At General Motors, a social media team of six employees patrols the Web, tweeting, updating Facebook, and sometimes commenting on personal blogs to combat negative comments on their company. GM, along with other companies, is also meeting with bloggers to diffuse issues. Some are encouraging brand fans to write positive blogs.
"Badvocates," or critics who regularly trash corporate reputations, represent 20% of the world's adult population online and each one reaches an estimated 14 people with their opinions, according to public relations firm Weber Shandwick.
At GM, one scathing post on WebInkNow.com by David Meerman Scott, former VP of Marketing for Knight-Ridder, drew over 20 comments from other GM bashers. GM wound up inviting Scott, who has 29,000 Twitter followers, to Detroit and encouraged him to log the details of the trip and post video clips of interviews with CEO Fritz Henderson and other executives. It's part of a plan to assure influential bloggers have accurate information about the carmaker.
In July, GM also launched AskFritz.org, a site where consumers can leave gripes or ask questions for Henderson. The site provides an outlet for GM to respond to critics who might be posting comments elsewhere on the Web.
Airlines, who regularly face online critics on trip-planning sites and Twitter, are likewise tracking social media. For instance, when New York's LaGuardia Airport terminal closed due to a bomb threat, American Airlines posted notices on its Web site and sent a tweet to its followers on Twitter. It also leaves information on lost baggage and canceled flights on its Facebook site.
Jack Leslie, Chairman of Weber Shandwick, told Forbes that the key is to at least be aware of online criticism to gauge whether to react or comment before it mushrooms. United Airlines, for example, could have avoided a viral video this past July, when country singer Dave Carroll wrote a song about his guitar being smashed in transport.
GM blogger Scott said he now is more likely to talk to companies first to get information and comments and recommends that all big corporations respond to bloggers who bash their brands. "It's easy for a blogger to see a company as a faceless entity," Scott said. "We need to know there are real people out there."
BrainTrust panelists say that it’s important for companies to remain proactive and smart about their publicity. “Anonymity makes ‘badvocating’ user-friendly for ‘badvocates,’” said David Biernbaum, Senior Marketing & Business Development Consultant, David Biernbaum Associates. “What I advise my branded clients to do is to have a fairly standard response prepared for the most common negative comments. Don't hide! Respond online with full identity. In most cases, you will win back your credibility, and maybe even gain some! And the ‘badvocates’ will often back off anyway because they got attention from you that they didn't really anticipate.”
One panelist says these numbers are an indication of the customer experience, and the solution is in retail service. “If 20% of the population is taking part in ‘brand-bashing,’ doesn't that imply that perhaps at least some of their criticisms are valid?” said Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research. “This data is telling us 20% of adults have bad enough experiences that they take the time to write about it to their friends and relatives. That's a LOT of people. You can't spin that away. You have to fix it at its root.”
“Perhaps the solution remains the same—‘improve service levels.’ We believe strongly that the Web gives brands an opportunity to put their finger on the pulse of consumer sentiment. Technologies are available to support aggregating this information and turning it into a psychographic.”
Max Goldberg, Founding Partner, The Radical Clarity Group, said companies should engage in dialogue with consumers, rather than combat online comments. “Some comments are going to be negative and others positive,” he said. “Not every comment warrants a response. Companies need to show consumers that they are listening. Trying to dominate critics is almost as bad as not responding at all.”
Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from one of RetailWire’s recent online discussions. Each business morning on RetailWire.com, retail industry execs get plugged in to the latest news and issues with key insights from a "BrainTrust" of retail industry experts.