Decorum Byte: Don’t be Negative; Practice Positive PR 2.0

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“I tend to keep [social media interactions] open and neutral.… As I represent a global brand it is vitally important that I ‘keep my nose clean’ at all times.” David Graham, Deloitte South Africa

I first “met” David Graham in a Twitter chat; I think perhaps it was the Harvard Business Review’s #hbrchat. His positive and friendly manner impressed me, plus his focus on Deloitte’s goals and objectives in the right “fly zone” (per last month’s Profile Byte).

His Twitter bio could be a template for best practices in social business:

Digital Channels Exec at Deloitte SA responsible for connecting and initiating dialogue between Deloitte subject-matter specialists and business decision makers.

It is clear “brand champion” David Graham understands he’s practising PR2.0 in a competitive, regulated industry and sector. I’m sure Deloitte’s global C-suite is happy with its digital channels executive, who demonstrates Goldilocks character and personality—plus decorum—in “just right” amounts.

In a Google+ discussion, David indicated,

“I use Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ [for business]. I find levels vary, depending on the subject matter and audience you choose to share it with or seed a discussion.

I focus primarily on LinkedIn to enter into online dialogue with our target market and clients (i.e., business decision-makers), and Twitter and Google+ for sharing information with the media, having social-media-related conversations with many of the social influencers I have met, and general local and global eminence building.”

As social business revolves around human interactions, the right hiring decisions for brand representatives (in-house, agency or consultant) are vital. History demonstrates footprints of individuals may have more impact than the corporations that employ them—digital is no different. If anything, it enhances this PR2.0 reality as there are a lot more non-erasable digital footprints that have reputation influence originating from a single enterprise.

Is the digital energy and reputational footprint you leave travelling around the interwebs decorous?

In our G+ discussion about the “tone” around various social media sites, gracious American PR consultant, Karen Swim weighed in:

“What an interesting discussion and I wholeheartedly agree each network has a distinctive vibe. I believe initially it was the early users/network developers that set the tone….in the early days of Twitter no one had thousands of followers. We all interacted with everyone daily and it was like an underground network. It was chit chat about the mundane and we were taking our lead from the founders. By contrast, G+ was initially unveiled to big brands, savvy about social media marketing. Right out of the box the ‘instructions’ seemed to favor a business, neutral approach.

As for Switzerland, the strategy has worked for me. I try to remain open, inviting both sides to engage respectfully. I have opinions and share them but always with respect. It’s not worth it to get into a virtual shouting match that burns a bridge you may one day need to cross.”

I asked Neal Schaffer about his personal motto and sense of decorum:

“’You are what you tweet.’ If you only post the negative, you will lose your following.

Not to say that you have to be positive all of the time, but if social media is about the convergence of information and communication, I try to keep the communication as close to 100 percent positive as possible, while maybe having information at 90 percent positive and 10 percent negative—but the negative is mainly curated content that is shared for the purpose of education.”

The HR/Facebook imbroglio and other digital footprints

North American media broke the news that some companies were demanding Facebook usernames and passwords from candidates during job interviews. Although shocking regarding privacy issues, perhaps it’s not that surprising. It’s indicative of corporations recognizing the impact of social media in terms of mitigation of risks and resources when it comes to new hires (i.e., a proactive PR2.0 strategy).

Probably various legislation will curtail this practice. On the other hand, if conducting reconnaissance to root out indecorous behaviours, HR has public options to explore via Internet search engines and alerts.

Besides (public) Facebook updates/Likes/photo tags, digital footprints emanate from:

  • LinkedIn public account updates and/or Group discussions
  • tweets—general updates and Twitter chat participation
  • authored blog posts and website articles
  • comments on blogs, including Likes given to comments by others
  • Google+ posts and shares, including +1s
  • Google+ comments, including +1s given to comments by others
  • YouTube videos and/or comments
  • comments on media sites
  • Pinterest “pin” choices and comments

Blog post comments, Facebook Likes and Google+ posts/comments +1s, demonstrate a person’s point of view and behaviour. Much can be gleaned through these secondary digital footprints.

