Crowd Wisdom Versus Crowd Venom

    April 9, 2007

Web 2.0 may sound like a utopia where faceless corporations morph into feeling, interacting entities composed of many humans who talk to other humans (like customers) via the Web, enriching both parties to the conversation. That sounds nice, but of course there’s a downside: sometimes, your company may get trashed on the Web. Business Week has an interesting article, Web Attack, that discusses how companies are dealing with reputation management issues.

The venom of crowds isn’t new. Ancient Rome was smothered in graffiti. But today the mad scrawls of everyday punters can coalesce into a sprawling, menacing mob, with its own international distribution system, zero barriers to entry, and the ability to ransack brands and reputations. No question, legitimate criticism about companies should get out. The wrinkle now is how often the threats, increasingly posted anonymously, turn savage. Even some A-list bloggers are wondering if the cranks are too often prevailing over cooler heads.

Most companies are wholly unprepared to deal with the new nastiness that’s erupting online. That’s worrisome as the Web moves closer to being the prime advertising medium—and reputational conduit—of our time. “The CEOs of the largest 50 companies in the world are practically hiding under their desks in terror about Internet rumors,” says top crisis manager Eric Dezenhall, author of the upcoming book Damage Control. “Millions of dollars in labor are being spent discussing whether or not you should respond on the Web.”

The article discusses how firms deal with negative publicity (or negative viral marketing) on the Web. The best approach is openness and communication. Often, even the harshest critics can be mollified if they know that real people make up a company and that these people are paying attention to the issues raised on the Web. The article describes a reasonably successful effort by Dell to counter criticism by ramping up communication with the “Dell Hell” originator as well as dissatisfied customers in general.

Another approach is a hired gun – the article mentions a firm named ReputationDefender who apparently tries to push negative commentary off the first pages of search results. We understand this, and have done a bit of that sort of thing ourselves, but it’s an approach that should be used with exteme caution. Excessive manipulation of search results might well be noticed by critics, and create a new and even bigger firestorm of criticism.

BrandAutopsy calls the Business Week article a “must read.” Andy Beal at Marketing Pilgrim makes some good points in explaining why you “can’t destroy your online past“. Jane Genova thinks the article is out of date, and offers simple advice: “If you want to be up on how the web has or can harass/harm/heal you, get on the web. All the pieces are there. It’s up to you to put them together in ways that can protect your interests, prevent you from doing stupid stuff, and preserve and enhance your reputational capital when harassed/harmed/healed.”

BusinessWeek thinks one big lawsuit might tip the scales a bit, but it’s hard to say what the outcome would be. A defamation lawsuit against a blogger or Web community, even if successful, might cause an even bigger uproar and more negative postings than had the suit not been launched. Still, we expect that some large firm will seek such a Pyrrhic victory sooner rather than later.