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Turning the Tables on Bad PR

A few weeks ago, I pointed out how customer service problems at Comcast had resulted in the company being on the receiving end of some very negative press attention. To my surprise, the cable giant was actually able to defuse some bad press this week.

The Consumerist, a website whose slogan is “Shoppers Bite Back,” ran a story on Monday accusing Comcast of censoring a segment of ABC’s “Nightline.” The blog reported that users of Comcast’s TV-on-Internet service, The Fan, were not treated to part of a Nightline segment that showed the very customer service problem that got the company in hot water (a video of a Comcast technician sleeping while on a service call). The Nightline segment was about how blogs are being used to call companies out on their bad behavior.

“We would really like to nail Comcast here,” The Consumerist wrote.

Following up on the story later in the day, The Consumerist posted the offending video, which did in fact show that the Nightline segment was randomly cut off just as the Comcast customer service issue was about to be discussed.

“See, Comcast was so sure and adamant the incident would never happen again that they didn’t want anyone to know it happened in the first place. How contrite can they truly feel if they can’t admit their faults to their own subscribers?” the weblog gleefully wrote.

On Tuesday, The Consumerist’s story fell apart, but only after the bloggers emailed the Nightline producer with their complaints. The producer apparently passed the email onto Comcast, because the company’s corporate communications department soon shot off a note to The Consumerist.

“We noticed your most recent post on The Consumerist about the Nightline segment and wanted to clear up the facts. Comcast receives thousands of news segments from ABC for our comcast.net site and has not edited any of those segments, including Friday night’s episode about blogs. We post the segments as we receive them directly from ABC and Nightline,” a Comcast spokesperson told the blog.

“We have called our contact at ABC and the producer of your segment and they told us that they believe that their encoder may have inadvertently shortened the segment at the commercial break in error,” the Comcast spokesperson continued. “We asked them to re-encode the entire segment, which they agreed to do. We will post the entire segment on Comcast.net as soon as we receive it.”

ABC also chimed in, confirming to the blog that it was an editing error that caused the segment to be cut off. The Consumerist subtly suggested that there may still be a cover-up going on, but the publication basically backed down from its original assertions.

This incident can serve as an interesting case study, with a number of takeaways:

— The absolute vitriol shown by The Consumerist provides ample evidence that the blogosphere is anything but fair and balanced. It’s a “shoot first and ask questions later” world online, and it’s been spilling over into the traditional media like never before. (Witness any of MSNBC’s or Fox News Channel’s talk shows.)

— Bloggers are literally shooting first and asking questions later. In this case, Comcast was never even asked about the apparent “incident,” and the company was only made aware of the potential PR problem by someone at a partner organization.

— Comcast did a nice job of defusing the problem by being proactive and contacting The Consumerist. However, the company should be monitoring blogs more closely, specifically well-read blogs such as The Consumerist. Comcast could have taken care of the situation on Monday. Instead, The Consumerist controlled the story for more than a day, presenting loose facts and just one side of what turned into a non-story.

— Bad press, even when it is inaccurate and corrected later, is still bad press. Consumers who stumble on the first two postings from The Consumerist about the Comcast-Nightline affair will never know that the weblog updated the story because the original posts do not contain any updates or links to the final post on the matter. At least newspapers now append corrections to the online versions of stories. Most blogs don’t do that, and the vast majority refuse to remove posts – even if they are later proved inaccurate.

— Bloggers are more concerned about traffic and “nailing” people and companies than they are with reporting the truth, or providing the world with some in-depth or interesting commentary. I’m not trying to knock all blogs here, but there’s still a distinct lack of original reporting and thought going on in the blogosphere, and blogs pretty much rely on obviously biased sources for their information.

— If Comcast had a blog of its own, it could have defused the situation and controlled the story immediately. Comcast is an enormous company with plenty of resources. It is also a company deeply involved in many regulatory issues (‘Net neutrality, VoIP, etc.) that affect consumers and the business world. I cannot think of a reason why Comcast does not utilize the blog format to speak directly to its customers.

— Public relations people do not control the message any longer because there are too many forms of free or cheap mass media for third parties to get their say in. It’s that simple, and instead of bending to the will of the media universe, you need to bring the message directly to the people through intimate contact with your target audience. Blogs, podcasts and email newsletters should be used to supplement traditional PR and marketing tools such as press releases, media campaigns and advertising.

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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