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Can social media alter or change a company’s negative public perception

One of the great things that I love about Linkedin is that you can share information pretty freely with your peers. Of course isn’t that what social networking is supposed to be? One of the many ways that you can share and exchange information is by merely asking or answering industry specific questions.

As I was reading some questions and answers earlier today on Linkedin, I received a phone call from a client who had a client who had a problem. The problem was that this client who had been in business for over 15 years, had some disgruntled customers who had decided to take their grievance or beef online in the form of a forum and blog post. It was more than just one person but it was not an overtly large number.  One of the issues appeared to be that instead of calling or going directly to the client to vent or air their grievances, they decided to just go right online and post it. “To let the people know”!

As luck or the SERPS would have it, some of these posts and forums take on a life of their own. They morph into something larger than it really needs to be, and as I said the SERPS will keep these posts alive a lot longer than they need to be. In that pretty soon, when someone might do a search on Company A, instead of getting Company A’s website as the top search result, they get the angry blog post instead.  This effect that it has had on the company, it’s image and it’s ability to do business is and has been, to say the least, “not good”.

Don’t get me wrong, in some cases, this form of  online vigilante justice is completely warranted as a way to warn others, of unscupulous companies. But what about the companies that have been in business for over 15 years who do things on the up and up, and they just so happen to anger someone? They anger someone who knows how to blog.

Their reputation is forever linked to a SERP that reflects a possible isolated incident for all the world to see, and for all the world to come up with the “3 second impression”. i.e scan the results, read a negative blurb and come up with a negative impression. In other words; especially in the online world, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Or do you?

So I was asked if I could help. I’ve actually done it for other clients and it’s a tough haul. Like George Clooney’s role in Michael Clayton, I had been asked to go in and “clean up” a situation. So given that the call came in as I was answering a few questions on Linkedin, I thought that Linkedin might be a good forum to ask the following question: Could social media, given that it’s sites can be spidered very quickly by the search engines, be a way to alter or change a company’s negative public perception?

The answers have come in fast and furious and they really do hit on the touching points of what social media is, what social media can do and  what it cannot do. And as much as it is the 6th Estate, it still has some unwritten rules. But lets take a look at some of the responses and you tell me what you think.

This interesting answer to the question comes from Andrew Munro: I think the answer is “it depends…”. I’m fairly certain that a social media blitz will not be “enough to stem negative press” but it may help. One thing to be aware of is that changing any sort of negative perception requires a lot of time and energy. It’s not a quick fix. You need to identify what aspects of the perceptions are key and hen determine how to set about changing those. A first step would be to identify who the key influencers are on the subject, then think about how you build relationships with them to either support them (if positive) or to encourage them to change their views (if negative). Those are the individuals who – through their blogs etc – can help to change perception for you. ANother thing to be aware of is that you need to be subtle and considered about this. Any appearance of trying to manipulate opinion, buy opinion, deceive etc etc etc will blow up in your face and worsen the situation. Think carefully about what you are trying to achieve.

The next answer from Louis Rosas-Guyon  who says: “If the company addresses the issue frankly with an open and honest approach then they stand a solid chance of recovery. Americans love it when the guilty apologize. However, if the company adopts a position where they try to spin the situation or to attack then they are doomed to failure. I have always found it’s just better to tell the truth. It is amazing how quickly people rush to forgive you.”

Next up is Sallie Goetsch who really is blunt in her assertion that “Unless the company fixes the problem(s), *nothing* will stem the tide of bad publicity. And it’s better for any company to have a social media presence already established than to suddenly create profiles on all the networks and start sending “We don’t suck, really” messages out on Twitter.  Nevertheless, it seems that one company with a consistently bad rap, TSA, has managed to improve its relations with some of its public by means of a blog with open comments. Do everything you can to get your side of the story out–including using social media, but not forgetting more traditional media. But first, fix the problem.”Last up is Erin Berkery who states: “While not every company can alter their negative perception online, there are steps that can be taken both to improve public perception, and the performance of the company.
For example if a company finds a forum discussing their bad performance, it gives them a chance to answer in a specific and tailored way to people who often have had direct problems with their service.
I’ve worked for companies with web forums, and they would regularly post ‘How are we doing?” topics. This would allow them to address what comes up, and (if needed) apologize and deal with it in a professional way.
It also is a good place to explain nuances of the company that the consumers may not understand. It is useful why certain practices perceived as ‘bad’ might actually be better for the consumer.
However, in all of those situations the companies were actively looking to improve themselves, not just their image. If it’s just a PR blitz just to get the word out, many tech savvy people who are in social networks will not be impressed. Also if it is not followed consistently-for example if someone is in a forum for two days explaining why the company performed a certain action, and then never returns, the perception will be ultimately worse than if they were never online. “

So essentially what you are seeing is that all of these people, myself included, feel that though you can stem the negative perception, your best way to “react” to it is to be as proactive, forthright, and honest as you can in re-creating and expounding on your “real” or desired public persona. You are never going to please everyone but if you are upfront and address the issues in a social networking environment, it can go a long way in repairing and heading off any further misdirected public perception. What do you think?

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Marc Meyer is a Digital and Social Media Strategist at DRMG. This is my personal blog where I share observations, thoughts and opinions that are all my own.

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