Community management lessons from the Lonely Planet Facebook brouhaha

The sheer irony is that the photo that started it all looks so serene and peaceful!

This is how it started and degenerated, for the record.

I noticed Navdha Dhingra’s tweet last evening. This one:

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I was curious why Lonely Planet India deleted her comment and banned her. So I asked the question too, to them, on Facebook.

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And asked people to do so, on Twitter since they seem to have taken an antagonistic stand on people who were questioning them on credits.

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Another person – Harshdeep Singh – got his comment deleted and got banned too.

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Uh oh… this is clearly not going well. And this question on credits did not deserve such an extreme reaction, in my view.

No response this morning. So I asked them again.

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Then, finally, the page admin responded. Twice. The content posted indicated to me this: ‘Hey pal, stay off this. You don’t even own this pic, why ask and bother us?’. See for yourself. The focus was clearly on asking me who I was to ask them this question… what my interest was… as if nobody else besides the photographer (or his lawyer?) should be bothered with this at all.

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And then things went much, much worse. A person from the agency that handles the page for Lonely Planet, without disclosing that connection, started arguing with me, on both Twitter and Facebook. And added that despite heading Social@Ogilvy in India, I did not know about photography rights and usage. All I can say is that this is so not the point at this juncture.

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You did notice the ‘they’ tone, right? As if the person is just someone with an opinion of his own and just offering it.

And the same person also added something in all-caps that I decided to ignore because it was again so not the point.

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I’d assume all these could have been fully avoided if only Lonely Planet India had responded if they,
a. had permission to post that picture
b. mentioned that they can post it with no credit whatsoever to the photographer (perhaps citing some contract)
c. said a simple ‘sorry’ to the people whose comments they deleted and banned.

But, thankfully, it looks like good sense finally prevailed, a day later. They have added credit for the photographer + Getty Images. And they have also added a note apologizing. I’m glad we have some closure.

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Sounds good? Of course.

Lessons? Oh there are a few, primarily for community managers. This sounds like common sense to me, but it is perhaps worth spelling them out for those who may not be thinking on these lines.

1. Language skills are the most basic and primary qualification for a community manager

Imagine a person standing in the middle of the road. He has a brand’s logo on a banner next to him. People come and talk to him, ask him questions… he answers them, whenever he can, whoever he can. Some people poke him, abuse him, pass sarcastic remarks at him and so on. He has to keep his cool and address as many people as humanly possible with a sane, open mind, while maintaining the brand’s guidelines.

The same thing happens online. Just because we do not see the person managing the community, you cannot assume that anything goes. Every word posted online, every sentence framed will assume different meanings if not articulated unambiguously. So, a sentence like,

“We’re concerned whether this image is your work and you haven’t been given credit; that would explain your comment.”

…sounds good and functional on paper, but when read aloud, it screams, “Why are you even asking this question when you are not involved in any way at all?”.

Essential lesson: have people who are good with the primary language used in the community. Writing with clarity and purpose is absolutely the most basic requirement.

2. Disclose conflict of interest at the outset, so that people could decide whether they want to take your point seriously or not

The person from the agency that handles this page?who knows, he may be the community manager too, which makes it awkward because he would then have spoken to me from 2 different avatars!?assumed that he could support his/their own moves in responding to comments and questions by using his personal Facebook avatar. This is rather silly because finding connections is pretty easy these days – a simple name search on LinkedIn is easy enough. I have my connections and associated brands right upfront, in my Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. It’s all a search away for most people.

Once people find such connections, the arguments take a terrible, sinister tone. It sounds outright disingenuous.

The way out is to not indulge in such subterfuge. Or, disclose the connection and take on the questions openly and frankly.

3. Assess the need for engagement and the content for such engagement as accurately as possible

I asked just 3 simple questions to Lonely Planet India. Even assuming the worst case scenario?that they do not have rights to post the picture?a simple apology would have quashed all further outrage. It says that the brand/page is humble enough to acknowledge a mistake and is ready to move on. Mistakes happen… people are, well, people. They may be in the agency side or the client side and wrong calls are made in the heat of the moment. It happens. But how you pick up and move on is what matters.

Lonely Planet India, in my view, made a wrong call in questioning the credentials of people who were asking them a question. Instead of addressing the question, that is. This they did both indirectly (deleting comments, blocking people Twitter and Facebook) and directly (asking me quite directly). Double whammy!

4. Timing is everything!

The brouhaha was from last evening. The first response was this morning! That too, after asking them and badgering them again. They perhaps assumed that if there was reaction for 12+ hours, people would have forgotten the question and moved on. That is a possibility, and a possible course of action for many crisis situations too, but not in this case which involves artist credits, a particularly dicey topic on social media.

Taking a call to address the questions in a simple, transparent manner last evening/night would have completely ended any further outrage. Adding a line like, “I would recommend highlighting an issue, if any and waiting for us to respond” in an already pointless response, while posting other updates and reacting on other posts clearly says that the strategy was to ignore or stall the issue. It is pretty obvious to anyone who cares to spend 2 minutes on the page.

5. There is no shame in accepting a mistake. Really!

I have said this earlier – shit happens. Everybody makes mistakes. Brands are not perfect creatures from outer space. They are manned by people like us – you, me, everybody. We are all human. But, it is when humans behave like they are infallible angels that issues crop up. That’s when others noticing the behaviour feel that it is perhaps worth pointing the person’s fallibility, particularly when there is a legitimate and logical reason to do so.

I do understand legal issues in apologizing (to be handled very differently), but normal day-to-day issues like the one above deserve a simple apology, adding a credit to the photographer (a very decent practice given how important photographers are, for Lonely Planet, as a brand) and moving on.
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In my view, this issue was completely avoidable. Easily. Last evening. But, perhaps because of one person’s or one team’s poor judgement, it escalated unnecessarily, starting with the, ‘Who are you to ask us?’ tone. It’s a public page; people come there to engage with the brand. Brands cannot assume to control the narrative of who asks what. People will?and should?ask whatever they want, in a civil, polite tone. Brands have choices there – ignore questions they cannot answer in the hope that eventually people will stop asking them, or address as many as possible and win the trust and confidence of the community they are striving to build with so much effort.

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