Considering Using a Pseudonym for Public Forums? It Just Isn’t Worth the Risk—Personally or Professionally

The spokesman for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker was “outed” last week and subsequently placed on paid administrative leave after using the pseudonym “WhiskeyPete” to post negative comments about the mayor’s opponents in the primary election.

Art Raymond told the Salt Lake Tribune that he made the comments to share his personal opinion during off personal time and that neither city employees nor Becker’s campaign knew about the comments or asked him to make them. But as an employee of Becker’s, and a well-known spokesperson for the city, the motives are questionable and potentially shady, especially without making his true identify public.

Public forums, especially on news sites, are full of anonymous posters using either “guest” or registered with pseudonyms. They likely feel more open to share unpopular opinions or argue points they might not be comfortable stating with their true identity, without fear of retaliation. While this strategy is understandable in personal situations, it’s illegal to use public funds for political purposes, as may have been the case in this recent scenario. In any case, it’s also unethical if the comments are connected to your place of work, and especially, as this situation demonstrates, aimed at harming or discrediting a competitor.

While Raymond likely thought his opinions were his own, and furthermore, that he would remain anonymous, being discovered is easier than you might believe. Here’s how the Salt Lake Tribune uncovered Raymond’s identity:

“We made this discovery innocently. A member of our online team reviewed one of his reader-flagged comments. When that happens, the commenter’s email address, used to register with our system, appears. In this case, the address was the commenter’s name, and our staffer recognized it as one and the same with the spokesman…”

“The online staffer, following his journalistic curiosity, then searched for other comments by the spokesman and for the user’s Internet Protocol, or IP, address. That’s when he found the bombs hurled at Becker’s opponents, sent from a Salt Lake City government address.”

The Tribune made the decision to publish the comments because “Readers, especially those who vote in Salt Lake City, needed to know about this.” Now, as previously mentioned, Raymond is on paid administrative leave as the city investigates, and the questions remain as to whether he was on the clock when posting—and if Becker and others on his team had any role in the comments. It’s a black mark for both, at least until the investigation is complete—but possibly much longer.

What’s the Alternative?

So how do you respond if there are negative posts being made about your company? While tempting, don’t respond to comments anonymously yourself—and don’t ask employees to post responses anonymously either. The comments won’t be as credible and depending on the forum and topic, could potentially be unethical.

Before any responses are made (under your own name, or your designated spokesperson’s), consider the following tips (as I outlined in an earlier blog post):

• Think Objectively: Decide how significant the issue is and the credibility of who is posting it. If the review or comment is posted in anger or facetiously or uses abusive language, or is similar to a post the poster has written about all of your competitors, it’s likely best to ignore it or have it removed, which is possible on most consumer review sites.

• Acknowledge the problem: Acknowledge the issue, apologize for the situation without taking blame (especially if you weren’t wrong), and ask for more details and/or how you can remedy the situation. Say you will investigate and find a solution, if appropriate. Ask to discuss privately, but consider that responding online shows readers you are taking care of the problem.

• Keep it Professional: Don’t argue or respond in an angry fashion. Don’t say they are wrong in a public forum, even if the problem was on their end.

• Consider a “Thank You:” Constructive feedback can be helpful since it can help make your business even better. If appropriate, thank them for taking time to comment so you can address the issue, especially if you didn’t know it had happened (or was happening) until reading the review.

• Recommend Happy Customers Comment too: Don’t try to flood your social media with positive reviews, especially the inauthentic, but give customers who love your product or service an easy way to post their thoughts. For example, if you’ve received a positive email from a customer or had a positive conversation with them, respond with a link to your social media so they can log on and post their positive thoughts while they are fresh in their mind.

How have you handled negative comments in public forums? Has it helped? Have you ever responded anonymously—or under a pseudonym for your company or organization?

If you aren’t comfortable sharing using your real name, feel free to use a pseudonym. Oh wait…

—PRmomto4 (aka Kelly Wanlass)