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Can Customer Service Survive in the Blogosphere?

What should companies do — and what should they refrain from doing — when reacting to blog postings about their products or services? Robert Cox, president of the New York-based Media BloggersAssociation and a consultant to consumer packaged goods companies, has veryspecific ideas on the subject.

What they shouldn’t do: Ignore the situation, or worse, try to intimidate bloggers into shutting up — unless, of course, they are writing defamatory statements. More on that below.

“There have been some high-profile cases of companies ignoring complaints about their products on blogs and thenhaving it blow up in their faces very publicly later on,” he tells CRM Buyer.

There was, for example, the publicity about Dell’s very poor customer service — the catalyst for that PR firestorm was an unhappy blogger.

There was also the humiliating case of the Kryptonite lock. A blogger posted a video showing that its bike locks could be picked with a Bic pen in 30 seconds, confirming what had started out as a rumor. Within weeks, the video made its way into major media and the company wound up issuing a recall.

Taking a More Positive Approach

Dunkin’ Donuts, on the other hand, provides an example of a company thinking on its feet to handle a negative blog posting correctly.

A few years ago, Cox says, he came across a Web site that announced Dunkin’ Donuts would ship a case of coffee to any relative of a soldier fighting in Iraq. The blog was a misleading in many ways, he recalls.

For starters, the site was designed to look like Dunkin’ Donuts — indeed, Cox though it was anaffiliated Web site at first. Also, as it turned out, the information was not quite accurate. Cox believed that it was, though, and passed the link to other bloggers who began mentioning it on their sites.

Hours later, Cox, who has two nephews in Iraq, called Dunkin’ Donuts to find out more. Hespoke with a woman who told him the company was no longer backing the offer, because it had gotten too many requests. Coxrelated the conversation on his own blog andpassed that information along to the blogosphere as well. It got exactly the reception one might expect.

Next, Cox received a call from an ad agency that monitored the blogosphere for mentions of its clients. “They said, before Iwrite anything further they would like a chance to investigate what had happened — and could I please holdoff,” said Cox.

They called back with an explanation — and a pressrelease tailored just for him. The offer to shipcoffee had never been a formal one; apparently it wasmade ad hoc without much thought concerning the total costto the company. However, Dunkin’ Donuts did want to dosomething to support the troops and said it would ship casesof its coffee to different units every month, on a random butregular basis.

Fielding Consumer Complaints

Web logs, or “blogs” as they are called, areincreasingly being used to shine a spotlight oncompanies that provide poor service or otherwise annoy — sometimes enrage — consumers.

For consumer advocates, they are a true equalizer: Bloggers have been able to shame companies into fixing mistakes orchanging policies, especially when they cause a mainstream media reporter to come calling.

Companies, for the most part, are reacting well to this shifting balance of power with consumers. As a consultant, “How do I shut these people up?” was a typical request Cox received from companies.

“That is still out there, of course,” he said, “but I have seen a change among smarter companies that are realizing thatblogs represent opportunities to engage with their audiences on a very large scale.”

Louder Voice, Bigger Responsibilities

With the power of the blogger’s voice, though, comes larger responsibilities — not to mention potential liabilities. Many bloggers aren’t aware of the danger zones.

A Louisiana woman was recently held liable for her blog posting about the service a Florida resident provided in a situation that involved her sons. What was unusual about the case was that the Louisiana native — who lost her house in Hurricane Katrina — had no money to pay the judgment, but the suit went forward anyway.

Legal observers expect to see such suits proliferate. “The interplay between the legal system and theblogging community is a developing one,” Chip Babcock, a litigation attorney and partner atJackson Walker tells CRM Buyer.

Taking Notes

Basically, bloggers are held to the same libel standardthat any publisher is held to, Babcock explains. For bloggersunaware of what that standard is, a primer on thedifference between a false statement and a statement ofopinion — which is protected speech — is key.

Says Babcock: “If you want to call someone ‘scum,’ thatis protected speech. You just can’t say someone isscum because, say, they embezzle money,” he advises,”unless of course that is true, and you can prove it.”

More companies are monitoring the blogsphere, he notes, although many take a more adversarial stance than Dunkin’ Donuts reportedly did. “I think corporate and legal strategies to deal with blogs [are] still verymuch evolving,” he says.

Cease and desist letters are one tool — but unless the blog is making false statements of fact, a bloggershould have little to worry about.

“It is generally very difficult to prove defamation,” Steve Smith, a partner atPreston Gates, tells CRMBuyer. “My guess is that for every ten lawsuits thatare initiated for defamation, nine are eventuallydropped once the person realizes how difficult it isto prove.”

This story was originally published on Oct. 23, 2006, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

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