Clear the Smear

For any business or organization, successfully managing public relations has long been vital to maintaining brand reputation.

For any business or organization, successfully managing public relations has long been vital to maintaining brand reputation. This was traditionally done by directly responding to customer letters or phone calls in order to address individual grievances, or through sending out a press release or posting a company letter on a website to speak to larger issues. However, the emergence of social media has fostered a new way for grievances to be aired—for all the public to see.

Companies have taken note. For if not properly addressed, grievances have the potential to go viral, becoming a public relations nightmare that may damage brand reputation. So, it has become vital that businesses and organizations embrace social media platforms as a means to communicate and interact with patrons. By doing so, companies can address issues and grievances head-on, and even stand the chance of turning a smear campaign against them into a positive marketing tool for the brand.

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Public Relations 101

Although social media now highly informs how the public relations function is handled, causing issues to often be dealt with in real time, the formula for addressing issues hasn’t changed. “It (addressing concerns) should always be seen as an opportunity for an organization to put the best possible light on an issue,” says Dan Handley, regional president and CEO of Dale Carnegie Training in Saginaw Township. Dale Carnegie Training, a New York City-headquartered global organization that consults and trains business professionals, places a strong focus on honing effective communication and people skills.

For Handley, the formula for addressing negative word of mouth or smear campaigns is quite straightforward, and this applies to any medium: “You should address the issue head-on by clarifying any issue of misunderstanding, demonstrating the integrity of your firm or business, and being respectful of others’ opinions.” By clarifying, Handley means that if the facts aren’t correct concerning an issue, provide information and data that clarifies them, but do this in a non-defensive way.

“One of the worst things you can do concerning public relations is to become highly defensive,” says Handley.
However, if the facts reveal that your business or organization did something wrong, demonstrate the integrity of your business by taking responsibility for the problem and immediately taking measures to fix it.

“Hiding from a mistake or stopping communicating can be as big a mistake as getting defensive,” adds Handley.

It’s Handley’s belief that the medium for the communication isn’t as essential as the type of communication.

“When addressing an issue, authentic communication is most critical. Social media is only a platform. It all comes down to the human element,” says Handley. “Make it personal and direct from a senior person.”

However, Handley acknowledges that social media platforms are where people are more often expressing their grievances, so this is where those charged with handling public relations issues should take measures to meet and address them.

Public Relations 2.0

Even though the manner in which public relations should be handled hasn’t varied since the introduction of new media, the timeliness of the communication required certainly has. The need to have a representative constantly monitoring and interacting on social media sites has prompted many businesses and organizations to designate someone as their social media specialist—or to even go as far as creating a position solely devoted to social media interaction.

“Ignoring social media is ignoring customers,” says Martha Zehnder Keller, vice president of sales and marketing for Bavarian Inn Lodge in Frankenmuth. “Businesses should use social media to share what they are all about and to listen to what people are saying about their brand.”

Bavarian Inn Lodge utilizes various social media platforms to promote and strengthen its brand and, according to Zehnder Keller, has more than 60,000 “likes” and followers on its various sites.

“We think of social media as a conversation that we are having with our guests,” says Zehnder Keller.

This conversation takes place mainly on Facebook, Twitter, and TripAdvisor. However, the lodge also has a presence on Pinterest and Instagram, where it suggests that visitors post pictures of their time spent in Frankenmuth.

The use of TripAdvisor has likely been the lodge’s biggest social media success story.

“We are the most reviewed hotel in Michigan on TripAdvisor,” says Zehnder Keller.

These reviews, consisting of a 1-5 rating and comments, serve to inform potential visitors of what type of experience and service they should expect from the lodge. Positive word of mouth from those who visited can serve to reinforce the brand, but negative comments or criticisms need to be quickly addressed so that they don’t damage the brand.

Zehnder Keller shares an instance in which a criticism was quickly addressed and turned into positive commentary for both the Bavarian Inn Lodge and the city of Frankenmuth. A guest posted the comment on TripAdvisor: “Great town. Great hotel for kids and families. Not good for couples.” Bavarian Inn Lodge CEO Jim Engel quickly responded to the post, encouraging the couple to come back alone and try out the various adult-only activities and amenities offered by the lodge. After taking up the challenge, the guest reposted: “I was wrong!” The guest then added: “We will be back, both as a couple and as a whole family.” The lodge took this positive commentary and shared it on Facebook, demonstrating that brand criticism not only can be turned into a positive through timely social media communication, it can also be featured across communication channels.

“It’s important to be proactive and micromanage opportunities,” says Zehnder Keller.

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Social media mistakes

Taking advantage of opportunities and strengthening a brand via social media interaction require that the right person be placed in the position. A common mistake companies or organizations often make is assuming that anyone with social media experience can manage their various social media sites. Simply placing a recent college graduate in the position, someone who has experience using Facebook and Twitter, might not be the best avenue to take.

“Social media management is a 24/7 job,” says Heather Calkin, director of integrated media for The F.P. Horak Company, a Bay City-based company that offers communications solutions for business and industry. Calkin helps manage three separate service lines, one of which focuses on digital communication solutions. “A social media manager should be someone who is comfortable with the organization, levelheaded, and can respond quickly with accurate information,” adds Calkin.

