For better or worse, many of your current or potential customers obtain their buying information from the Web -- and not just from your company Web site, where you can control what they see. While they will visit your site, they will also use search engines, and they will try to get the full picture from established news sources such as PC World, from blogs, and from shopper comments on Amazon, PriceGrabber, and similar sites. If you have a skeleton in your Web closet, they'll likely find it. So how can you protect your company or product reputation? Here are ten ways to combat bad Web PR.
Don't be caught unaware: The first rule is to closely monitor what is being said about you. In this respect, Google is your friend. Say you are Apple, and you want to keep on top of the latest iPhone gossip. Just searching for iPhone would be useless, delivering too many hits. Instead, create a Google Alert to receive the latest news and blog entries about the iPhone, which you can have sent to you daily, weekly, or even on-the-fly. If you prefer, you can also receive new search results via RSS or Atom feeds. Be especially vigilant in the days preceding and following any product introduction or other announcement. Being forewarned is being forearmed, and you'll be able to act quickly in response to bad press.
Nip blog and review errors in the bud: According to Technorati, bloggers obtain almost two-thirds of their company and product information from other bloggers. Combine these incestuous data sources with Digg, Reddit, and Del.icio.us ratings, and you have the potential for near-instantaneous viral transmission of incorrect or damaging information. It's critical to stop misinformation before it spirals out of control.
If this happens to you, promptly contact each and every editor or blogger and politely explain the inaccuracy or mitigating circumstances, then request a prompt correction/clarification. Most are happy to comply with reasonable requests; their reputations depend on accuracy. Avoid posting corrections in blog comments, unless the blogger ignores you and you have no other recourse. Readers may not see your reply, and comments often open you up to further denigration.
Don't hide your identity: As tempting as it may be, never try to correct bad press by hiding your identity and posing as a customer or reader when making comments. This can backfire big-time if you are caught, and the probability that you will be unmasked is high. Bloggers will "out" you, and you will look far worse than you did originally. The same advice goes for correcting wiki entries about your company -- look what happened to Raytheon. And definitelydon't pay others to write good things about you. Remember that you have legitimate ways to get the right kind of blog attention, which we discuss in the companion to this article, "Ten Ways to Generate Good Web PR."
Refocus the discussion: If the bad reviews or customer comments are justified, the best thing to do is to refocus the discussion on the positive aspects of your product or service. What did the reviewer miss? What do you do better than the competition? Make intelligent and well-thought-out comments and be honest about who you are, and bloggers and readers alike will appreciate that someone from the company is taking the time and care to communicate with them on that level. This type of communication will also pay off in spades the next time you have a piece of news to disseminate -- editors and bloggers will be more disposed to give you a fair shake.
Don't be afraid of mea culpas: If customers or reviewers have legitimate beefs, own up to the problems and correct them. Doing so can literally turn bad PR into good PR. If the product is software, tell people you'll correct the problem as soon as possible in an update, and follow through. Even if you have to spend money (for example, Steve Jobs's offer of $100 coupons to early iPhone buyers), you'll likely get it back in goodwill and future sales. This advice goes triple if you're dealing with a safety issue such as a product recall (think of Mattel and lead paint on toys, or Tylenol and pain-reliever poisoning). The sooner and more independently you act, the better you will look and the more you can head off the bad press.
Don't bash the competition: In the weeks leading up to the iPhone launch, Verizon sent several communications bashing the iPhone to journalists and customers. This practice is bad PR. Instead of knocking the iPhone, which merely put the spotlight on it and made us wonder why Verizon was so scared, Verizon should have taken advantage of the ruckus surrounding the Apple device to shine a light on its own smart-phone products.
Monitor the use of your name and reputation: Malicious Web sites and spammers using your name can be just as damaging as bad PR. Online greeting cards are one example. More than 250 million fake cards designed to trick the recipient into visiting nefarious Web sites, and the attendant publicity, have severely decreased use of legitimate greeting-card sites such as Hallmark.com. In response, American Greetings and Hallmark have changed their policies to include the name and e-mail address of the sender in the card, so that recipients will know it is valid. Similar problems can occur if other sites use names that are common misspellings of your own. If you can, buy these domain names and redirect them to your site.
Track employee communications: While most employees have their company's best interests at heart, they are not always good at PR. They may unwittingly or purposely disclose trade secrets or embarrassing details on personal blogs, they may speak to journalists or bloggers when they are not supposed to, and they may be the source of hidden-identity PR gaffes (as mentioned above) if they make comments on a blog or edit a Wikipedia entry. To combat this, make sure your employees know what is acceptable outside communication, and give specific examples of what they should and should not talk about. Designate spokespeople who can handle outside inquiries, and give employees a way to report any bad press they see.
Be prepared with a crisis plan: Jocelyn Brandeis, cofounder of JBLH Communication in New York, offers this advice: "Always have a crisis communications plan in place. Know which executives will speak on behalf of your company and try to imagine the worst-case scenario ahead of time to have prepared answers. When a PR crisis does hit, you won't be furiously looking for spokespeople or information." She also advises using your company's Web site to disseminate crisis information, since phone lines and e-mail boxes may be jammed. For example, when Mattel announced its toy recall, consumers and journalists alike could find the details easily right on the company's home page.
Remember that there's no such thing as bad press: If all else fails, keep this adage in mind. Some bad press is inevitable for any significant company or product, and the attention will at least raise your profile. In fact, the bigger you are, the more of a target you make -- just ask Microsoft. Take minor hits as badges of honor that mean people care about you, and vow to do better next time.