Fight Fire With Fire: Using Corporate Blogs to Upend Crises Online

Reputational crises that begin in the blogosphere are very common; reputational crises that end in the blogosphere, on the other hand, are less so. Dell is perhaps the most well-known example of an organization whose inattention to blog commentary landed it in its own version of hell. Two years ago BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis lambasted the company's ineptitude with customer service, only to find that he had a rapt audience of consumers who felt the same way. Today, Dell is the proud owner of multiple corporate blogs, having made its entrée into the medium after going all the way to hell and back. "Companies that get [corporate blogging right] can reap huge rewards," according to Sir Martin Sorrell, group chief executive of WPP, in comments made during the Institute for Public Relations Annual Distinguished Lecture on Nov. 5. "Rather than ignoring complaints, the company's executives embraced the new media. They set up Dell's own customer spaces, such as IdeaStorm, where people could record their experiences and post suggestions. Most importantly, Dell did not censor negative posts and reordered its customer services department to respond to the complaints. Within two years, Dell had halved negative online chatter about its products." Sorrell also noted that Dell wasn't the only company to bring negative conversations back onto its own turf. "Take John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods Market, the organic supermarket chain," he said. "Mackey was caught using a pseudonym on a Yahoo Finance forum, praising his company and trashing a rival. Rather than hiding, Mackey came clean and defended himself in a blog on his own company's site. For that he was applauded, and avoided the worst repercussions." All I Want For Christmas Is ... A Redo Mackey's initial approach of deceiving stakeholders by pretending to be someone other than himself is one that has sparked a number of similar crises online, from Wal-Mart and Edelman's "Wal-Marting Across America" missive to 5WPR's attempted cover-up for impersonating a prominent rabbi and outspoken critic of the firm's client, Agriprocessors. However, choosing to fight fire with fire online, as Dell did by forming its own blog, is still the road less taken--but not for Sony Electronics. Rewind to blog coverage of the electronics giant in December 2006, and it would look like the beginning of a sad story: News broke that "All I Want for Christmas is a PSP," a blog allegedly launched by a hip-hop loving brand advocate, was actually maintained by the company's marketing agency--not the purported effort of a fan. Online media subsequently ripped Sony for deceiving consumers, and the company's executives posted this message on the fake blog on Dec. 15, 2006: "Busted. Nailed. Snagged. As many of you have figured out...Peter isn't a real hip-hop maven and this site was actually developed by Sony. Guess we were trying to be just a little too clever. From this point forward, we will just stick to making cool products..." Then, Sony's communications execs got to work planning their next move: launching a blog of their own to bring messaging back into their hands. The first questions Patrick Seybold, director of corporate communications and social media of Sony Computer Entertainment America, asked himself and his team were, "Can we rebuild loyalty and trust through dialogue? Can we get out in front of online speculations and rumors? Can we participate effectively?" Game On The answers, of course, were "yes." In the months that followed the fake blog crisis, Seybold and his team met with executives from every corner of the organization, including legal, IT, HR, marketing, finance and corporate, to get approval to launch a Sony PlayStation blog. Many communications professionals approach senior management tentatively when broaching the idea of launching a blog, as the "loss of control" argument is often one they find difficult to refute. However, according to Sorrell, "Willingness to surrender control is essential, because in digital and social media there is an inverse relationship between credibility and control. The more control you keep over the message, the less credible it is. And vice versa." Sony executives turned out to be willing to relinquish control in the wake of the fake blog disaster, and in June 2007, went live. In addition to the other lessons learned (see sidebar), Seybold says it was important to keep it simple when deciding on a name for the platform. After contemplating turns of phrase like PlayStation Nation and PlayStation Planet, the executives settled on just calling it what it was: PlayStation.Blog. In the first-ever post (June 11, 2007), Seybold spoke directly to readers, saying, "Now, what we've learned, perhaps the hard way, is that a blog like this is really about you and the things you want to hear, share and discuss with us. With that in mind, you'll notice that comments are enabled--and encouraged--so tell us what you want to see here and we'll do our best to make it happen." As so many companies, including the ones discussed here, have learned the hard way, the best approach to handling detractors is to give them a voice. It may sound like reverse psychology, and in a way, it is. Bringing these aggressors into the company's domain gives communications execs the opportunity to turn them into brand ambassadors. Since its launch, the blog has been an exercise in learning from past mistakes, embracing transparency and, at times, admitting defeat--something Sorrell says is vital if a company is to succeed in an age when the exchange of information is being democratized rapidly: "Such changes require a certain humility. Dell's embracing of social media would have been a pointless gesture, had it not moved to respond to the complaints it received. Some executives instinctively understand this. They must change and they must also be humble enough to listen. If they do, bloggers and others in the social media world will be flattered. They may even become advocates for the brand. It is public relations' job to educate clients and explain this process." PRN CONTACTS: Patrick Seybold,; Sir Martin Sorrell, How To Avoid Learning Lessons The Hard Way The blogosphere has seen its fair share of imposter bloggers whose stated identity or affiliation is far from the truth. Sony indulged in such identity concealment in 2006 when its marketing agency launched and maintained a blog to build buzz around the soon-to-be-released PSP gaming unit--only, the blog was purported to be the homemade effort of a fan. When the scam was uncovered, the company endured a maelstrom of blowback, especially in digital media. But instead of riding out the storm, Sony executives took the crisis as an opportunity to launch their own blog to regain some control over messaging. The resulting experience led the team to develop the following list of lessons learned: 1. Don't fake it. 2. Get everyone invested. 3. Create an editorial calendar. 4. Watch what the industry's saying. 5. Ask people for their input. 6. Simplify the approval process. 7. Remember that a blog name doesn't matter. 8. Pick a platform that can scale in size. 9. Learn lightweight HTML. 10. Listen as best you can. 11. Communicate expectations. 12. Innovate. 13. Provide options for participation. 14. Weigh hard and soft metrics. 15. Track against your goals.

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