Most digital footprints of social business representatives are innocuous, but others indicate when individuals express—or demonstrate approval of—negative opinions (i.e., a bullying or pile-on aspect) towards organizations or individuals. This is particularly true when commentary exists in in a “filter bubble” of “opinionating.” To paraphrase Neal Schaffer, not only are you what you tweet, but what you blog, comment, Like or +1.


I’m dismayed by the mean-spirited thoughts and indecorous behaviours some PR practitioners, marketers, book authors, etc., exhibit in their digital footprints. A few times I’ve been at the receiving end, either directly or by obvious insinuation. I remember every single incident as well as the names of the perpetrators. I’ve quietly shared a few with people in positions of authority when asked about vendors, startups or consultant recommendations.

I queried Neal Schaffer: “Is your opinion of a social business impacted if you see an employee or consultant expressing negative sentiments against other organizations or individuals? Would it give you pause about affiliating with them in future?” He responded: “Yes. Organizations need to always be positive with the public and never burn bridges. Period. When public complaints need to be made, they should be neutral, rational, and objective in tone—not negative.”

In the words of decorous, much-respected Solo PR (and Solo PR Pro) founder, Kellye Crane,

“Being controversial often generates attention, but unless it’s an emperor-has-no-clothes situation it’s not very lasting.

I actually think there are plenty of positive blogs, but the negative viewpoints get more than their fair share of attention (which is what leads some to engage in that as a practice). Let me note that some of the negative commentary is designed to attract links for SEO.

Overall, I think most clients want to work with positive people. They’re human beings first, after all. Some people are cranky for cranky’s sake—it may result in book deals, but probably not a lot of clients.”

Eight months of reflection

An extract from a July 2011 interview with Arthur Yann, vice-president of PRSA: “As public relations professionals, we’ve come to realize (sadly) that the speed, tenor and stridency of social media communications have come to count more than depth, balance, facts and expertise.”

I wonder if this insight prepared Arthur Yann for the indecorous backlash PRSA’s crowdsourced #PRDefined initiative received from some individuals.

As David Rickey wrote in Embracing Change: Reactions to the New Definition of Public Relations: “Sure, there are some who criticize. That’s fine. In fact, we expected a diversity of opinion, regarding the initiative itself and its outcome. Or, as Stuart Elliot wryly put it in his New York Times column announcing the new definition, there was no “small amount of sniping, snide commentary and second-guessing.

Would you want your blog post or comment identified by a New York Times journalist in this manner?

Contacting Arthur Yann for current thoughts on the civility—or not—of online discourse (and its potential impact on business reputation), this decorous response was received:

“I think it was Byron who said, ‘Believe in all that’s false before you trust in critics.’ Although it’s likely he was commenting on the cultural critics of his day, the same sentiment rings true in business—bricks-and-mortar or digital.

I’ve always been taught never to criticize my competition. Not only does such negativity reflect poorly on the critic and his or her credibility, it’s a lost opportunity to talk about yourself and what differentiates you. On the surface, seeing such criticism might not immediately impact my opinion of a business, but it most certainly would impact my opinion of the source, assuming you can separate the two.”


Are there any exceptions? Once again I sought out Neal Schaffer’s opinion:

“I really try to avoid negativity in social media, but there have been a few times I have done so.

When analyzing when and why I do this, I would say they are either for:

1. Educational purposes.
2. When I get a feeling that I have exhausted all other available channels and it is my last option.

Consumers feel empowered by social media and I am no different. However, when said organization tries to amend the situation through the same social media, I try to go out of my way to congratulate them on their effort through the same social channels.” decorum and PR2.0

Despite the profile and possibilities offered by PR2.0 channels, most social businesses and their PR and marketing reps still aspire for third-party endorsement in traditional media.

