When organisations commit reputation suicide

Fellow UK edu-blogger Doug Belshaw had the unusual experience of being censored last week. He had done a post back in May looking at various VLEs. In it he had compared them and made one provider, TALMOS, had come out unfavourably on some accounts.

Doug takes up the story:

The company whose VLE product I did’t rate very well threatened me (via my school) with legal proceedings. 

The upshot was that I felt it was in my best interests to remove the
‘offending’ paragraph so as to not cause difficulties within my school.
I replaced it with one that, in my eyes, was more damaging to the VLE
vendor: that they’d almost forced me to remove any criticism (however slight) by referring to ‘legal proceedings’ in their communication with my school

The point here is not whether Doug was right or not in his assessment, but that this is such a poor way to play the situation. When people talk about markets being conversations, they mean you talk to users and engage them in dialogue. A good response to Doug's post might have been something along the lines of "Sorry you didn't like it Doug, actually it does do what you want" or "We always welcome feedback, actually in the next update we're going to include that", or whatever. The aim is to engage the blogger (unless they're a nutter and are suggesting your software is made by sucking the souls out of children or something, but then no-one would listen to them anyway). It's a grown-up conversation we're having here, and threatening legal action is just not the way it's done. I'm always impressed when I blog about a piece of technology, good or bad, and get comments along the lines of the ones I've suggested, from the software company. It makes me well-disposed towards them, and likely to offer genuine feedback.

What the threat of legal action nearly always demonstrates is that those doing the threatening simply don't get it, they don't understand the nature of the online world and how you engage users, create mutually beneficial dialogue and generate good publicity. It's bad enough for any organisation to reveal this, but for a technology company it's reputation suicide. CEOs need to know when not to listen to lawyers.

Oh, and in case it's needed – these are my views not endorsed by any organisation I am associated with.


  • Doug Belshaw

    Thanks for the post, Martin. It’s a real shame that we’re being pretty much forced adding disclaimers like the one above on our blogs. It should be fairly obvious that it’s a personal opinion, shouldn’t it?
    TALMOS did get back to me (several times, actually) saying that they just wanted to discuss things. Threatening me with legal action and annoying one of our Assistant Heads by getting them to do the dirty work of TALMOS certainly didn’t make me feel inspired to help them make their product better…

  • Adam Joinson

    A similar thing happened to me about 10 years ago when I wrote something slating an early e-learning company (who are now defunct – they should’ha listened). I was over the moon to be threatened with legal action – I’ve always wanted to say ‘so sue me’ (I also managed to get ‘make my day’ into the response). A note saying that I would publicize the threat soon had the CEO on the phone ‘explaining’ that it was all a misunderstanding. By which time the publication that had put up the review had crumbled and withdrawn it (I put it on my website for a while with a note explaining what a bunch of ….ok, time to stop)…anyway, it’s funny how they just don’t get this whole reputation thing – see for instance the recent Metallica PR fiasco…

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