Time and time again, I'm asked about negative comments that "might" appear if a company launches a social media initiative. While I certainly understand the motivation behind the question, it also shows a misunderstanding of the way the paradigm has shifted.
Trouble is, there are people who have a negative view about your company or organization. They may be misinformed or - worse still - they may be right, but they are out there. That is an undeniable fact. They will express those views somewhere, even if you're paranoid enough to moderate all negativity out of your content. And their postings will surface in search engines regardless; my (instinctive) feel is that these will rank higher than your own given the passion associated with negative emotions.
If we think about Jeremiah Owyang and rest of the Groundswell team's very clever structure of objectives (in this post), we learn that the first step in the action hierarchy for social media is listening. As mature people, we all know that the first step towards a real relationship is the willingness to hear other opinions and acknowledge the other person as having a valid perspective. Same goes for social media. After all, it's all about people.
In my experience, companies that acknowledge negative comment and take sincere steps to deal with it almost always experience a fall in negative advocacy and a rise in trust across the community. One blog zone in my company got an almost 200% fall in negative "noise" and considerable gains in positive advocacy just by responding in an open and transparent way to people with concerns.
Of course, you need rules - no offensive comment, equal air time, etc - but my experience is that the community will police itself once you establish a fair playing field. And that gives you the chance to listen in and join the conversation ... a conversation that is likely happening already.
Of course, you could ignore negative comment like Sony did with its exploding laptop batteries. Or pay for comment like Wal-Mart was accused of. But for me, these are not positive brand-building strategies.
Thought for the Day: Maybe listening to people is a good way to understand how your customers perceive your brand, as opposed to how you perceive your brand.