“You ask, they answer” was the header for the Guardian’s series, in which users can post questions in a real-time online forum. Recently lined up to answer the public’s questions was herbal health and beauty store, Neal’s Yard Remedies. So far, so good – until it, all went horribly wrong.
No doubt foreseeing some gentle questions along the lines of what homeopathic remedy to use for a mild headache, Neal’s Yard must have been shocked when the forum opened and they were flooded with comments and questions ranging from the mocking to the vitriolic. Who knows where these combined forces had mustered themselves, but it was a good reminder of how, online, like-minded people can gather and act in the blink of an eye. Woe betide anyone who genuinely wanted to know the exact dosages of this or that tincture: their question would be lost in the tide of accusations and ridicule.
Nor indeed, would it have been answered, because as soon became apparent, Neal’s Yard withdrew from the feature and declined to post responses to the comments, which began with questions such as: How do you validate the medical efficacy of your ‘remedies’? and What’s ethical about foam bath costing £39.15?.
24 hours after the forum opened, a Guardian moderator commented: Unfortunately, despite previous assurances that they would be participating in this blog post, I’ve now been told they ‘will not be taking part in the debate’.
Homeopathy, is, of course, a contentious subject: not everybody believes in its worth, as Neal’s Yard must be well aware. No-one can be sure quite what they were expecting from this feature, but there are certainly lessons for us all here. Perhaps Neal’s Yard should never have agreed to appear, but since they did, they should have participated. What is left in the Guardian archives, for all to see, are the views of their opposers, with no defense proffered? Perhaps Neal’s Yard feels that through silence they maintained their dignity, but I can’t help feeling that on this occasion, the detractors had the upper hand.
Your business may not be in quite such a contentious arena, but there is a lesson for all of us here. In social media, the clue is in the ‘social’ part of the term. Whatever its form: forum, blog, tweets or reviews, wade in, defend yourself if needs are, and don’t be aloof.