Product Reviews: Bad reviews can give firms good insight into products

Every company encounters a bad product review, but the reaction to it can often make the difference between fanning or extinguishing those flames

Every company encounters a bad product review, but the reaction to it can often make the difference between fanning or extinguishing those flames

When the May issue of Consumer Reports hit newsstands, The Sharper Image was stung by a scathingly bad review of one of its best-selling products, the Ionic Breeze air purifier.

The magazine lumped the Ionic Breeze in with other air purifiers it said not only don't work, but also potentially release harmful amounts of ozone.

It wasn't the company's first brush with bad press from Consumer Reports. The influential publication had previously criticized the air purifier in other reviews, which had so enraged the company that it sued Consumers Union, the nonprofit organization that publishes the magazine, for libel. That case was ultimately dismissed, and the retailer ended up paying more than $500,000 in court costs.

So the latest negative reviews stung that much more. The Sharper Image staunchly stood by the air purifier once again, and the tiff between the company and publication garnered more media attention than the retailer was probably comfortable with.

The Sharper Image declined comment for this article.

Learning from reviews

Bad reviews are a fact of life, and of media relations. But thanks to an increasingly connected and informed populace - via everything from blogs to wireless e-mail - bad word of mouth, as well as good, is much easier to spread than it's ever been before. Hence, media relations professionals need to be much more diligent - and smart - about responding to bad reviews. After all, The Sharper Image's subsequent public battle with Consumer Reports only extended the life span of its negative reviews, ultimately making many more consumers aware of them than simply those who read the magazine.

"From a strategic perspective, reviews are very important to the success of our products and our image," says Rick Clancy, SVP of corporate communications at Sony Electronics.

Clancy speaks from experience. The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg wrote a scathing review last summer of Sony's answer to Apple's iPod, the NW-HD1. Mossberg described Sony's digital music player as "inferior," "confusing," and "tedious," and he warned readers that they should steer clear of the product. Mossberg's critique made the internet rounds and was talked about on various technology and consumer websites and blogs.

Clancy says that while it was not the review the company had hoped for, it reinforced the need to be thoughtful and strategic with media relations.

"You can't guarantee what the results will be when you turn it over to an independent journalist," adds Clancy. "We took a calculated risk."

Part of good media relations is anticipating a reviewer's qualms and trying to focus on more positive attributes, says Clancy. "We tried to pre-empt the review as much as we could," he says. "We tried to draw attention to other factors, such as the long battery life, the high quality of the sound, and the sleek design and display."

Sony then used Mossberg's criticism to make modifications to future versions of the digital music player.

Reviews are a learning experience, not just about how to improve a product, but also about how to work with that reviewer in the future. Sony works carefully to target reviewers, learning their likes and dislikes, and how they like to be approached.

"This is a good case where we didn't get it right," admits Clancy.

But Clancy says the media relations team has taken this example as a learning experience that will ideally make things better the next time they work with Mossberg.

Product reviews are about building and fostering relationships just as much as any other part of PR, says David Weiskopf, now VP of corporate communications at Chiron. When Weiskopf worked for Weber Shandwick, his office set up a "reviews lab" for Hewlett-Packard, with both PR people and IT engineers. That team worked with reviewers from both a technical and media relations perspective, and provided resources and other material so journalists could write thoughtful and informed reviews.

And that effort led to strong relationships with reviewers, and typically positive reviews.

"There were times when we got a bad review, but they were few and far between," says Weiskopf. "But the client knew they weren't going to get a good review every time. It's about expectation management. When you have a product that is being reviewed, the relationship with the reviewer is the intangible piece that fits into it."

Preparing for the worst

Mark Siegel, executive director of media relations at Cingular Wireless, agrees with Weiskopf that realistic expectations are vital, as reviews are an extremely subjective process.

And if reviewers uncover something that is a shortcoming, companies need to be prepared to hear that. If the criticism is thoughtful and legitimate, then companies can use that to their benefit down the road. But media relations people also need to be aggressive in clearing up misunderstandings.

"When you submit a product for review, it is part of an ongoing conversation with that reviewer," says Siegel. "No review is perfect. I defy you to find one. You'll never get an unqualified endorsement. Most are in between positive and negative."

While at AT&T Wireless, Siegel said, he was working with The Wall Street Journal on a review of wireless software that let users find local listings of businesses, such as restaurants and theaters. And while the product didn't work exactly as it should have, the review was mostly positive.

Andrew Lavin, president of A. Lavin Communications, had a similar experience with pen company A.T. Cross. The company was unveiling a pen that made an electronic copy of the user's notes that could be uploaded to a computer. But the handwriting-recognition element was not flawless. Lavin said he recognized this, and encouraged the client not to hide the problem, but to discuss it and highlight the product's more positive attributes.

"We had a very frank and open and honest discussion with the client," says Lavin, "and while we downplayed the handwriting-recognition component, we didn't hide it. We provided a survey we did that showed many executives can't read their own handwriting. We made the story about the ability to electronically transfer your notes to your computer.

"Don't hide what you think is going to be a problem," he adds, "because journalists will find it."

Matt Wolfrom, EVP and GM with Euro RSCG Magnet, took a similar approach when he was with @Home Network. The company unveiled cable modems that were supposed to be faster than typical connections. But a glitch actually made them slower at times. The company went out of its way to communicate with users and reviewers about the challenges with the new modem, which mitigated much of the negative impact. Some users were still upset, and the company admitted its mistake and rectified the problem, says Wolfrom.

Time is of the essence, he adds. If the media relations team suspects there could be negative reviews because a product falls short in the eyes of users and reviewers, the team needs to extinguish that fire immediately, so that the criticism doesn't spread.

"You shouldn't be afraid of negative reviews," says Wolfrom. "How you react will help define your brand. If you ignore the problem or are combative, it will only make things worse."

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