises that if they are going to do social media, they need to dedicate personnel to monitor the site. They should also be human, he said. Interaction builds loyalty, and loyalty translates to action,” he said.

Adi Bittan, CEO of OwnerListens.com told business owners that customers are talking about them online, whether they like it or not. Customers assume and expect you to be monitoring,” she said. “If no one is listening or acknowledging customers’ posts, customers assume you don’t care.”

A business’s greatest fear and nightmare is the fake review that seems legitimate. Sites such as Google and Yelp use filters to try to weed out fake reviews, but as some business owners have learned the hard way, it doesn’t always work, and it winds up costing them their reputation, or at least a lot of anxiety trying to right the wrong. The other frustration is that some social media sites tend to accentuate the negative. We’re quick to criticize and slow to compliment.

While business owners take a fair share of lumps, there’s no comparison between the amount of abuse they take vs. that taken by politicians and local officials who are fair game 24/7.

When there are controversial local issues, social media overheats with nasty comments, sometimes even threats. That was the case with the proposed PennEast pipeline project that would run from the Wilkes-Barre to Trenton areas, including through parts of Carbon and Northampton counties. Some opponents posted veiled threats against company officials, municipal leaders and even some residents who voiced support for the project.

Another is the 37-unit wind turbine farm proposed for Penn Forest Township along the border with Towamensing Township.

In 2016’s most dramatic example of the power of grass roots activism, Nestle’s Waters NA withdrew its controversial application to extract water from a section of Eldred Township. Besides turning out en masse for numerous township meetings, furious residents used plain talk on social media to protest this unpopular project.

While all of this is serious business, sometimes well-placed humor can win the day. For example, a grocery chain in the United Kingdom responded to a critic who posted a remark saying that the chicken in his sandwich tasted like it was beaten to death by Hulk Hogan. Was it?” the reader asked.

The grocery’s public relations department responded: Really sorry it wasn’t up to scratch. We will replace Mr. Hogan with the Ultimate Warrior on our production line immediately.”

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com