I’ve had a long-standing and fruitful relationship with Brian Pittman, content director and partner,

I was an early subscriber when Brian Pittman and his partners (Fay Shapiro, Todd Fabacher and Bruce Merchant) introduced the online publication—mainly because I’ve found Brian to be a positive and encouraging editor with whom to cultivate a relationship. (Supportive of PR Conversations for years, he now regularly includes posts from Windmill Networking into the daily Top Blogs selection.)

As “feels” like a positive and decorous industry publication, I asked Brian if this involved deliberate editorial choices. He responded,

“I tend to focus on what’s timely, trending and tips-worthy. I am a service journalist at heart and want to spotlight both what’s new (i.e., news, whether negative or positive) and what’s working (i.e., tips, techniques, tools and best practices others can use to improve their businesses and integrated marketing, communications, PR, etc.).

One of the better ways to spotlight best practices is to seek out positive—or better, instructive—stories, because they spotlight what’s working as opposed to what’s not working. That said, crisis communications-related stories will often, almost always in fact, come across as being positioned negatively—and does run quite a few crisis PR/communications-related items.

Beyond that, I believe that if a story isn’t hard-news oriented, there are generally two ways to position it for readers:

One is highlighting the opportunity or benefit they will receive by reading it (that’s a positive angle/lead/slant). I prefer this to leveraging—as many in advertising or old-school direct marketing copy writing do—the “fear and greed” hook/angle/approach.”’s mission is to help its readers:


And that appears to be an equally great PR2.0 mantra to adopt as an ending to this Decorum Byte.

Judy Gombita
This monthly Social Media and Public Relations column is contributed by Judy Gombita. Judy is a Toronto-based public relations and communication management specialist, with more than 20 years of employment and executive-level volunteer board experience, primarily in the financial and lifelong learning nonprofit sectors. She is the co-editor and Canadian contributor (since 2007) to the international, collaborative blog, PR Conversations. +Judy Gombita
Judy Gombita


Sr/hybrid (social) public relations & communication management strategist. Mindful curation @PRConversations. Heart: travel, film, theatre, opera, books & food.
By @michaelblanding for @NiemanReports: The Value of Slow Journalism in the Age of Instant Information - 4 hours ago
Judy Gombita


  1. KarenSwim says

    Judy, this is a very insightful piece and caused me to further reflect on digital communication strategies. The overarching sentiment seems to call for balance. Expressing a contrary opinion, or responding to negative news is sometimes warranted but we should always do so from a foundation of manners and respect. In other words, use common sense with communicating to the masses. Thanks for including me in this post, I am honored!

    • says

      I just Like’d your comment to show how much I approve of it, Karen! :-)

      I think one of the problems that happens in the social media sphere is that public relations practitioners (or any other similar industry group) tend to talk mainly to one another, in a more “informal” capacity. But the same is not true in your daily in-house job or working with clients: in that case you are talking to the organization’s management and other staff, plus the various stakeholders and publics.

      The level of discourse online should be similar to that of the bricks-and-mortar enterprise. Part of the problem is confusing a type of communication channel with entirely different normative behaviour regarding communications.

      You earned your subject-expert place in this post, Karen. Particularly because I have never seen you exhibit any type of online behaviour other than what you described in our G+ discussion. You are the Queen of Decorum.

  2. says

    Really good content.  But what about those who say that being negative or argumentative attracts attention?  I think this is especially true in politics. Most everyone says they don’t like negative campaigning but it seems to work in polls and elections.  How does that fit in to what you are talking about here? 

    • says

      Thanks for the props, Gentleman Joe.

      I understand what you are saying. We have this strange situation in Canada where the majority Conservative party is currently running an attack ad on television against the THIRD party, INTERIM leader of the Liberals. It’s very odd, because there won’t be an election for at least three years.

      But what I’d like you to do is separate the politician from the equation (as he or she really has a separate task at hand regarding online profile and reputation). What I’m talking about here is the  “press secretary” or other members of the communication team (or any other department for that matter). If they are going around the interwebs seeding indecorous behaviour…the possibility is that it is going to emanate back to the politician and make him or her look worse.

