Case Study: Protecting Your Online Brand Rep: How One Company Tackled a Crisis While Another Stumbled


Company: Dell; Creative Labs Timeframe: May 2008 (for Dell); March 2008 (for Creative Labs) "Google never forgets..." -Slashdot, an online magazine How does your reputation look in Google? Half the people using the Internet today will use a search engine to look something up. So the question of what Google means for your reputation is an important one. If someone criticizes you on an obscure blog, many PR professionals will not care until it starts climbing up into the first three or four pages of Google search results. Although many incidents are known only within niche communities, that won't stop word of an incident from hitting Google, the biggest community in cyberspace. What you want to do is be able to measure how these incidents, once resolved, are affecting your product and your core brand. In the following we will take a look at two online PR crises from the last year and show you how the short-term response affected (or didn't) the perception of the product line and the core brand in the long term. Dell Vostro Keyboard Mistake In early 2008, Dell shipped a small number of laptop models with the lower row of letters (ZXCVBNM) shifted one letter to the right. As a result, most people typing on the keyboard consistently misspelled any word involving those letters. Two separate recalls were issued, the second one occurring when a keyboard supplier reshipped the now- rejected keyboards for assembly a second time. The initial posting to flickr.com from new Dell Vostro owner Jake Gordon occurred on May 1, 2008 (day one). It was quickly picked up by online news outlets. Within 24 hours, Dell representatives were posting in the comment areas of these news outlets taking responsibility for the problem and promising to fix all affected laptops. Official blog posts from Dell came on day seven, by which time the mea culpa had already been put out to the market. Dell made good on its promises to replace all affected keyboards. Now, several months later, the questions are such: How did Google view the crisis? And, more importantly, how did it affect the online reputation of the Dell Vostro product line as well as the core Dell brand? We looked at the top 20 search results for the incident using the search phrase "dell vostro keyboard problem" to see how balanced the results were. Then we examined search results for laptop line itself using the search phrase "dell vostro" to see how heavily the incident affects perception of the product line. Finally we searched on the core brand with the simple search phrase "dell," to see how the incident might affect Dell's reputation going forward. The chart on the left visually demonstrates the top 20 search results for the incident, the product line,and the brand. As you can see from the chart, it's impossible to suppress the incident, as it's now indelibly associated with the product line. But as most PR professionals would hope, as you move away from the incident toward the product line and the core brand, the impact of the incident lessens. What Did Dell Do Right? The lesson here is that in every search result that mentions the incident, there's a statement from Dell taking responsibility and promising a fix. For someone considering buying a Dell computer, this is key. Accidents happen, but Dell will stand behind their product and make good when they do. A note about Google results: Google results are fluid both from data center to data center and over time. As people find the results above more or less interesting, the results in our searches will change. For companies wishing to get rid of unpleasant news in Google searches about them, this is usually a benevolent event. For companies that wish to never see new bad news appear about them, this is a constant threat. Creative Threatens Hobbyist Creative Labs makes a line of sound cards for PCs running Windows. Much to the delight of many unhappy sound card owners using Windows, a hobbyist (Daniel K) wrote better software to operate the sound cards for systems running Windows Vista. In March of 2008 Creative became uncomfortable that an unlicensed third party was distributing modified versions of their sound card software and threatened him publicly, only to receive significant customer blowback. The initial posting from Creative Labs vice president of PR, Phil O'Shaugnessy, criticizing the hobbyist appeared on March 28, 2008. After several days of criticism, O'Shaugnessy or someone acting as a forum moderator actually altered the original posting to soften their criticism of the third-party developer. The alteration caused several members of the forum to re-post the original. In addition, Wired and other media outlets ran with the story that Creative Labs had intentionally crippled their product for the Windows Vista platform, an accusation that is especially damaging. Most outlets echoed the product owners' sentiments, namely that it was shameful that an unaffiliated developer could get the Creative product to perform so much better than the manufacturer itself. After the initial flurry of controversy, Creative never found a way to address user concerns through public relations and stopped making public announcements. You can see in the chart on the right the effect that a lack of satisfactory resolution had in the search results for the incident ("creative labs vista driver problem"), for the product itself ("creative labs sound card") and for the core brand ("creative labs") as displayed in the chart of Google search results. What did Creative Labs do right? Almost nothing. Creative Labs had all the options in the world available to them, but they chose a combative route to publicly embarrass and thwart someone who had earned the goodwill of their own customer