PR Disasters Lurk in Web 2.0 Chicanery

futurelab default header

by: Roger Dooley

The good news is that companies, even big ones, are waking up to the power of online communities, and that they are taking steps like starting their own communities for discussion, ratings, reviews, and social networking as well as participating at other sites. The bad news is that sometimes they get carried away.

The latest corporate goof was by Comcast, who apparently hired an inept PR firm to get their message out by impersonating sports fans. The site administrator at did some basic IP sleuthing and outed the miscreants in a post titled Wake up Martin Waymire Advocacy Communications! (Comcast hired site posing as BT fan). Oops… not very subtle. (Via Consumerist – Comcast Caught Astroturfing About “Big Ten” Channel and FanHouse.) Unfortunately, Comcast is hardly the only firm doing this.

I stumbled across a post on the Instigator blog from earlier this year, Is Home Depot Scamming People With Fake Comments? that highlights some suspicious product reviews on Home Depot’s own site. I’m sure some Googling would turn up dozens more instances like this. And, if you question the scale of this effort, check out Wired’s story on Who’s Editing Wikipedia. Corporations like Diebold and WalMart have been outed for polishing their own Wikipedia entries… from their own corporate IP addresses.

What do all of these have in common? These efforts are all ham-handed attempts to improve a business’s online reputation performed by people who, if not completely clueless, certainly lacked basic knowledge about Internet technology. They used easily identifiable IP addresses, or they posted content that any experienced community member would have spotted as suspect. In some cases, the spammy comments were the first post by a new user.

I’ve been administering online communities for years, and I’ve found that my fellow admins, along with moderators and even experienced members, can sniff out bogus posts very quickly most of the time. In addition, the admins usually have a variety of tools to further check out anything suspicious. Why a large company would pit a junior employee (or worse, an intern) against a variety of community experts is hard to fathom. The potential gain is minimal compared to the risk of exposure and ensuing damaging publicity. All you need is a slow news day – think of the flap over Microsoft hiring a consultant to tweak their Wikipedia entry. What they did was no worse than what thousands of other firms have done, but the story developed legs and lasted for many days.

What Companies Should Do To Avoid Web 2.0 PR Disasters

Maintain a Culture of Honesty. Most companies are honest most of the time. The consequences for dishonesty are high, and, even absent penalties, most senior managers want to run an ethical business. The sea change in the new Web is that employees, contractors, and others are now out there speaking for the company. And when they speak, it’s permanent. Even if they speak anonymously, they may still leave a trail of footprints back to the company. A misstatement in a phone conversation is one thing; a bogus statement on the Web is a lot more serious. Managers have to create and maintain a culture of honesty that pervades all ranks of the firm.

Fix the Company Internet Policy. Most company Internet policies cover abusive behavior, waste of company resources, and similar serious topics. Either as part of that policy or a general employment policy, every employee needs to be cautioned about company-related posting on websites. That includes those owned by the company as well as other interactive sites. Each company can decide where to draw the line about employee blogs and the like, but it should be clear that any deliberate miscommunication on company-related topics is never OK. I’m sure some of the examples that crop up, like Home Depot’s reviews, aren’t part of some master corporate policy; rather, if bogus comments were posted it was probably an employee who thought a little freelance seeding would be a good use of his or her time.

If You Outsource, Hire The Right People and Know What They Are Doing. The Comcast flap seems to have been caused by an overzealous PR firm who may have employed some people who lacked community savvy. Any firm that hires an outside agency for community issues, reputation polishing, and similar Web tasks needs to know what the company is doing and who’s doing it. Bogus community posts are rarely a good idea, but assigning that activity to new hires as firms often do is particularly risky. Because there’s not much of a value add from random community posting, it often does get assigned to someone “cheap” – that’s when it is most likely to backfire. (Of course, even CEOs get caught in the same snare – remember the recent Whole Foods fiasco?) As HP chairman Patricia Dunn found out, “you don’t want to know exactly how we get results” is not an acceptable reply from a contractor. Insist on knowing the details, and avoid anything sleazy. Few secrets stay secret forever, and you don’t want your company to be the next Web 2.0 scandal du jour.

Original Post: