Of Sock Puppets and Public Relations

Public Relations Feb 13, 2007

OK, I try to lead with ideas and not follow, and not flock from one meme to the next like the Web 2.0 sheep. So, excuse me while I chase the latest cool meme that I just discovered: sockpuppet. This is a post that might better live on Connors’ blog, but HitTail is where my audience is right now, so on HitTail’s blog it will go.

It seems like only yesterday, I encountered the term Astroturfing, which is the practice of disingenuous drive-by linking on blog comments and forums in order to link-drop to build Google PageRank and higher search engine positions. But now, the EU is considering making the practice of posing as a happy customer (a sock puppet) illegal. The practice is also sometimes called flogging (fake blogging).

Many companies are allegedly guilty of this. Some of the higher profile ones were Sony with the PSP, Wal-Mart with the RV road trip, and Juicy Fruit, with a tongue-in-cheek accounting of their “stuck together” customers who wouldn’t let go.

In the case of Juicy Fruit, it was very obvious that it was a parody of their television ad campaign, and can’t rightfully be called a flog. It was on Juicy Fruit’s own website. But in the other cases, and hundreds more that are being perpetrated every day, the intent is to outright influence what people are learning during their pre-purchase research phase. When you think about it, every company in the world has motivation to set up fake blogs full of praise, if for no other reason than to proactively push-down the occasional negative posts on the same topic. This sometimes falls under the auspices of “PR blogging”, which really pisses me off.

Time and time again, companies demonstrate that genuinely opening channels of communications with their customer base via blogs and the blog comments is a workable strategy, in all but the most inflammatory cases. And even when it’s inflammatory, companies should just “take their medicine” and let the negative feedback accumulate up at least in a site that they control–instead of the scary alternative of dedicated anti-Company-X sites being created, domain names registered, and some serious customer rage funneled into learning SEO. Companies that let that sort of rage festered unanswered are really asking for it.

Take the Dell battery fiasco, for example. It festered for long enough that a genuine PR crisis ensued, that may have permanently broken long-standing customer trust forever. But Dell finally came around with a blog. It took awhile for them to get their legs, and the PR pundits who were already berating Dell played the “too-little-too-late” pile-on game. This discounts the considerable soul-searching and ultimate capitulation and “coming to the table” that Dell decided to do with their customers. Whether this will have a lasting effect, remains to be seen.

It’s easy to be caught when you’re Dell, Wal-Mart or Sony, because there’s such scrutiny. But what about the small to medium sized business (SMB) who are relatively sure they can get away with it? Given a relatively intelligent employee or agent, and a sufficiently laundered Internet connection (home ISP), and a Blogger BlogSpot account, you can be completely anonymous and fill the Internet with crap that keeps genuine customer grievance posts from appearing on particular keywords (hopefully, the company’s own name).

The answer is simple: don’t flog. Don’t make sock puppets. It’s just much easier to open a genuine channel of communication on your own website. Invite the flack. Enable comments. Let a few accumulate. Post a win/win response, and truly engage in enlightened customer satisfaction campaigns. It can be your best marketing. I rarely see a negative blog post that can’t easily be turned into a public relations win, by just doing what the customer asks (exchanging a laptop, expediting a repair, doing a full-out refund, etc.).

This prospect is scary for many companies, with the practice being only a hair different from dealing with terrorists. Once you give in for one situation, you have to give in for every situation. Well, classic strategy demonstrates, that’s just not true. If the money of providing such world-class support is REALLY such an issue, then simply give oil to the squeaky wheel. Make sure every publicly opened tech support case is successfully closed. If this causes a flood of “me-too” posts, so be it. Take it as a form of performance art, spending a little extra resources to ensure that each of these public whistle-blowers attains as close to 100% satisfaction as you can make it. Reward a few to motivate many.

You thereby take the wind out of their sails, the fury out of their fists, and cause an otherwise ready-to-combust bomb fire into a fizzle.

World class customer service is a much more viable alternative to flogging. And if you want some miraculous free advice, take the successfully closed support cases, mark them up with “black-out” stripes to protect the identities involved, and publish them as successfully closed customer service cases. It will fill the search results on the same keywords, but every single one will be a mini-success-story. Yep, it works. Hooray!

Advice like this isn’t going to come from a typical public relations firm, because they lack even the idea that valuable business assets like this exist inside of companies waiting to be leveraged. And forget about the technical expertise existing in the PR firm to actually make this happen, and the Kung Fu of overcoming the Tech-team’s objections. Precious few can actually pull this off.

If a genuine blog with enabled comments and an open dialogue isn’t your speed, and making successfully closed anonymous customer support cases also isn’t your speed, the last line of defense might be a genuine resource blog that is actually run by the Company in question, but with a disclosed relationship to the site. In other words, if you run a chain of hotels, you might wish to offer advice to travelers, creating a valuable resource in itself. The connection to the parent company should not be hidden. In fact, you should take pride in the content going onto that site, and have someone who views their editorial responsibilities at such sites as a primary marketing objective. Therefore, the quality and frequency of heart-warmingly genuine posts will increase, and you will end up with a permanent, valuable asset for the new company.

With such a site, you both have become part of the very same media that PR people in your space are actually pitching-to. Yes, you may occasionally be pitched by your own competitors to get coverage on your site (we regularly are). You will also have a pulpit for the occasional self-promotional post. But suddenly, there’s nothing wrong with that, because the connection to the parent company is fully disclosed. Further, the regular audience might actually appreciate that connection, giving them an RSS feed to subscribe to, in order to keep abreast of the latest promotions.

So, what about the occasions on which flames do flare up, and the open comment feature is abused? Simply, lock-down the comment feature with required approval, and let the dust settle. No one will begrudge you for keeping a flame war off your site, and it gives you time to compose your own response to the two or three negative posts THAT YOU LEAVE THERE! Don’t go retroactively un-publishing posts (unless it’s really damaging). There’s no surer way to stir up more flamers. Turn the negative into a positive, and let the attempt at revenge turn into a remarkably satisfied, and won-back customer. It’s possible almost every time.

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