By Arun Sudhaman

Social media experts have hit back at claims that listening and responding to online consumer comment is “nothing short of outright spying”.

The contention was made by Privacy International director Simon Davies in a Daily Mail article that attacked BT for “trawling the internet looking for disgruntled customers.”

Davies added that the practice was “morally wrong”. The story also suggested that companies could be breaking data protection laws for contacting users without consent.

In digital PR circles, online monitoring is considered best practice, allowing companies to address consumer concerns quickly. 6Consulting co-founder Paul Taylor, whose company runs the popular Radian6 monitoring software, told the Holmes Report that companies “should not ignore an open complaint or compliment that is expressed by their customers, via social media channels.”

Added 6Consulting co-founder Matthew Brazil:

“We are seeing a pro-active customer service model, rather than a reactive model. This is being driven by customers who are calling for help, or need attention, in this medium. For many users of social media, it is the most convenient and accessible form of communication with large corporates, and it often gets quicker responses than traditional channels, such as call centres.”

Both Taylor and Brazil pointed out that when  information exists in the public domain, is not secret and password protected, it can be regarded as “open-source information.”

Virgin Media head of consumer media relations Asam Ahmad pointed out that his company uses social channels to “build brand warmth.” He said that while his company does “listen to conversations and mentions of our company”, it stops short of “following” customers, “so there is a clear understanding that our main purpose of contact is to resolve customers’ issues.”

Ahmad added:

“The privacy argument is an interesting one – given that consumers are posting comments in a public place, it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that brands are invading the privacy of their customers and in our experience proactively contacting customers through a channel such as Twitter has had nothing but positive results.”

Ahmad also pointed out that his company always advises customers to email with a full description of the issue, rather than inadvertantly risk posting account details in a public forum. “Ultimately, our strategy is dictated by how our customers want to engage with us.”

Another digital specialist – Ruder Finn digital strategies director Ged Carroll – said that concerns such as these were natural as social media became a normal part of people’s lives. Carroll noted that a number of issues, including behavioural advertising and Facebook settings, raise the issue of online privacy.

“There is no mailing preference yet for social media,” said Carroll. “Online PR will further need to adapt and evolve as societal norms in this space become established.”