base. He had, in effect, given customers better customer support than Creative had given, and they publicly took that away from their customers. This chart shows that Creative Labs PR people still have a lot of work to do. This incident is tarnishing the reputation of the entire company. What Can You Learn From This? The old cliché that "winners write history" should not just be taken as advice for PR professionals working online, but as a commandment. Communicate in the way you want the world to judge your handling of each incident, knowing that your words will be echoed online by dozens of outlets, large and small, and kept online for years to come. Just as importantly, don't forget to actually write it down. At some point be willing to go on the record. All the personal e-mails, telephone calls and good intentions in the world won't matter if there is nothing written down for pundits to quote--or for Google to make part of Internet history. Consider: Timing: It's almost always right to respond in some fashion, if only to set the record straight. The more outlandish the accusation, the less you have to worry about engaging your critic directly. If you don't get something online for people to find, their criticism will stand unanswered forever. Tone: It may seem attractive to vent anger at a critic, as in the case of O'Shaugnessy, who publicly threatened a developer, but those words will live forever, even if you try to edit or delete them. Take the higher ground. It will look better a year from now. Target: You don't always have to respond directly to all your critics, but consider that their Web sites will be around for a long time. Wouldn't it be nice if they would incorporate your response into their article or blog post? Again, give them something to write down. The cost of screwing up an incident in a big way is a very expensive search engine marketing campaign to try to push the unpleasant results out of the top 10 or 20 in Google. While that's sometimes doable, do yourself a favor and get it right the first time. PRN CONTACTS: This case study was written by Shabbir Imber Safdar and Jason Alcorn, who spend their days conducting online PR, marketing, and advocacy campaigns for their employer, Virilion Inc. They can be reached at SSafdar@virilion.com and JAlcorn@virilion.com.  The graph below is a visual representation of Google Search Results. An "Acceptable" box is a Google search result that isn't related to the problem. A "Mitigated" box is a criticism of the company regarding the incident that includes mitigating comments from Dell to balance out a reader's opinion. A "Hostile" box (there are none in this example) represents a criticism that either isn't answered or isn't answered satisfactorily. Google Search on: "dell vostro keyboard problem" "dell vostro" "dell" Google Result # 1 Mitigated Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 2 Mitigated Mitigated Acceptable Google Result # 3 Mitigated Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 4 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 5 Mitigated Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 6 Mitigated Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 7 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 8 Mitigated Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 9 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 10 Mitigated Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 11 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 12 Mitigated Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 13 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 14 Mitigated Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 15 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 16 Mitigated Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 17 Mitigated Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 18 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 19 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 20 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable   The graph below is a visual representation of Google Search results. An "Acceptable" box is a Google search result that isn't related to the problem. A "Mitigated" box is a criticism of the company regarding the incident that includes mitigating comments from Creative Labs to balance out a reader's opinion. Note that there aren't any in this example. A "Hostile" box represents a criticism that either isn't answered or isn't answered satisfactorily. Google Search On: “creative labs vista driver problem” “creative labs sound card” “creative labs” Google Result # 1 Hostile Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 2 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 3 Hostile Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 4 Acceptable Acceptable Hostile Google Result # 5 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 6 Hostile Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 7 Acceptable Hostile Acceptable Google Result # 8 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 9 Hostile Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 10 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 11 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 12 Hostile Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 13 Hostile Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 14 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 15 Hostile Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 16 Hostile Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 17 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 18 Hostile Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 19 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable Google Result # 20 Acceptable Acceptable Acceptable

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