What goes online

I was only three when Johnson & Johnson found some of its Tylenol product to be laced with cyanide. Some might say that crisis communications and Keith O’Brien grew up in the same generation.

I was only three when Johnson & Johnson found some of its Tylenol product to be laced with cyanide. Some might say that crisis communications and Keith O’Brien grew up in the same generation.

While I was too young to understand its implications at the time, I obviously now grasp the need for a company to communicate clearly, immediately, and without hesitation when seven people appear to die from use of your product. Given the company's success in managing the problem, I completely understand why so many invoke J&J in drawing a parallel to a crisis of today or tomorrow.

Such repetition, however, does not extend to beleaguered Kryptonite, the case study of choice for those highlighting missteps in this brave new digital medium. So confident am I that every reader has dissected that case – and inferred how quickly a chat room post can landslide into esteemed journalistic anchors fiddling with your product on the morning chat shows – that I will not bother rehashing it.

While the Kryptonite situation is no doubt a testament to the power of blogs, all the blogging in the world would not have prevented it happening. It was a product development issue, not a PR problem. No number of Kryptonite-purchased Typepad accounts would have precluded unknown thieves from snatching bicycles if they new how to do so. Nor would responding to every blog inquiry have squashed the noise. Nor was it even feasible for a company to do so, when it was struggling to reestablish credibility in the entire industry, not just the eyes of a few consumers.

As Donna Tocci told authors Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, "In the first two-three weeks we worked 18-20 hour days, every day, to formulate a plan regarding the locks and reply to the folks that were coming to us - consumers, dealers, distributors and media.  Again, not being able to rewrite history, we just didn't have the man or woman power to go and answer every forum question or blogger comment - and there were quite a few, as you know."

Just as Kryptonite had its product development problems, bloggers' negative perception of Dell had much more to do with pervasive product and customer service issues rather than a delayed PR response. Media crankypants Jeff Jarvis has not just complained about Dell - where's the coverage of his poor experience with Sprint? The reason is that negative reactions to corporations ebb and flow; they only catch epidemic status when the complaint resonates with enough people.

A major theme addressed at the raft of online, interactive, and new media conferences has been the immediate response to the first blog that provokes the issue.  But even if a quick response from either company's spokesperson placated the masses temporarily, PR could not fix the bike locks, or the customer-service situation.

PR could, however, show the organization how the information spread, and how something like customer service is no longer a one-on-one service; customers who feel mistreated are going to air their stories online. But how can you tackle that very pertinent role when there are still 3,000 posts about your client that you've not yet responded to?

Absent from most of the criticism of the corporate approach to blogs are arguments that tackle a cost-benefit analysis. In order to survive in this marketplace, PR professionals for large corporations are going to have to ignore the chatter coming from smaller organizations. For those at say, Pepsi, who don't agree, there are at least 186,000 posts discussing your product currently and, depending on the search engine, anywhere from 500 to 600 new ones per day. 

The current web is a noisy focus group that can just as easily confuse PR professionals as it can enlighten. Companies like Kraft can dig in and find that "MeGeek" from Dayton, OH considers Kraft Macaroni and Cheese a junk food and only eats it when she needs cheering up  and that Erin "PowerSkeet" is proud that her daughter thumbs her nose at Kraft singles.

Are MeGeek and Erin representative of America's point of view on Kraft Foods? Perhaps. Does MeGeek have credibility in his or her opines on the food and beverage industry? The likely answer is no.

Perhaps it's instinctual for PR professionals to help disgruntled writers see beyond their gripes. I wouldn't blame those in Kraft's PR department if they wanted to approach MeGeek and Erin, saying, "Well, now, there are hundreds of ways to have a gourmet and guilt-free Kraft experience. Why don't you enjoy Kraft low-fat singles and splurge on the full-fat versions when you're feeling decadent? Would you like some product samples?"

Wouldn't it be of greater benefit to aggregate all of these blog impressions and consider the strategy to improve upon Kraft's products and messaging, rather than interact with individuals on a one-to-one basis? In a profession that is still figuring out its definable ROI, one would be hard-pressed to explain the cost-benefit analysis of such a tactic, spread out over 79,000 posts that Technorati is tracking with Kraft.

The common rejoinder to this argument is that every voice in the blogosphere is important to the extent that it can symbolize a harbinger to a larger discussion lurking under the blogosphere crust.

But people are always going to bitch about your products. Blogs make that process easier and louder today. The bigger conversation needs to go on inside your company, to help executives understand there will inevitably be a lot of posts about various incidents. We should post our response on our blog, put a press release, or contact the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ will eventually write about the situation if it gets enough steam.

Doing otherwise would be the corporate communications equivalent of whack-a-mole, which is simply no fun if there isn't a clown nearby.

In order to survive in this marketplace, PR professionals for large corporations are going to have to get to the bottom of the return on investment (ROI) argument. For those at say, Apple, who don't agree, there are over 1,000,000 posts discussing your product currently. You better put a pot of coffee on and tell your senior executives to clear the next three years off their schedules.

Ubiquitous marketing is PRWeek.com editor Keith O'Brien's bi-weekly column on how technology is changing how companies interact with and position their wares to consumers. The focus of this week's column, pitching blogs, is the second part of a two-part entry. Keith can be reached at keith.obrien@prweek.com.



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