      I think public relations/communications people who work for politicians probably have to keep their online noses even cleaner than David Graham!

  3. says

    Judy, I learned early on in my PR career to never, ever diss the competition when pitching news media.  It made perfect sense.  Now that we are marketing clients and companies PLUS our personal brands, your topic is especially timely and important.  I can only think of one potential way to possibly leverage negativity — that’s when the outcome delivers a tangible benefit to everyone.  In response to Joseph’s prior comment, political PR is a completely different animal.  The product is a person; the deliverable is a vote. The negative sell is part of the playbook.  Companies with products or services to sell have to worry about brand identity which has a much longer shelf life than a political term of office.

    • says

      Thanks, Joel. I know what you mean. I was really pleased when PRSA’s Arthur Yann introduced the “don’t diss the competition” maxim in his response to my question.

      I’m intrigued by your “when the outcome delivers a tangible benefit to everyone” remark (about making use of negativity), but I’m wracking my brains trying to think of an example where that worked. Did you have something in mind?

      • says

         Perfect recent example is the recent dustup over the crowd-sourced new PR definition.  There were posts that took hard-hitting views on PRSA’s approach and the final winner, yet offered alternatives and options which were useful and actionable. In that way negativity on an attempt to craft a singular definition resulted in valuable suggestions for other ways professionals can describe/promote PR to business and the general public (and as was noted in several posts, “publics” is not a word).

  4. says

    Fantastic read, Judy. It’s amazing how much of our industry, when dealing with other organizations or people, boils down to The Golden Rule. If you are treating others with dignity, respect, and a positive attitude, it will be returned. Not everyone can be positive 100% of the time, but that’s not the point. If people have the perception that you (or your organization) are (is) kind, open, and customer-centric, you have quite a bit of “social capital” to pull from. 

    Again, wonderful article! Really enjoyed the read.

    • says

      Thanks, Matt. I hadn’t thought of The Golden Rule (perhaps because I use Goldilocks as the measurement!), but that definitely works.

      Often you can “undo” the negative perceptions but it’s one heck of a lot of work (blood, sweat and probably tears). Far better to bank the social capital from the get-go.

      One of the cool things I’ve come to realize since this article published (at 7:05 a.m.) this morning is how many people I interact with in social media on a regular basis really do “get” the importance of decorum and respect.

      “See” you in the Twitter chats!

  5. ElliStGeorgeGodfrey says

    Judy, this post really breaks down the thinking behind why using manners and remembering that we create an image by how we interact and broadcast.  I guess the tough part is when we’re using a platform like Facebook and think we’ve created a private place for ourselves. My rule of thumb is that if I won’t say it to your face, I’m not tweeting, posting or sharing it. It may not feel like it but there is a real person at the other side of that user name. 

  6. says

    I must admit I didn’t find a lot of useful alternatives and options in the vast majority of blog posts. Well, except for on PR Conversations (I may be biased) where Terry Flynn’s guest post demonstrated almost universal “civil discourse” and/or more than 100 comments, including from PR theorist Jim Grunig, which was quite the coup.

    I also commented a bit more thoroughly on my colleague Heather Yaxley’s post about the tenor of and reason for much of the response. See here:

  7. says

    Exactly right, Elli! That’s why I suggested to Karen Swim that we all have to understand that “normative behavour” in social media should not really be that different than offline.

    I think one of the reasons I enjoy participating in #kaizenbiz (formerly #kaizenblog) is because of how civilized and friendly is the discourse…big brains thought, yet with a lot of fun and warmth. So congratulations on creating that special Twitter chat space.

  8. says

    Looks like I missed a good chat. I’m in the Neal Schaffer camp: I tend to share mostly helpful, positive information; and when I do go ‘negative’ it’s with reason – and the intention of sharing an example from which others can learn. People make mistakes, problems occur, opinions will differ; so it’s what you do next that matters most. 

