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April 08, 2007

The Venom of Crowds

BusinessWeek runs the voodoo down as it relates to how ranting against brands online through blogs and other means has become something business must address. Snippets and recommendations from this must-read article (sub. req’d) include:

“In the beginning, the idea of this new conversation seemed so benign. Radical transparency: the new public-relations nirvana! Companies, employees, and customers engage in a Webified dialectic. Executives gain insight into product development, consumer needs, and strategic opportunities. All the back-and-forth empowers consumers, who previously were relegated to shouting at call-center minions. Venom can be a great leading indicator.”

“Trashing brands online can also be high theater. Rats cruising around a Greenwich Village KFC/Taco Bell on YouTube. MySpacers busting their employers' chops. Faux ads bashing the Chevy Tahoe as a gas-guzzling, global-warming monster. Millions of people watch this stuff—then join in and pile on. Is it any wonder companies lose control of the conversation?”

“When the Web turns against them, executives are faced with the problem of how to manage the blowback. They have two choices: ignore the smaller furies and hope they won't metastasize, or respond outright to the attacks. It's rarely a good idea to lob bombs at the fire-starters. Preemption, engagement, and diplomacy are saner tools.”

To avert a public-relations disaster on the Web, BusinessWeek recommends businesses …

1. ENGAGE CRITICS. "Create a blog so you can strike back quickly. Establish ground rules, and filter nasty, anonymous comments."

2. BE VIGILANT. "Hire a team of media experts to troll for bad news, rumors, and trends. Know what influencers are saying about you at all times."

3. JUMP IN AND OPEN UP. "Address anything that could turn into a bonfire immediately. Replace "no comment" with transparency, candor, and humility."

4. DON'T OVEREACT. "Let tiny spasms of venom go. They'll disappear under the relentless pileup of new information.

5. STAY PROFESSIONAL. Respond to personal attacks for strategic reasons, not psychological ones. Don’t use the Web for therapy.

source: BusinessWeek | “Web Attack” by Michelle Conlin | April 16, 2007


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Of all the recommendations, responding vs. reacting is the most important. It keeps the discussion on the issues vs. spilling over to the people involved.

There are some cases where engaging the critics directly may not be a good idea. Especially if those critics are out to get publicity for themselves and their cause. As usual, a good idea providing a general checklist, with a caveat: there are situations that warrant a specific strategy.

Reacting is only appropriate when the facts are untrue, and yet appear credibly in the new media environment. One must consider the sources.

At the same time corporations need to behave better. It's not OK to pull the cotton over consumers eyes anymore. Corporations must act with transparency, strong ethical behavior, an honest admission of wrongs, and prompt actions to correct wrongs. Further they must use the same tools -- new media forms -- to communicate their actions.

Valarie and Geoff ... the responding/reaction question is interesting. Hmm, the best reactionary response a company can do is probably to demonstrate to critics they are listening. Dell has been bitten by lots of blogger venom. However, they are showing other companies how to respond by showing critics they are listening. Dell is doing this "listenting" through their IdeaStorm website and with their recent outreach to Jeff Jarvis.


Your use of Dell as an example of a business that took heavy hits, including from me on my blog, is an excellent one. In fact, Dell personally reached out to me, and I suspect others, to invite me to comment on IdeaStorm. Needless to say, Dell is acting in intelligent and appropriate ways.

john, i think that the key points are:

- do not react hysterically to the first attack
- learn the lesson and be prepared to avoid a second one

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