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Can Public Relations Pros Prevent Blogs from “Brand Hijacking”?

The purpose of a personal blog is to provide a forum where its writer can complain, praise, and pontificate. A lone personal blog is one of perhaps millions out there, but like everything else out there on the internet, what’s written on even a personal blog has a sense of permanence. As anyone with a website knows, drawing traffic to a new property is a difficult proposition. Most people who read my personal blog seem to be one-time visitors. Still, even a one-time visitor to a personal blog can have their opinion of a product or business changed, and not always for the better. For companies, personal blogs offer more opportunities for bad publicity than ever before. In the world of public relations, personal blogs can be a problem.

Take, for example, Anheuser-Busch. A short entry I wrote about a new beer, Bud Select, once appeared on page three of Google’s search results for the term “Bud Select.” Below is an excerpt of what I wrote about the beer. You tell me if your public relations department would want a prospective consumer reading this:

“Anheuser-Busch is marketing its new beer, Bud Select, as a new kind of beer, brewed for a crisp taste with no aftertaste. It’s low-carb and low in calories. It also sucks. Not only does Bud Select have no aftertaste, it has no taste. It’s like drinking club soda that has been watered down and mixed with flat light beer. I drank one Bud Select, and it was so bad that when I went to urinate afterwards, I apologized to the toilet.”

When this written, over 200 people had come to my personal blog via a search for Bud Select.

Another company which received some negative attention on my website was an e-commerce services provider name iMergent. I wrote a somewhat detailed post about the company that included a laundry list of reported legal problems, as well as links to negative consumer reports and news stories. Links to my original post, as well as a follow-up, appeared on iMergent’s stock message board on Yahoo during a time in which the stock was shedding more than 50 percent of its value. Over 300 people visited my website via these links.

What’s perhaps worse for iMergent, at one point a search on Google for the company’s name yielded my personal blog as the fifth result. Within two weeks of Google indexing my personal blog, received over 500 visitors due to search queries which involve the company’s name.

It’s not just companies that can be impacted by negative blogging. I wrote a short post about a local real estate developer whom I called out as an “idiot.” At one point a search for the developer’s name on Google turned up my personal blog as the third result, a decent showing considering this man is not a public figure and interest in him is limited to a very small population.

Personal blogs can, of course, also have a positive impact for a company. I wrote about an online advertising firm named Interchange, saying that the drop in the company’s stock may have been unwarranted and that, as an investor, I may be interested in buying some shares. Via a search for stock information on Yahoo, someone found my story and posted it to the company’s stock message board. About 60 people came to my site via the link, and I’m fairly confident that shareholders of the company were probably gratified to learn that someone actually liked the stock.

These four examples represent just a sampling of what goes on in the blogosphere everyday. They do, however, highlight how simple it is for a company, brand, or person to have their message hijacked by a third party. In each case, my intent was merely to pontificate, complain, or praise; consumers around the world were brought to my personal blog to hear what I had to say. This type of unfiltered exposure occurs everyday thanks to the media, but with the proliferation of personal blogs, online news publications, and online message boards, controlling a message has becoming increasingly difficult.

There are ways to combat this lack of message control. Search engine optimization (SEO) is being pushed as one solution; search engine optimization could, quite possibly, help position information you or your organization want the public to read to front-and-center when someone searches for it. But indexing web sites is a strange science where articles or web sites can sometime trump the actual brand and land at the top of a search-results page.

To combat “brand hijacking” effectively, public relations professionals must be diligent in monitoring personal blogs and news properties for brand mentions. You can do this through services such as Technorati (http://www.technorati.com) and Google News. You can also do this by paying a monitoring service, which should be tracking everything from the New York Times to Fark.com. Once you’ve identified negative mentions of your brand, an outreach program should begin.

For example, if such an outreach program were in place at Anheuser-Busch, a public relations representative could contact me and ask me exactly what it is I don’t like about Bud Select. Most people who write personal blogs won’t shy away from communicating with people or companies they’ve written about. In fact, many bloggers will undoubtedly take pride in the fact that they’ve caught the attention of someone with their writing. While it’s doubtful that I would change their opinion of a product such as a beverage, effective public relations outreach could lead to positive brand mentions, perhaps even a mea culpa.

Make no mistake, the amount of information out there on the web is too much for anyone to control. But large companies, especially those that utilize interns, should be able to identify “problem spots” online. Engaging in communication with the people behind these problem spots involves no more than some intelligently-crafted emails and some patience. Small organizations won’t be able to cover the same amount of virtual ground but should be able to mitigate some brand damage by selectively choosing targets for an outreach program.

Dealing with bloggers is much different than dealing with the media, and it’s important to recognize this. As a newspaper columnist, I hammered certain companies constantly, and no call from a public relations rep would call off my dogs. My reasoning was simple: I had done my research, spoken with sources, spoken with the company, and formed my opinion. Lunch, a few drinks with a PR person, or a call to my editor was not going to sway me.

Bloggers, meanwhile, often do not conduct the type of research most journalists do, and they rarely indicate that they’ve spoken to sources. It’s far less likely that they have contacted a company or individual they are writing about. This provides a rare opening to conduct reactive public relations, whereby you, as the PR professional, can try to level the playing field. In reactive public relations, you have a better chance of changing the perception of the people writing about you because they haven’t bothered to contact you in the first place.

To prevent brand hijacking, you have to be vigilant and pay attention to what’s going on in the blogosphere, and the online world in general. You have to be proactive in making sure your message is the one that shows up on search engines, and you have to be reactive when not just the media, but “citizen journalists,” attempt to obfuscate this message. Otherwise, before you know it, someone else is controlling your brand online.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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