Social sites have real bite

 

Businesses are scrabbling to develop strategies to handle what people are posting about them on social networking sites before negative comments snowball out of control

THE OLD TRUISM that people who are treated well by a business tell one or two others while those who are treated shabbily tell 20 has never looked as old-fashioned as it has in recent months thanks to the social networking revolution and the power it has placed in the hands of ordinary consumers.

With the help of Facebook, Bebo, YouTube, Twitter, the ever-expanding blogosphere and countless bulletin boards and discussion forums, people with access to a computer can complain to a potential audience of millions if a company displeases them.

Earlier this year, a little known Canadian musician called Dave Carroll, who had been given the runaround by United Airlines for nine months after one of its baggage handlers smashed his €3,000 guitar, wrote a song documenting his negative experiences. The song, United Breaks Guitars, was posted on YouTube in early July and became an internet sensation within days. Over six million people have now seen the video and, while the airline belatedly issued a number of grovelling apologies, the negative media attention and widespread public derision has made its attempts to pilot its way through the recession even more difficult – the video even played a central role in a 10 per cent dip in the airline’s share price, according to some reports.

While there was a lot of humour behind Carroll’s YouTube video, few people were laughing in April when a video appeared on the same site purporting to show staff at a branch of Domino’s Pizza in the US doing all manner of disgusting things to food – including adding the contents of their noses to sandwiches – before delivering them to unsuspecting consumers.

In less than a week, the video had been viewed more than a million times on YouTube while Twitter was abuzz with talk of the incident. It did untold, long-term damage to Domino’s reputation – research firm YouGov, which carries out online surveys amongst thousands of consumers in the US daily for hundreds of brands, found that almost overnight the perception of Domino’s quality went from positive to negative.

The video was pulled from YouTube, the staff involved were sacked and charged with delivering prohibited foods – they subsequently claimed it had all been a prank. In an effort to manage the PR crisis, the company’s president, Patrick Doyle, made a YouTube video of his own in which he defended the company’s hygiene policy and described himself as sickened that “the actions of two people could impact our great system”.

Twitter, still unfairly dismissed by some as a home for the most inane of chatter, has been to the fore in consumer empowerment. Earlier this year, online retailing giant amazon.com was forced to apologise after thousands of users of the site voiced  concerns – in 140 characters or less – about its decision to remove from its site-wide rankings and from some search results selected gay and lesbian books, including serious non-fiction, academic works and novels by EM Forster, Jeanette Winterson and Gore Vidal which had gay themes. It later blamed a “ham-fisted” cataloguing error for the problem.

Having seen such crises blow up out of nothing, businesses are scrabbling to develop strategies to handle social networking with many using software to monitor what customers are saying about their products online.

“Companies don’t get it, but they are starting to,” says Darragh Doyle, the communications manager with boards.ie. He cites the example of Vodafone which last month set up a thread on the immensely popular discussion forum to plug its deal with Apple to sell the iPhone.

Unfortunately, the company wasn’t in a position to answer most of the questions put to it by board’s users – namely how much the phone will cost, tariff pricing and when it will be available – so it opened the discussion up to its wider service allowing it to get a huge amount of feedback, much of it admittedly negative, about its service. “If I, as a consumer, ring customer service to complain about something, then the person I’m speaking to’s job is to fix it but the chances are remote that they will pass on the details up the chain,” Doyle says. “But if I post details on a blog or a discussion forum then it can be seen by the marketing people or the people who actually have influence to bring about change.”

Neil O’Gorman, the managing director of PR company Bespokewithdirection, already has his head around the power and the potential of social networks to enhance – or more realistically – to damage a brand. “Consumers certainly have more power than they ever had and they feel that they have a voice and people may be listening. Social media is so vast and we in the public relations profession are learning new things about it every day.”

He says firms which want to get the best out of social media need to accept that traditional niceties and rules do not necessarily apply. “The bloggers and early adapters have made the rules for these sites and if we, as PR people or companies break those rules, then we can expect to be knocked down.

Last week, Price Watch asked whether, in a downturn, customer service had improved in Ireland. Responses were mixed, with some people saying things had got better and others of the view that things had got worse in recent months with demoralised staff working longer hours due to redundancies no longer able to cope.

In passing, one poster made a negative comment about 02. “I have found most telephone customer service agents to be several hundred times more polite and helpful than they were a couple of years ago,” she wrote. “Apart from O2 – they still seem to think the customer is an irritant.”

Hours latter Rod Coleman, head of the mobile phone company’s customer care unit in Ireland, responded via the blog. “I was really worried to see your comments about O2 on this blog,” he wrote and asked her to contact him directly so he could find out more about her gripe.

He said that he was “turning more and more to social media to get the engagement that humanises the web. This also provides the neutral opinion that we trust. The corporate sin, therefore, is not to mess up from time-to-time, but not to listen to customers and do something about it when this happens.”