August 26, 2008

Protect Your Image on the Digital Highway: 7 Tips & No-Cost Tools to Prevent a PR Nightmare

SUMMARY: Getting slammed by a customer online – for the whole Web to see – can turn into a PR nightmare. So it’s vital to your company’s image to pay attention to complaints.

Find out what your customers and critics are saying about your company and how to fight negative PR. Includes 7 tips from a reputation expert and links to no-cost tools for monitoring your company’s image.
The digital highway is a two-way street. Your customers can reach out as easily as you can. And what they say about your company online can have a profound impact on your image.

The Internet affects every company’s reputation. Some companies are cheered as champions of innovation. Others become synonymous with bad customer service. It’s your responsibility to monitor what people are saying about your company and respond when necessary to keep your image in high standing.

Monitoring your company’s image has benefits beyond nipping bad PR in the bud, says Andy Beal, Co-author, 'Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online'. You can also uncover:

o Product research: Customer likes and dislikes about your company; features to include in your next launch
o Competitive insights: Complaints about your competition; opportunities to move in
o Ways to improve customer service
o Ways to cut costs by addressing bad press early

“[The Web is] the world’s biggest market research pool that you can tap into,” Beal says.

Monitoring discussions is only part of reputation management. You need to know how to respond, too. Discover Beal’s seven tips to carefully respond to attacks, prevent crises and gauge the importance of a complaint.

Seven Tips to Find and Fight Negative Commentary

Tip #1: Perform an honest self-analysis

Major reputation crises don’t just happen. They’re often caused by company weaknesses that get amplified and exposed.

Let the mishap serve as a lesson

Beal cites the 2005 Jeff Jarvis versus Dell explosion as an example. Jarvis, a popular media blogger, continually blogged about his problems with getting his new Dell laptop fixed. The posts were tirades denouncing the company and its customer service. He sprinkled them with blunt statements: “The machine is a lemon and the service is a lie.” Daily visits to Jarvis’ blog doubled, according to BusinessWeek, and Dell’s online reputation suffered.

“We tracked [the cause] back to Dell’s earlier decision to outsource customer service, offshore it if you like. And if you look back on this, you can see a rising number of people making complaints about Dell’s customer service until it hit the crescendo with Jeff Jarvis’ posts, and then everybody started talking about this.” Beal says.

Find your weaknesses

Did you start using cheaper ingredients in your product? Is your call center understaffed? Is your rebate process an impossible maze? All of these issues can foster customer resentment and spill onto the Web. Don’t be caught off guard. Know your weaknesses and anticipate the criticism.

Tip #2: Control communication

Exclude embarrassing or damning content from all of your internal and external communications. Avoid disparaging remarks in your company’s blog or website. The same level of care should be applied to your internal communications, such as email.

If an employee refers to customers in a less-than-respectful tone, put a stop to it. After all, emails can be leaked to the outside world.

Tip #3: Monitor online conversations about your company

Strategy 1: Find the centers of influence

This strategy is best for marketers without a lot of resources. It involves a little more set-up time, but less monitoring.

Identify the key influencers in your industry online. They could be bloggers, online magazines or any authority who could discuss your business. You should already know the big players in your space. But if you don’t, do a few searches on Google and Technorati for your key terms. Dig deeper into important industry blogs that often mention other resources.

After you have a list of industry publications and influencers, cull the herd and monitor the most powerful. In your selection process, focus on these criteria:
- Inbound links
- Technorati authority
- Google rank
- Press mentions
- Subscription numbers
- Site traffic

Use RSS aggregators and bookmarking to help organize the content and monitor it as often as possible.

Strategy 2: Cast a wide net

Monitor as many places as possible. This will take more time and resources than identifying the centers of influence. But it will help you keep an eye on areas outside your industry. This can pay off in cases such as Jeff Jarvis'. He was not a blogger in Dell’s industry, but he had an impact on its reputation.

Here are free tools to help monitoring:
o Google alerts – Submit keywords to receive a link every time Google indexes a page mentioning the words.
o Yahoo! News and Google News – Submit keywords to receive links to news coverage mentioning the words.
o Technorati – Use it to keep track of the blogosphere.
o Digg – Submit your keywords to get RSS updates; many stories land here just as they’re exploding.
o YouTube – keep track of videos tagged with your keywords

There are programs and companies focused on monitoring your online reputation. They range from about $20 a month for canned software to $10,000+ a month for customized solutions that offer a “sentiment analysis,” Beal says.

Large social networks, such as MySpace and Facebook, are notorious for accepting a lot of information and letting little escape. We are unaware of any automated method of monitoring what their members are discussing. But, if a discussion gains enough momentum to affect your business, it will likely spill onto more easily monitored platforms, and you’ll pick up on it, Beal says.

