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Ignore the Twittersphere? Major brands learn that they had better respond -- and quick

Separate incidents involving CNN, Amazon and Domino's Pizza reveal that fluency in the evolving language of digital public relations comes easier to some companies than others.

April 20, 2009|David Sarno and Alana Semuels
  • Sears is among a growing number of companies that are joining social media sites such as Facebook to keep their customers informed.
Sears is among a growing number of companies that are joining social media… (Associated Press ) Inc. shut like a book.

Domino's Pizza Inc. was late but eventually delivered.

And CNN focused on the good news.

When the three major brands engaged with their Web-savvy fans and critics in separate incidents last week, their responses demonstrated how corporations are still learning how to control their messages -- and reputations -- in a fast-twitch online world.

The mixed track record so far shows that fluency in the evolving language of digital public relations comes easier to some companies than others.

First, CNN: As Ashton Kutcher edged out the cable TV network last week to become the first to attract 1 million followers to his Twitter account, an odd quirk of the much-hyped race was overshadowed: CNN hadn't actually owned its account until a few days earlier.

For more than two years, the CNNBrk account (for breaking news) had been created, maintained and run by a 25-year-old British Web developer who just wanted a way to beam short news alerts to his cellphone.

But when CNN found out that James Cox had appropriated its name and content, it took a direction that might seem a bit surprising for a major media company. Instead of suing Cox or trying to shut down the account, CNN quietly hired him to run it -- and then acquired it last week when Cox was visiting the company's Atlanta headquarters.

"We've been managing the feed through him," said KC Estenson, the head of CNN's online operation, noting the huge increase in the number of Twitter followers since the November election. "As Twitter took off and became more prominent, we decided it was time to take our engagement and make it a marriage."

Other companies may find that unexpected uses of their brand have a less than fairy-tale quality.

Last week, Domino's was handed a PR nightmare when a video showed up online showing two employees laughing as they prepared food in a deliberately unsanitary way.

The video quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of views.

Domino's initial instinct was to try to dispose of the situation quietly by responding only to concerned consumers who had already seen the video, rather than risk broadening its exposure by making a public statement.

But chatter about the problem spilled over into Twitter, whose expansive micro-messaging network is becoming an online circulatory system for news, pumping information between media organs, consumers and businesses themselves.

The Ann Arbor, Mich., company posted a YouTube response of its own and even established a Twitter account to answer direct questions from customers.

"What we've learned is if something happens in this medium, it's going to automatically jump to the next," Domino's spokesman Tim McIntyre said. "So we might as well talk to everybody at the same time."

When Amazon was faced with its own consumer outcry last week, it decided to forgo the social media route.

Without warning, many gay- and lesbian-themed books began disappearing from the site's search results and sales rankings. The Twittersphere instantly saw red, accusing the Seattle company of discrimination and censorship and demanding a response.

But Amazon stayed mostly mum. It waited most of a day only to cite an unspecified "glitch," and when that vagueness only fomented the outrage, it released a second clipped statement blaming a "cataloging error."

But Twitter abhors a vacuum, and commenters rapidly filled Amazon's silence with boycott threats, petitions and caustic accusations -- an outcome that suggests that the growth of social media may be driving up the cost of inaction.

Yet engaging with consumers can be dangerous too. Skittles learned that last month when it invited users to post Twitter-like comments on a page that prominently displayed its logo. Among the positive comments were a variety of colorful ones as well.

By giving users the freedom to post their own messages alongside its advertising, Skittles had opened itself up to a kind of online vandalism that seems hard to get away from.

"There's a mob mentality to social tools where people quickly try to put fuel on the fire, really encouraging brand damage and damage to individuals," said Jeremiah Owyang, a senior analyst at Forrester Research.

Every brand misstep can spur social-media denizens these days, he said, which affects even those companies that don't actively participate.

To stay safe in the social media minefield, he said, brands need to make sure to secure their own domain names in the various online environments -- before any squatters do -- and then start to build a community there. Then when a crisis happens, online or off, brands can then use that community to their advantage.

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