The end of PR as we know it

cliff

I usually dismiss people who say that social media “changes everything.” At least in marketing, it’s a variation on a theme of “listen, react, and serve your customer” that has served us well for generations.  But in a world where everyone is a publisher and critic — and can potentially be sued for it — this DOES change everything in the world of public relations!

I’ve been honored to explore this topic with Steve Farnsworth, Chief Digital Strategist of Jolt Social Media, who is absolutely one of the smartest PR and marketing guys I know.  On Monday I wrote a post describing a real case where a marketing firm, Low and Tritt,  sued a Knoxville pizza restaurant for $2 million over alleged libelous comments on Facebook and Twitter.  The fact is, this is just the beginning — we are going to witness more and more of this kind controversy.  The marketing firm’s reputation is now spinning out of control.  Once it goes viral, what can a company do?

Steve answers this for us in a guest post, his first ever!

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When Mark challenged me to respond to his post on libel lawsuits and social media, I was thrown for a loop. Crisis communications for a business who had sued a client or tenant?  Where do you even start on a self-inflicted gunshot wound like that?

It was a little like asking me to talk about safety to a young man as he recovers in the hospital burn ward, after he met the business-end of a Roman candle in a deeply misguided Jackass reenactment.   All you can really do is take pictures of the awkward injuries to show the other kids that it is just not a good idea.  You don’t want to try this at home.

Being a regularly reader of {grow} I couldn’t pass up a chance to work with Mark or his challenge.  To mix things up, Mark agreed to participate in a Twitter chat (#SM4B) with me on Wednesday October 7, 2009.  A sampling of the comments from the chat are included at the end.

Since I only have access to openly published details of the case, and lack internal insights of the cases Mark cited in that post, it is difficult to address those situations specifically. So, I am using this assumption:  The marketing firm realizes that as an unintended consequence of the lawsuit they risk potential irreversible damage to the firm’s long-term reputation, a reputation that they have spent years nurturing, and the very real potential of lost future business.

Situation Analysis

At risk for both parties

  • Loss of Money: court fees, attorney fees, and judgments against the loser by the court.  Also, vendors and banks see extending credit or loans to a business in litigation as potentially risky.
  • Bifurcated Mental Focus:  Cases can drag out for months or even years. Being involved in a lawsuit, even if you think you might win, is a drag.  It takes your mental focus off your business, family, and your life. With so much at risk you can’t think about building your business, taking care of your family, or health.
  • Time Sink: Meeting with lawyers, responding and filing court documents, and depositions all take your most valuable and limited resource: time.

Brand Impact Risk for Pizza Restaurant

  • You want people to think, “Hey you’re the guy who makes that fantastic Three-Cheese Pasta Bake.” Not, “Hey, you’re the guy who called your agency crooks and got sued for a million dollars.” Needless to say this is way off topic for your brand image.

Brand Impact Risk for Marketing Firm

  • Even if the courts decide that they are the clear victim in our scenario, the public is going to see the offending words calling them crooks and thieves repeatedly, and hear accusations that their work is subpar.  Public sentiment, as reflected by dozens of published comments, is establishing them as “That agency that sues its clients.”  There is absolutely no upside for their brand.  They could be a  very reputable agency, but this will impact new business development for years.

 My Suggested Plan Of Action

  • Make It A Non-Issue
    • News, and social media discussions, thrives on conflict.  Often when words have been said, and egos bruised, it is next to impossible to have a meeting of the minds, but that would be my first effort.
    • Both sides have a lot at stake in this case, and both have a great deal to gain by putting their differences aside and coming to terms. No one is going to be happy.  However, if they can agree on settling this matter quickly they can start repairing reputations and move on to building their business.
  • Create A Listening Dashboard
    • The train is off the tracks, but you still need to know where it’s going to land so you can be prepared to engage or adjust your efforts as needed.  Using an RSS reader like Google Reader, I would create several persistent searches for terms related to the case and save them as RSS feeds. At a minimum, sites I would include are Google Alerts, Twitter search, and Technorati. Probably Social Media Firehose (Yahoo Pipes), too.
  • Speak Once On The Topic and Shut-Up
    • I would write a very conversational, from-the-heart, brief blog post from the face of the company (owner, president, or GM) on the resolution.  I would have them acknowledge, in clear, but gentle terms, their mistakes, and I would do this without mentioning Pizza Kitchen by name. No need to beat a dead horse.  I want to capture the human nature of the situation, a genuine mea culpa, so that the public would connect with the people involved.  If the client had any believability on video I would do it on camera, and then post it to YouTube.
  • Create Positive Online Content
    • Diluting the negative online content with expert content is extremely important. Any time a new customer Googles L+T they will see the negative results. So, they should publish downloadable, no sign-up required white papers, case studies, and/or e-books.
    • Also, they need to start a blog hosted on their website (huge SEO benefits), and develop a videos series to post to YouTube.  All the content must be well crafted and targeted to potential client’s business concerns.  The blog and videos must provide great usable advice and demonstrates their marketing expertise.  This will help return some positive standing to search results, and likely shorten their sales cycle.
  • Show Your Face and Become a Resource
    • It looks like L+T primarily works with local businesses. I would create a few powerful presentations designed to help local business owners generate new clients, and then take it on the road. I  would talk to any group that could put 5 or more butts in seats.  Getting management out in front of potential clients will do a lot for rebuilding the company name by putting a human face on it, and great for generating new  business.

