The Guardian Ethical Blog started running a new series in March, called “You ask, they answer”. The idea is that they will highlight a big company in a post, readers then leave their questions in the comments and they’ll be answered over the following week by the company. It’s a nice idea, having a regular feature helps keep the blog ticking along and it also actively encourages reader participation. It’s also very handy way of the companies in question to dip their toe in the blogosphere without too much effort.
The series started well with green cleaning product company Ecover, comments started at about 10am and a representative from the company spent two hours later that day answering the various points with lengthy replies. This continued for the next four days. Howies, the organic clothing company was next up, and again did a reasonable job. A few more followed in the same vein including Abel and Cole and Divine Chocolate, mainly receiving a good number of questions and responding well.
Yesterday, it was the turn of Neal’s Yard Remedies who received a record number of comments, well over 200 compared to 84 on the Howies post, but unfortunately it didn’t respond to a single one. Not a peep, squeek or yogic chant was to be heard. I should mention at this point that all the other companies involved so far have received rather tough questions. Able and Cole was quizzed on its new delivery charge, Divine Chocolate on why it’s not organic and Howies got grilled on pricing. Admittedly the questions for Neal’s Yard were slightly more pointed from the start and tended to concentrate on the claims they make for their remedies.
This example was the very first comment.
This is your chance to grill them: from the controversy surrounding the chain’s removal of a homeopathic malaria remedy to the benefits and reasons to switch to organic beauty products.
How do you validate the medical efficacy of your ‘remedies’?
26 May 09, 1:06pm
And they only got more detailed.
Your website states:
The correct homoeopathic remedy will stimulate a sick person’s vitality to send healing energy where it is needed, thus rectifying mental, emotional and physical imbalances.
Could you please explain how the ‘correct homoeopathic remedy’ is decided on and describe the qualifications of the people who make these decisions?
I’d also be grateful for a biological definition of ‘healing energy’ and an indication of where I can find the scientific evidence for its existence.
26 May 09, 6:33pm
Readers then started getting annoyed that they weren’t being answered, leading to one to ponder:
Are they not answering because (a) they were expecting questions about skincare products and have gone in the huff or (b) someone’s just told them about the Enlightenment and they’re having personal crises all over the shop?
I was picturing two grumpy hippies pacing around Covent Garden, one saying to the other, ‘what the f*** did you agree to this for?’
26 May 09, 7:34pm
Comments were left over a 26 hour period, with nary a reply from Neal’s Yard. The Guardian moderator did a couple of updates promising that Neal’s Yard was working on replies during the first day, but then had to reveal that the company ‘will not be taking part in the debate’. The thread comment was closed, though not before some mentioned that they had updated the Neal’s Yard Remedies wikipedia article and someone else mentioned that negative posts were being deleted from the company’s Facebook page.
For the Guardian, this is not necessarily a bad thing, they produced a follow up post, follow up post on the PR u-turn, and the blogosphere has predictably lapped it up (see this post here for clear example). For Neal’s Yard it is a pretty bad thing and something that could easily have been avoided. As mentioned above, none of the companies taking part were given particularly easy rides yet I’d wager that every topic brought up was one that they were already aware of as a potential weakness and so they should have already been well prepared to respond. After being investigated by the BBC News for claims about its anti-malarial remedy and the stance taken by the Guardian’s own Ben Goldacre who has written several articles on homeopathy.
Basically they should have known in advance that not only were they not playing to the choir, but that their audience was educated, skeptical and web savvy. They should also have already been very much aware of and prepared for every possible critique of their area of expertise and it’s a shame they didn’t as it can be so easily done. As we keep banging on about her at PN Towers, the best bit about the explosion of conversation online is that you can listen and hear the good and the bad and respond accordingly. Not responding is no longer an option.
Also posted on Clicking and Screaming