Sunday, April 26, 2009

Corporate America's messy embrace of new media comes with pain

From LA Times Inc. shut like a book.

Domino's Pizza was late but eventually delivered.

And CNN focused on the good news.

When the three major brands engaged with their Web-savvy fans and critics in separate incidents in recent weeks, their responses demonstrated how corporations are still learning how to control their messages --- and reputations -- in a fast-twitch online world.

The mixed track record so far shows that fluency in the evolving language of digital public relations comes easier to some companies than others.First, CNN. As Ashton Kutcher edged out the cable network to become the first to attract 1 million followers to his Twitter account, an odd quirk of the much-hyped race was overshadowed. CNN hadn't actually owned its account until a few days earlier.

For two years, the CNNBrk account (for breaking news) had been created, maintained, and run by a 25-year-old British Web developer who just wanted a way to beam short news alerts to his cell phone.

But when the cable network found that James Cox had appropriated its name and content, it took a direction that might seem a bit surprising. Instead of suing Cox or trying to shut down the account, the cable network quietly hired him to run it, then acquired it last week when Cox was visiting the company's Atlanta headquarters.

"We've been managing the feed through him," said a CNN spokesman, noting the huge increase in the number of Twitter followers since the November election. "As Twitter took off and became more prominent, we decided it was time to take our engagement and make it a marriage."

Other companies may find that unexpected uses of their brands have a less-than-fairy-tale quality.

A little more than a week ago, Domino's was handed a PR nightmare when a video showed up online showing two employees laughing as they prepared food in a deliberately unsanitary way.

The video quickly generated hundreds of thousands of views.

The pizza company's initial instinct was to try to dispose of the situation quietly by responding only to concerned consumers who had seen the video, rather than risk broadening its exposure by making a public statement.

But chatter about the problem spilled over into Twitter, whose expansive micro-messaging network is becoming an online circulatory system for news, pumping information between media organs, consumers and businesses themselves.

Domino's posted a YouTube response of its own, and even established a Twitter account to answer direct questions from customers. "If something happens in this medium, it's going to automatically jump to the next," Domino's spokesman Tim McIntyre said. "So we might as well talk to everybody at the same time."

When Amazon was faced with its own consumer outcry recently, it decided to forgo the social-media route. Without warning, many gay- and lesbian-themed books began disappearing from the site's search results and sales rankings. The Twittersphere instantly saw red, accusing the company of discrimination and censorship and demanding a response.

But Amazon stayed mostly mum. The company first waited most of a day only to cite an unspecified "glitch," and when that vagueness only fomented the outrage, it released a second clipped statement blaming a "cataloging error."

But Twitter abhors a vacuum, and commenters rapidly filled Amazon's silence with boycott threats, petitions and caustic accusations, an outcome that suggests that the growth of social media may be driving up the cost of inaction. Yet engaging with consumers can be dangerous, too. Skittles learned that last month when it invited users to post Twitter-like comments on a page that prominently displayed its logo. Along with positive comments appeared a colorful variety of profane ones.

"There's a mob mentality to social tools where people quickly try to put fuel on the fire, really encouraging brand damage and damage to individuals," said Jeremiah Owyang, a senior analyst at Forrester Research.

To stay safe in a social-media minefield, he said, brands need to make sure to secure their own domain names in social-media environments, before any squatters do,- and then start to build a community there. When a crisis happens, online or off, brands can then use that community to their advantage.

That's the opposite of how Hasbro Inc. reacted last year when it sued the India-based creators of Scrabulous, the popular Scrabble-like game on Facebook,- and forced them to take it down. Fans of the game formed "Save Scrabulous" pages on Facebook and posted angry messages about Hasbro. When a company-sanctioned version of the game appeared sometime later, fewer returned to play.

Sending in the legal posse is an old-fashioned response in the new media age, Owyang said. "It creates so much more buzz -- people wonder why you would beat up your most passionate customers."

That's why Coca-Cola Co. decided to let its users dominate discussion about the soft drink on Facebook.

The popular Coke fan page on the social networking site wasn't created by the company, but rather by Los Angeles actor Dusty Sorg and writer Michael Jedrzejewsk. It had more than a million fans when Facebook called Coca-Cola to alert it that the page violated the social network's terms of service because it wasn't operated by the trademark owner. Take over the site, Facebook told Coke, or we'll take it down.

Instead, the beverage maker flew the pair to its Atlanta headquarters in January, took them to a hockey game, gave them a VIP tour of the Coke museum and let them play Eric Clapton's guitar, then proposed that they officially run the page for the company. The two agreed. It now has more than 3 million users.

No comments: