A colleague pointed me at this article on ereleases.com. The writer had been trying to book a vacation and was swayed toward a particular hotel because he found the manager posting comments on travel websites – apologizing to customers who posted complaints and thanking guests for their feedback. When he told the manager that at check in, he heard something a lot public relations folks are probably familiar with.
“A lot of our customers say that,” the manager told me. “It’s funny because I didn’t want to do it at first, but our public relations person made me.”
It’s amazing how often companies and institutions are reluctant to directly engage in the online community. They see the Internet as some wild frontier untamable by any but the most rugged of men. The fact is, your efforts to explain your position, defend your policies, and yes, actually acknowledge your mistakes and apologize to your customers actually build your brand, not damage it. As the PR Fuel article points out:
The irony is that PR people have complained that websites such as TripAdvisor.com hamper their ability to control the message when, in fact, it gives PR people a great opportunity to manage a brand and message. By actively participating in a community of consumers, PR people can defend themselves against whiners and complainers who have anomalous experiences with a product or service, or who are just the type of customer no one wants to deal with.
As one hotel employee said in response to a review from a complaining customer, “I’m sorry that this person had such an awful experience. We did our best to meet their demands, but some people are just jerks.”
This response actually caused other customers to come to the defense of the hotel in question.
Openness, honesty, and engagement are your friends online. There is little room for hiding behind a small set of talking points and hoping you can get by. To be sure, this approach requires more work. It takes a lot of effort to troll through message boards and community sites. Services like Google Alerts can help by sending you notifications when someone posts about your brand online. Sites like Technorati monitor blog posts so you can easily find references to your brand on someone’s journal.
At that point, it’s up to you to go online and take part in the discussion. You may not remember every detail of your interaction with a particular customer, and that’s ok. You can acknowledge their concerns/complaints and explain what you would do to address them. You can also tell your side of the story – just do so respectfully.
For those who practice marketing and PR in the political space, the PR Fuel article shares one more anecdote that is particularly salient to you.
I know from my friends in the business that running any kind of hospitality enterprise is difficult. What makes it more difficult is when the business is not proactive about public relations, which sometimes simply amounts to above-and-beyond customer service in the industry. Restaurants, hotels and other hospitality businesses strive to get good reviews from professional reviewers, but they too often ignore getting their message across to the actual customer.
Why is that particularly valuable for political people? Think about that last sentence. How much time do we spend trying to guarantee good coverage by the New York Times, Washington Post or some local paper? Now how much time do you spend trying to get good word of mouth press from actual voters? The media will rarely create good word of mouth for your efforts – that’s simply not their job.
The reviewer will mention any flaw they see, even in an otherwise glowing review. In the same way, the media is going to talk about something you’ve done well, but will also make an effort to be ‘balanced’ by pointing out your warts. Good constituent service, and effective communication with voters, doesn’t necessarily carry that same overhead.
The best thing you can typically expect from the media is a neutral, mediocre article. The best thing you can get out of interaction with voters is a champion who will carry your message to friends and family without feeling compelled to also highlight your flaws. Which is worth more?