The end of PR as we know it


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!


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?

All posts

  • To repair tarnished reputations on both sides, they should agree on a cause-related strategy, host a pizza-building assembly line down some town’s Main Street, and donate pies to the hungry. Each team can sell pies; people come and make them, too; and, team with most donates the cash to charity.

  • Mark

    Making pizza for the hungry. Hmmm. Sounds like a good idea any way you “slice” it.

  • Good post, Steve. As well as the original one from Mark. Just look at how much time, energy, and money L+T now needs to expend to at least stop the bleeding. On top of the court costs. It’s kind of amazing.

    All your ideas seem like good suggestions. What do you think of the idea of L+T engaging in a conversation with the larger community by asking, “What should a company do in this situation?”

    That’s kind of what I wonder. What would have been a good approach for them to protect their reputation in a professional, non-inflammatory way, out on social networks?

    I certainly don’t think that suing was the right decision. But this kind of thing is going to happen more and more. And I do wonder myself, what is the right response for a business that must protect its reputation in these days where comments like that can spread far and wide.

    Putting the question to the social media community forces the sensible people to ask themselves, what would I do if it was my business?


  • Interesting case study. It’s fascinating how magnified every action, every comment becomes when SM is the megaphone. Clearly a mistake, but not one from which they cannot recover if they are sensible. Very stimulating read, including comments.

  • Mark

    @Neicole I would love for L+T to weigh in, but I can’t find them on Twitter, Facebook or any other channel. They may not be even listening.

    In any event, if they’re serious about pursuing the lawsuit, nothing they could say here would help them. We’ve given them a good game plan though haven’t we? They should at least tell us “thank you!” : )

  • This is a terrific discussion and actually is a classic example of the power of social media. This article really says it all.

    “Without this lawsuit, you wouldn’t be reading this post. If their goal was to avoid a negative image in the media, this marketing firm has failed on a grand scale. In fact, they could learn a thing or two from The Pizza Kitchen. Even though they only have one store, attracting this lawsuit has led to global media attention beyond anything Low and Tritt could have landed them when they were still a client.”

    And, just as an aside comment, the fact that L&T is “nowhere to be found on Twitter and Facebook” might be a clear indication of why the campaign they are being sued for failed in the first place. Perhaps their first step in damage control is to get engaged and figure this out as they seem to be a “traditional” agency that jumped into SM without a clear understanding (ie: failed campaign, the impact of a traditional law suit etc).

  • You’ve really presented this well Steve. As did Mark in his original post. I really like Steve’s suggestion of getting the public to connect with the people involved. Humanizing them so to speak. Lawsuits are such institutional, de-humanizing things. I think too that I would combine that with Jayme’s suggestion of supporting a cause. Maybe get the pizza guys to teach the L&T guys how to make a pie. I know this is corny, but call it “humble” and then serve it up for the cause.

    Another possible positive for L&T is to become “thought leaders” on how not to treat your clients. Since they don’t seem to have a social presence, and since they clearly have to adopt one to issue the mea culpas, etc., they could turn this around in the same way Dell did after Jarvis had at them.

  • Hello @Jayme and @Gregg: I think you are right to consider a cooperative publicity event. Doing something together, and the community, would have tremendous value. I had included a joint activity around charity in my first draft.

    Also, I thought that a friendly video for YouTube, one where they are each a bit self-deprecating and good humored about the blow-up, might be powerful in defusing the situation, and be a publicity boon for everyone involved. I would only do that if there were a strong desire for each to make peace, and a real connection while negotiating settlement terms.

    However, given the deeply contentious nature of the dispute, I felt it likely that their past animosity would flare-up. This might come across to the public as a shotgun marriage at best, or at worst a second public brawl that would be a compounded personal branding disaster for both. A risk I could not advise or would take.

  • Dan Holden

    This was great. Might i be sold bold as to propose a second session? With the anniversary of the loma prieta earthquake just days away, can we tweet on the use of social media crisis communications during a natural disaster?

  • I’m always struck by how intelligently this community responds to these thought-provoking issues.

    Steve did such an excellent job of breaking this situation down that I learned a few new things regarding crisis communications. L&T likely couldn’t have paid for such excellent advice.

    I think I’m just curious who is in the driver’s seat. Who’s really so ruffled they feel the need to move forward with some sort of legal action? In both the Horizon Realty and L&T cases, the knee-jerk responses have done nothing but exacerbate things. Isn’t that part of leadership? Taking into consideration that what you may not know about something (i.e. how Twitter works and, more importantly, how the broad community will flock to these stories) could potentially derail your initiative? Assessing your next step strategically, making quick yet calculated decisions…

    Of course, hindsight is 20-20. The question is: are they willing to correct their vision before moving forward?

  • Mark

    @ rachel — thanks for stopping by and I sure agree about the intelligence of the community. One of the things I love about this group is that the comments are never just “great job Mark” (In fact it is never that … hmmm…) People really dig into things, contribute and challenge. Where do I get my ideas for blogs? {grow} reader comments usually!

    Your comment on leadership is right on. Thought leadership, community leadership and responsibility to those who work in the firm. They have a stake in the mess, too.

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