    Like Kellye mentioned, negative may get notoriety and links and RTs, but it’s not always best for business. Discussed this w/ folks before, know I’m just not comfortable with controversy – and certainly not for controversy’s sake. I’ll take on an issue or practice, and hopefully do so in a fun, educational way that gets people thinking and learning in ways to help their business. FWIW.

    • says

      Thanks for weighing in, Davina. I do know that you are a strong believer in the “lessons learned” scenario. More than anything what I’m trying to get across is that there is our primary digital footprints–blogs being one of the best examples–and than there is our secondary digital footprints.

      So, even if we only partially agree with something that could be construed as “negative” or we’re giving it a Like or +1 because we feel the point of view was “well argued,” the way it comes across to the casual observer (or HR person or potential client) is that this individual 100 per cent supports that POV.

      That’s why I say it’s best to err on the side of caution (or neutrality), whether the primary or secondary footprints. Or at least 90 percent of the time, per Neal’s mathematics.

      • says

        Secondary footprints matter, absolutely. I almost always qualify my RTs and shares w/ commentary – at least as much as 140 characters allow; I’ll go so far as to rewrite a headline or include ‘my comments says why I disagree’ or add a popup warning. 

        That said – and I realize I’m probably not a ‘casual’ observer – I take things at face value. It’s networking and social media and everyone has their own motivations and approaches; different points of view. Hopefully my digital footprint reflects that, and is a mixed bag of informative, educational, thought-provoking, fun, silly, friendly, positive, negative, neutral, Geaux Tigers and anything else.

        I get what you and Neal are saying about “we are what we tweet” .. and blog, pin and +1. True that, I agree. I guess what I’m saying is – for me – I am much more than just the sum of my tweets and likes and shares. And if an HR or client isn’t going to look at the whole, then they’re probably not right for me, I’m probably not the best fit for them. Different strokes.

        • says

          The thing to keep in mind, Davina (and as I commented on Joel Don’s Google+ share on this Decorum Byte to a marketer who was all for “controversial” blog posts and comments): I don’t write this column for public relations practitioners (at least not as a primary audience); it’s written for (social) business leaders.

          • says

            Exactly. Not everything is meant for everyone, every time, to indicate that we agree with every word 110%. We all write, post share for different audiences, for different reasons; and I’m still finding my audience(s), trying to grow it in a few directions.

            Which BTW, is why I appreciate that you put it this way: “(social) business leaders.” I had stopped typing, but wanted to add that this matters only to those to whom this matters – those of us that are social for business. I still meet business owners who aren’t; they just want to make their business succeed. I’m still trying to find ways to reach them, those like them, who may not be ‘social’ but they do want/need help, ask Google to tell them about ways to improve their businesses. Work in progress, as always.

          • says

            Pointer to extract from Neal Schaffer’s Monday post:

            4) This is a Business Blog, Not a Personal Blog

            Sure, I sometimes blog about personal issues, but all with the perspective of trying to provide some insight into how businesses can utilize social media for the better. This means that the objective of this blog is to provide insightful content for businesses, not people.

            Your remembering the contributors of this blog as experts in their industry – and contacting us when you need our help from a consulting, coaching, or speaking perspective – is the end objective of this blog, not how many comments we get. This isn’t to say that we don’t like people nor want to build a “community,” but our receiving commercial inquiries as a result of our blogging is undoubtedly the best compliment we could get.  And guess what?  People and businesses who contact us for commercial opportunities never comment!

  9. says

    Interestingly, one of my Twitter mates RT’d this scary post about an Ontario director of software development who just resigned his position, because he was–on the directive of HR–asking job candidates to look at their Facebook accounts. “Privacy is like an alternative religion in Canada,” so some of the candidates’ responses really aren’t surprising.

    I hereby resign

  10. says

    Well, it turns out that “I hereby resign” was a “fictional” scenario by Reginald Scott Braithwaite. (Although I do believe he meant everything from a philosophical point of view.)

    See: Everything’s Made Up and The Points Don’t Matter

    In my tweet about this second post I commented he should have posted it on April 1st….

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