Tip #4: Analyze complaints before reacting

Gather the facts

After uncovering negative remarks about your company, gather the facts before taking action. Find out who made the comment, where, why and determine whether they have a valid gripe. Otherwise you might find yourself apologizing for an event that never happened.

React accordingly

Find out if other people are talking about the issue and, if so, how fast it is spreading. Search for it online. Ask your customer service department if they’ve encountered it. The nature of your response should reflect the magnitude of the problem. The regularity of complaints should dictate how fast you respond.

Tip #5: Strategize responses

Over-responding to customers’ complaints in a positive way (i.e., providing an apologetic rebate) is better than under-responding. Over-responding in a negative way (i.e., filing a knee-jerk defamation lawsuit) is unwise. Handle every challenge to your company’s reputation on its own.

Here are some strategies for responding to Web-based negative comments about your company:

Responding to true statements

Beal says there are three words to remember when customers are lobbing valid complaints at your company: sincerity, transparency and consistency.

- Offer a genuine apology

You’ve heard it since you were a child: If you did something wrong, apologize. Many customers just want a sincere apology from a company that has done them wrong. Admitting you’re wrong and saying you’re sorry is a great start to mending bridges.

- Be transparent

Let your customers know how you’re addressing the problem. The typical “we’re aware of the problem and are working to resolve it” won’t cut it. Tell them exactly how you are planning to eliminate the source of their angst.

- Never let it happen again

Prove to your customers that their issue was an isolated incident. That means consistently doing a better job. This step re-establishes customer trust and convinces them to continue doing business with you.

Responding to false statements

Rumor is in constant competition with truth online. Most bloggers do not maliciously post lies, but they can be wrong. When a blogger publishes an inaccuracy about your company, present them with the accurate information. It’s usually enough to earn a retraction.

About a year ago, Beal noticed that a blogger at Yahoo! wrote a post defaming him as a spammer. The post was in reaction to a contest Beal was running on MyBlogLog, a social blogging network. The blogger didn’t know that Beal had the blessing from MyBlogLog executives to run the contest.

Once the post started to rank well for Beal’s name in the major search engines, he decided it was time to react. He forwarded the correct information to the blog’s author and the post was deleted within a matter of hours. He says, “That could have been a very bad situation if I hadn’t been monitoring.”

o Dealing with uncooperative publishers

Sometimes a blogger will refuse to remove a false statement. Two ways to react:

- Get your message out

If you have a company blog, write about the complaint and the blogger. Point out that the blogger is wrong and that they refuse to retract their statement. This post will explain your side of the argument to any blogger researching a future post on the topic. You can also:
o Put out press releases for big problems that reach the media
o Reach out to industry influencers with the right information. If they decide to write about the topic, they’ll have all the facts.

- If all else fails, send in the lawyers

“There are very few times that I recommend bringing in an attorney. But when it’s negative, it’s not true and you’re getting no response or no cooperation from your detractor, then that’s a valid time to bring in an attorney,” Beal says.

Tip #6: Control the conversation

A conversation could erupt anywhere online. If one is turning into a firestorm against your company, try to bring it to your website. You can do this by posting a response from a company executive, and linking to it from your homepage. You can also open up a forum on the topic.

These options will give you more control over the conversation, rather than posting your responses on someone else’s turf. This will also give bloggers a place to link to illustrate your stance on the issue.

When Apple Inc. dropped the price of its iPhone by $200 two months after its launch, many early adopters became resentful. The company’s tech-savvy customers voiced their frustration across the Web.

Apple responded with a letter of apology on its homepage within 24 hours of the controversy’s eruption. The letter was addressed from Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple, Inc., who promised that many of the early adopters would receive a $100 credit to Apple’s iTunes online store.

“That’s a great example of hosting the conversation, so that there’s an official response rather than having to run around the Web playing a game of whack-a-mole trying to respond individually,” Beal says.

Tip #7: Don’t shoot yourself in the foot

Don’t resort to unprofessional tactics when responding to criticism. It’s natural to be defensive, but don’t be emotional. Deal with problems efficiently after you’ve analyzed the situation. Some responses to avoid:
o Refusing to apologize
o Being arrogant
o Not having all the facts
o Being heavy-handed (i.e., unnecessarily threatening litigation or initiating a negative PR campaign against the commenter.)

“[Threatening legal action is] probably one of the worst things you can do because they have a legitimate complaint and [now] that you’ve threatened legal action against them, they might publish that letter, and that just might embolden them and create more supporters of their cause,” Beal says.

Useful Links Related to This Article:

BusinessWeek: Dell: In the Bloghouse

BuzzMachine, by Jeff Jarvis: Dell archives

Apple: Letter of Apology from Steve Jobs

MarketingPilgrim: 26 Free Buzz Monitoring Tools

Google Alerts

Google News

Yahoo! News




Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online


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