The new PR: Nimble Twitter responses make grass roots easy (or hard)

It was only about 20 minutes after I'd first complained via Twitter about getting rudely turned away from the drive through window -- where I'd arrived on my bike -- at sustainable fast food chain Burgerville when the company's Twitterer responded. A few minutes later, I was being contacted by the reporter on the "transportation" beat of the local newspaper. A few hours later, local TV news crews were setting up outside my front porch to interview me.

I had an apology the next morning from the manager. And the company's PR firm must have been working overtime for the next 24 hours, because by the afternoon of the second day following my Tweet, Burgerville delivered a press release announcing its new, formal bike-friendly policy at all its 39 drive-through windows (now called, additionally, "ride-thru").

The local paper covered it again the next day; and the grass roots feel-good story kept spreading. Burgerville & I were in USA Today together. Last week, the LA Times. On Wednesday, I was a guest on a morning radio program in Florida -- where the DJs extolled the sustainable cred of Burgerville, a restaurant only found three thousand miles away.

It's an example of how a nimble, attentive response to a customer's problem can yield payoffs better than those a dedicated PR flak might work months for. It's a testament to how the comment cards of yesteryear (which neatly slid into a box and thus were invisible to all other customers and would-be reporters) are public and instantly available for all to view. Praise or complaints: even if one customer speaks quietly and rationally, it can influence a group of hundreds, or thousands, of other influential customers before even the company has a chance to respond. And if their speech is, instead, ranting in all caps? Heavens.

I wasn't the only mama blogger who got a quick response to a complaint this summer. Another, far more influential woman, Heather Armstrong of the blog Dooce, had a problem with her new Maytag washer. Her first tweet about it: "The guy who is at our house to repair our BRAND NEW washing machine better know that I am insane and not to be screwed with. DETAILS TO COME." Evidently things did not immediately go well because by two days later she was tweeting, "So that you may not have to suffer like we have: DO NOT EVER BUY A MAYTAG. I repeat: OUR MAYTAG EXPERIENCE HAS BEEN A NIGHTMARE."

Whirlpool (WHR)
had an executive call her and apologizeand sent a repairman out who fixed the machine. And the NIGHTMARE was over -- for Armstrong and for the appliance company. But first, the company's Twitter account, and Home Depot (HD), where Armstrong had purchased the $1,300 machine, attempted to calm her in 140 characters -- that didn't work so well.

The lesson for brands attempting to be both nimble and effective in social media: respond quickly and then take the conversation (at least) semi-private, utilizing direct messages and phone calls. Continue to act fast: follow up, mention your customer by name publicly. Don't stop there. Enlist your new brand evangelist's help in spreading the word.

A bad experience can inspire a very, very good story about your company; but you must play by the rules of the new media. One example of a company that missed the boat is SIGG USA, which used its social media cachet to build up a fantastic, loyal customer base who loved its fashion-forward designs and its symbol as a green alternative to disposable plastic water bottles. Its customers were extremely informed and SIGG built up partnerships with other hip green consumer products companies, like outdoor gear maker Patagonia.

The company, however, had a secret: the lining of its bottles was formulated with BPA, one of the plastic chemicals that parents and young consumers were spending big bucks to avoid in alternatives like Nalgene bottles. Instead of owning up, SIGG covered up, asking environmental groups who suggested its proprietary lining contained the ingredient to remove mention of it, or prove the chemical was there. The groups backed down.

It wasn't until a year after the bottles' lining had been reformulated that SIGG owned up to the presence of BPA in its old bottles (many of which were still in retail outlets up until early 2009). Evidence suggested the chemical didn't leach into liquids, but the fact remained: SIGG had knowingly allowed customers and partners to trust its product for its relative chemical purity. The complaints were all over Twitter; influential ecological and parent bloggers tweeted and re-tweeted the news. The trust was gone.

Last week, Patagonia announced it was terminating its relationship with SIGG, noting, "
We very clearly asked SIGG if there was BPA in their bottles and their liners, and they clearly said there was not. After conducting such thorough due diligence, we are more than chagrined..." Twitterers replayed the news, and shifted their loyalties to Patagonia.

Listen, respond quickly, further the conversation meaningfully, follow up, and act according to your stated principles. Follow all these rules in social media, and your customers will become your brand evangelists, spreading the word to their friends. Don't? And all the "grassroots" PR you can afford won't save your reputation.
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