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No. 453
July 20th, 2009

Ramble: PR in the Internet Era

Marketers and advertisers have insisted for years (with good reason) that your brand isn’t how you want your customers to feel about you, it’s how your customers feel about you.

Well, in the internet era, the rise of social media has blurred the lines between brand and public relations. And another one of the age-old adages in the marketing world–“there’s no such thing as bad press”–no longer applies today.

I know it’s been covered to death, but in case you haven’t heard about the United customer service fiasco yet…here is a Cliffs Notes version:

Canadian musician Dave Carroll was on a United flight from Nova Scotia to Omaha for a gig.  At O’Hare, the baggage handlers broke his $3500 Taylor guitar ($1200 in damages).  He went back and forth with United for ~2 years on their liability; ultimately they denied his claim.  He wrote a song (actually a series of songs) about his horrific experience that now has 3.5 million views and who-knows-how-many Tweets.  10 days ago it was impossible not to have read at least something related to this story on Twitter.

Jason Murphy, in his excellent Youmoz post on the subject, laid out a series of fantastic ideas for United to respond to this PR crisis.  What did they do instead? Donated $3,000 (yes, that’s right–three zeroes) to a music charity.

Um, yeah.  As one of my followers (rpugmire) tweeted, “that’s less than a rounding error.”  It struck me as a traditional PR response to a very UN-traditional PR problem, probably discussed by several levels of the corporate ladder before being underwhelmingly released to no fanfare whatsoever.

Large companies like United need to figure out a way to flatten their corporate hierarchy and give individuals within the company more leeway to respond.  Compare its response with that of Taylor Guitars (the makers of Dave’s guitar), who had absolutely zero blame in this instance.

Not only did they make a donation of Taylors to Dave’s band, but they released a video response to Dave’s video on YouTube well in advance of any reaction from United.  I’m not sure how Taylor seeded it (perhaps not at all) but surely there are plenty of Taylor enthusiasts on Twitter.  The video now has 61,000+ views.

Taylor moved quickly and responded transparently, with a message directly from the CEO.  It wasn’t sappy or parasitic.  In fact, I was surprised they didn’t make some kind of offer as part of the release.  But it built the happy momentum of this story for Taylor, rather than just maintaining, or worse, curtailing it.  Bob Taylor mentioned a couple of news articles on Taylor’s site to help traveling guitarists–did you know that TSA allows guitars as carry-ons?–in addition to highlighting Taylor’s service center.

The contrast between United’s and Taylor’s responses couldn’t have been more apparent.  But United’s tone-deafness to the new business realities of the internet (forgive the pun) is not limited to its PR response.  I recently flew United on a quick trip to SFO and was appalled to read this line on one of its in-flight magazine’s editorial pages:

OMG! We r tweeting on the popular micro-blogging site. Follow United at 4 special deals & 2 become our BFF. TTYL!

Wait, what?  When did Maureen Dowd get promoted to VP of Marketing?

Not only did United fail to capitalize on a great opportunity to manage its reputation in the online world, but it veritably oozes disdain for the entire web population, apparently without any clue that 14-year-old girls represent a tiny percentage of the Twittersphere.  And probably aren’t buying airline tickets anyway.

I’m not saying PR has no place in social media; far from it.  But traditional PR agencies had better adapt–and fast–to the ethos of the blogosphere, or they’re going to lose their fundamental value–the ability to place favorable opinons of a company on high-visibility sources via personal connections.  Any more, bloggers and entrepreneurs are making these connections themselves.

A recent New York Times article on PR backs up this point:

Some business people say that because journalists would rather hear stories directly from the entrepreneurs who are genuinely excited about their companies — rather than from publicists’ faking excitement — the role of publicists becomes less crucial. Glenn Kelman, chief executive of Redfin, a real estate Web site, says he has never hired a P.R. person. “Besides,” he says, “with the real-time Web, there’s no time to vet every message through three layers of spin.”

Indeed, irritation has been rising among tech reporters forced to field as many as 50 canned pitches a day from publicists representing start-ups desperate to break through.

[Brooke Hammerling’s] effervescent personality and proximity to the people she works with have sometimes set tongues wagging in Silicon Valley. “That prejudice is something we all suffer through,” she says. “When smart women interact with smart men, there is always a dynamic there.”

If you hadn’t read the full article, you might buy Hammerling’s assessment of an undercurrent of sexism.  But more likely it’s just “smart men” completely turned off by her B.S.

I sure would be.

I have no idea if Ms. Hammerling consults for United. But UAL, and all companies, need to embrace the new medium and understand how to play in it, rather than ignore or disparage it.

  • The web allows for better monitoring of your brand–remember brand is what your customers create–than ever before.  Google alerts, Twitter RSS feeds, reviews on major search portals are all searchable and actionable.  And not acting on customer feedback can spell disaster.
  • You may not need an “agency” at all–PR could be as simple as you just uploading a video or authoring a response on your company blog to inform customers how you’re dealing with a particular situation.  Advice from a leading social media firm may be hundreds of times more valuable than pitching traditional news sources.
  • Traditional PR may not be the best way to approach the internet population.  These “types” often come across as ham-handed and disingenuous to bloggers and the like.  A message straight from the source is way more authentic and more likely to get a positive response.

Bonus Tidbit: Tie-in between PR and Local SEO

If you care about ranking in Google Maps & Yahoo Local, you shouldn’t ignore PR.  Press releases are now beginning to count as citations on your local business listing.  It looks like the one I saw on my own Local listing a couple of weeks ago is now gone, but Will Scott can vouch for its presence (it was his release about the Local Search Ranking Factors that was accruing to my listing).  So make sure you include business name and city at a bare minimum, on all of your releases, and preferably your full contact information.