L+T  should continue to evaluate damage to new business, and decide how best to evolve their efforts.  Also, I would seriously consider rebranding the company and changing the name.  When I suggested this during the chat it met with a number of dissenting opinions.  The general sentiment was that the negatives would outweigh the benefits because people would see it as hiding behind a different name.  However, this does not track with the effects I have seen in the real world.

Names are very powerful. Johnson & Johnson rebuilt their very damaged brand effectively after the Tylenol tampering scare, but they were the victims and got out in front of the story. It is almost impossible to rehabilitate a brand that consumers see as the bad guy.  Blackwater Security Consulting knew this and changed their name pronto.  Now, if you ask a room full of people what Blackwater’s new name is, most would be unable to tell you. It’s Xe Services LLC.

For a full listing of comments, search Twitter for #SM4B.  Here is a sampling of some of the best insights:

@Dan_Holden: So even if they are right (win the lawsuit) they’ve damaged the reputation of the firm, perhaps irreparably.

@kimmolinkama: Maybe this is simply the first highlight case of ambulance-chasing turning into tweet-chasing?

@steve_dodd: the power of an apology… fix it and move on … would generate positive press that more than counteracts negative

@NitinGuptasays: I agree that BPB has risked its reputation and future business by sueing. .. but was PD justified in defaming the agency?

@Dan_Holden: My resolution would be to get the suit out of court and have a pizza and beer … maybe even sponsor a neighborhood beer bash

@markwschaefer: My take is that suing a customer is almost always a losing proposition.  And now under the glare of SM … wow.

What have I missed?  What would you do in the event of a social media PR crisis?

Throw out the stats. Talk to people.

heart_computer

I’ve been reading a couple articles about the latest social media stats, which some authors suggest are not leading to the “transformational” aspects of social media many expected.  They point to differences by region and socio-economic conditions as scientists try to squeeze insight from tables of numbers.

They’re looking in the wrong places for the truth.

Obviously the results of technology will reflect the people who use it.   Yes, there will be evil, corruption, and inequality.  That comes with the species.

But the whole story, the real story, the true transformational qualities of social media don’t show up on a graph.  The beauty of this “technology of connection” is embedded in individual stories.

For the first time in history, mankind has access to free, global, instantaneous communications.  There are countless connections happening –  new friendships, business contacts, supporters.  Sources of information, consolation, and inspiration.

I’ve built a foundation of new customers almost entirely through social media connections, discovered many new friends around the world who care for me, and even found the woman I love there, too.  These relationships never could have occurred without the technology, and they will never show up in a Harvard research study.

Put away the spreadsheets.  Get out there and talk to people. The transformation is in our hearts and minds and it is real.

Illustration: Karl Hilzinger

Twitter smack-down: Pizza joint hit with $2 million lawsuit

twittercase

Welcome to the world’s first hyper-interactive, cross-country, super-charged blog.

My subject today will serve as a case study to be discussed during a Twitter chat (#SM4B) hosted by Steve Farnsworth (@TheRealPRMan) Wednesday, Oct. 7, at noon Eastern time.  I will be his guest. Then on Thursday, Steve will contribute his own perspective in a guest post on {grow}.  I hope you enjoy this post and take advantage of the learning opportunity from every angle.

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Here we go again with another lawsuit based on a Facebook and Twitter comment.  And this time it happened right under my nose.

The Pizza Kitchen is a popular landmark in my neighborhood. They have funky Elvis stuff on the walls (It is Tennessee, you know!).  I’m not a frequent visitor but I did get a free meal once when their lasagna came out too soupy.

But that’s beside the point.  They just got slapped with a $2 mm libel lawsuit over comments made on Facebook and Twitter.  Apparently they retained marketing firm Low and Tritt to help them with advertising and promotions in a tough economy.  Business reportedly continued to go down and the restaurant’s owner, Travis Redmon, let the firm go.   A disagreement about fees and licensing rights ensued.