Essentially, a company’s social media manager is a public relations person, so ensuring that the person placed in the position has a strong communications background is prudent.

“You want someone who is creative and can plan for the future,” says Calkin. Meaning, beyond communications experience and expertise, companies should seek candidates who possess technological savvy and are able to recognize trends in social communications.

Certainly, placing the wrong person in charge of managing social media can be a mistake, but Calkin reveals an even bigger mistake that many businesses and organizations are making: They have no social media presence at all.
“Companies need to be aggressive and be a part of it,” says Calkin, reflecting on one particular client that didn’t have or want a Facebook page, but was shown an arbitrary page made in the company’s name that contained comments about the company, many of them negative. After creating an official page, the company’s “likes” quickly went from 0 to more than 400, and it was then able to directly address any posted criticism.

“The conversation is happening whether you are part of it or not,” adds Calkin.

And if you are a business or organization considering dipping your toe into the social media pool, Calkin offers some advice: “Research it and then dive in. Be brave! Things will go wrong, but the upside is greater than the downside.”

To conduct research, Calkin suggests that businesses and organizations look at their competitors, both local and national, to see what they are doing to utilize social media. Find out what appears to be working and what isn’t, and then ask how they want to portray themselves in a digital way.

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Turn the smear into cheer

Various avenues exist that businesses and organizations can use to communicate publicly: press releases, website postings, direct contact via phone, letters, or emails, etc. Each has its benefits, depending on the situation. However, more consumers are finding social media to be an expedient tool for lodging a grievance—and failure to properly address a grievance can lead to piling on by other patrons, resulting in a full-blown smear campaign. Businesses and organizations need to react to this trend and interact with their patrons in this medium to ensure that a smear campaign doesn’t go unattended. By doing so, through tact and thoughtful communication, companies just might find social media to be an expedient tool for turning a smear campaign into a positive for their brand.

This is exactly what a hospitality industry client of Calkin’s did. When Calkin took on the client, it had an existing social media presence that wasn’t being properly managed.

“Their Facebook page in particular was a ‘complain-o-sphere,’ where negativity would pile on,” says Calkin.

Initially, the strategy was to take issues off-line and address them one-on-one, with the hope of eliminating the negativity and adding a personal touch to the service. But the influx of complaints continued, so the strategy was changed. While continuing to address issues off-line, a campaign was created to feature the client’s positives.

“People were urged to share positive experiences and good memories of their visits, with bi-weekly prize winners offered up as an incentive to post,” says Calkin.

This strategy worked, turning a page that once consisted of about 60 percent negative comments into a page with about 80 percent positive comments.

Ultimately, public relations is about protecting and strengthening brand reputation, which often entails addressing smear campaigns attacking a brand. Businesses that let smear campaigns go unattended in any medium stand the risk of letting the message be controlled or contrived.

“Where there’s a lack of information, people fill in the gaps,” says Handley.

There are many things businesses can do wrong when addressing an issue—responding poorly to difficult questions, having the wrong point person, failing to recognize the impact of their actions, not showing respect for others’ opinions—but not communicating at all tops the list of mistakes they could make.

“The key is to get out there and effectively communicate,” Handley adds.

Use It (Social Media) or Lose It (Brand Reputation)

In its infancy, social media was primarily a tool for social interaction, a way to stay connected with friends and relatives, share information and pictures, and present a profile of who you are. Although these are still relevant uses—what grandparents don’t like updates about their grandchildren’s activities, and who doesn’t like a cute kitty image?—social media has quickly matured into a vital tool for businesses to interact  with their customers and protect brand reputation.
“I haven’t seen a brand yet that couldn’t benefit from using social media,” says Rachel Esterline Perkins, associate director of public relations and social media at university communications for Central Michigan University (CMU). “Most people don’t read email or mail, but they are spending time on social media, so it’s a great way to engage them.”

CMU uses Facebook and Twitter to engage in conversations and share information with alumni, students, and potential students. Tumblr is used as a vehicle to showcase what it means to be a Chippewa. YouTube features videos of campus life. And Instagram is used to share images of campus life and encourage others to share pictures of their CMU experiences. Esterline Perkins is tasked with maintaining CMU’s presence on these sites. She also uses Sprout Social software to monitor key words to see what’s being said about the university via social media. She then posts timely responses.

“People generally expect a response in about an hour,” says Esterline Perkins.

Through vigilant monitoring, Esterline Perkins ensures that negative comments about the university are quickly addressed and positive comments are quickly acknowledged.

“People are using social media more often than anything else to provide feedback, or to lodge a complaint or criticism,” she says.

To address complaints or criticisms, Esterline Perkins suggests that the person making the complaint give her a call so they can talk one-on-one.

“It’s important to take things off-line when you begin helping someone,” she says.

While it’s essential to quickly address criticism, it’s equally essential to have someone in place who is capable of representing your brand.

“A social media manager must have a level head and respond with accurate information,” says Esterline Perkins. “Don’t simply put a young person with social media experience in the position. Just because they can use Facebook doesn’t mean they are good communicators.”

As echoed by those in the know throughout business industry, the biggest mistake a company could make is not having a social media presence at all.

As Esterline Perkins says, “People are going to talk about you anyway. Social media gives you a way to respond.”

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