An article in the local paper reported what happened next:

According to the suit, Redmon defamed the marketing firm in two Aug. 17 Facebook entries that said, “Do not EVER use Lowandtritt mktg. firm!” and “CROOKS! – Stolen email list, and have tried to pressure me by threat of lawsuit to sign a ‘license agreement’ to use their mktg materials.”

The following day on Twitter Redmon posted, “Lowentritt mktg firm has done it again…” and “Can you believe that they have not only stolen my email list, but have now hacked Pizza Kitchen’s facebook page taking it offline?”

The posts were published to more than 300 Facebook friends of The Pizza Kitchen and 247 followers on Twitter, according to the suit.

I tried to find the latest legal opinions on libel and Twitter and, as they say in Australia, it’s a dog’s breakfast … a mess.  You could successfully argue both sides and it may take one of these things going to trial to determine a precedent.

However, the legal aspects of the pizza lawsuit seem secondary to the fundamental business issues at hand.

First, is it ever really a good idea to sue your customer?  Pizza Kitchen has one store and 247 followers on Twitter.  Even if the owner was really, really difficult, you just … don’t … sue … customers over something liks this.   Do you??

Low and Tritt’s website boldly claims that their company “foundation” is:  Client First, Always.  Hmmm.

OK, let’s put aside the messy “client first” thing for a minute.  What would they be trying to prove with a lawsuit like this?  Have they not been reading the papers?  This sort of legal action is so 2008.  This is a recipe for PR disaster.

There was a similar infamous case that went viral in July, as reported by the Chicago Tribune:

A Chicago corporate landlord set the Internet world abuzz by suing a former resident for a seemingly offhand remark on Twitter about her “moldy” apartment.

The libel suit by Horizon Group Management alleged that Amanda Bonnen “maliciously and wrongfully published the false and defamatory tweet, thereby allowing the tweet to be spread throughout the world.”

But Bonnen had only about 20 Twitter followers at the time of her allegedly libelous tweet. By the time the news of the legal fight spread Tuesday around the Web, however, “Horizon Realty” hit as high as No. 3 on Twitter’s list of trending topics and made the front page of Digg.com in which users rate the top news of the day.

One prominent lawyer said that the landlord was “inviting a PR nightmare” and “foolhardy” but the landlord is still pursuing the case.

Which brings me to point two.  These days, “word of mouth” does not take place at the water cooler.  This is an era where everybody has a voice, everybody has a global public platform.  A dissatisfied customer is a terrorist.  And Low and Tritt … seems to be in trouble.

How did the reporter find out about the lawsuit?  Probably from somebody who sympathizes with the restaurant.  So, now it’s in the newspaper.  And on TV.  Both online versions have comment sections providing more fuel to the public perception that Goliath is bullying David. As of this writing, there were 81 comments with stabs such as:

“They should change their name to low and trite.”

“Low & Tritt has conducted a fantastic gonzo marketing campaign advertising what the firm stands for. I wonder if they can sue themselves for stupidity? I’m sure the current clients splashed all over their web site are proud to be associated with such a professional organization.”

“I guess if you can’t make money by providing a quality service to your customers… then you can just hire a snake lawyer, and sue the customers that you FAILED for million$$$$.”

It gets worse. I didn’t hear about this from a newspaper.  I saw a link to the article on Twitter and so did hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others.  Now the news about Low and Tritt is going viral.

Although crowd reaction might go with the pizza baker, the lawyer for Low and Tritt claims in an interview that anybody with an audience had better be careful:

“The claim is that the posting on the Twitter page that was not accurate about the marketing company,” says Pamela Reeves. Reeves is partner of Reeves, Herbert & Murrian P.A., the office representing Low and Tritt in the case.

“It opens up lots of opportunities for defamation,” she says. Defamation – where a false comment damages the reputation of an individual or business – depends on the comment being untrue.

“If the statements that are made are accurate statements, you’re not defamed. It’s simply making an observation that’s true,” says Reeves. “Obviously our clients feel that that’s not the situation here.”

“Remember you always have the possibility of causing someone serious harm when you make those statements on the web,” says Reeves. “Unless you know you’re fully protecting yourself, you should be careful what you say.”

The Pizza Kitchen is caught in a maelstrom of legal uncertainty but has the benefit of public sentiment. Low and Tritt probably didn’t make the wisest business or PR move but might have the law on their side. Does that matter if their reputation is ruined?

So I hope you can all join Steve Farnsworth and I for the Twitter chat on Wednesday and then tune in for Steve’s blog on Thursday. In the mean time, what are your thoughts on this case?

Illustration: Chicago Decider
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