Dear Toyota: (Managing Reputation in Real Time)

Reposted from February, 2010

Google, Scoopler, and other search tools now deliver real time results (and partly by this I mean anonymous consumer opinions) from social media utilities like Twitter and Facebook and blend them with those sourced from the Web at large. There’s no indication of the relative merit of these opinions (nor is there any scoring of the more traditional content for this). Given their new visibility on the main stage of the Web, though, it would be bad if tweet after tweet complaining about a product flaw went unchallenged or unanswered. So, it stands to reason that responses to consumer opinions should now be delivered in real time, too.

Most PR firms with big brand clients stood up a digital media services team and toolbox long ago. Listening platforms like Radian6, Scout Labs, Visible Technologies, and Nielsen’s BuzzMetrics allow them to monitor social media (blogs, Tweets, YouTube, etc.) and identify reputation trends and those with the most influence in setting them. They sometimes also provide consoles through which agencies participate in conversations on behalf of their clients that they can’t always directly control… but must try. This is because their clients often face huge reputation risk and have no in-house command center able to spin opinion as effectively. Insertion of positive messaging in the social media chaos is not easy and can sometimes spur hostile reaction.

The good news is that on any given day, it’s usually the ‘other guy’ who is facing down problems from an employee-posted YouTube video or blog post rant or news story. Or so many companies that don’t have a plan for reputation management would like to believe. In some ways, they’re right: despite the huge (and growing) numbers of opinions and conversations, most companies are ‘net neutral’ in terms of positive and negative sentiment. Even Blackwater and Wal-Mart and Dow. They have a pretty good idea of what’s being published and aren’t running away from mobs with torches and pitchforks (or lawyers with class action lawsuits). Or they deal with each of those so frequently it’s now a matter of routine.

In absence of crisis, the delicate art of building Reputation equity always involves investment. Money for everything from a great web site to allocating time and responsibility for visible participation in social media. Add to this the cost of tools like search engine optimization or Web analytics, and of monitoring Wikipedia, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter to both protect the company and to help promote a positive image. Further add costs to relentlessly track those competitors, members of media, regulators, employees, and now customers who could pose risk by merit of their ability to spark a negative reputation event. The balance between resiliency (how much good will has accrued in the online world) and recovery (what resources and time are required to remediate problems there) broadly described the Internet reputation management strategy of any company any given day.

Until today. Because today reputation risk is measured in Real Time. And neither your company nor mine can hope that even the most gifted internal or outside agency resources can defend against the risks to reputation posed by the collective. Real time search is the first – still dimly perceived – threat to traditional digital PR that demands a whole new approach to engaging your customers and managing reputation in real time. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that every unfounded or anonymous complaint deserves immediate response from the CEO.

I am suggesting, however, that a mechanism needs to be in place to detect all complaints and consider appropriate responses even at a level hitherto avoided. I am also suggesting that the former 24 hour clock used to manage negative reputation event response rates be reset. The Reputation Risk Advisory System is hereby elevated to Orange. You’ve got somewhere between a New York minute and 8 hours to begin responding to the flood of sentiment related to a negative reputation event. To illustrate this point, I’ve chosen Toyota and its PR machine as my canary in the real time coal mine:

  • Because Toyota is in crisis
  • Because I own a Toyota
  • Because Toyota has enjoyed very positive reputation equity built over years
  • Because all that resiliency is being tested by challenges on all fronts
  • Because Toyota’s PR machine is generally considered top of the line.

But primarily because I suspect it of whitewashing a technical issue in the Prius that I’ve lived with for quite some time. Though I’ve never complained about this to the dealer and have always recommended the Prius to others, my 2008 model has always had a peculiar problem on washboard surfaces. I’d try to brake while on rutted roads and would find it much harder to control the car. This is an occasional irritation, but one exacerbated by two factors: 1) the only Italian restaurant with decent takeout food requires a trip down a bad road; and, 2) Toyota seems unwilling to fix the problem and contends that any accidents I suffer from loss of control are due to driver error. The 2010 Prius has effectively the same braking/computer setup and is being recalled. This, likely, to keep new models rolling out the door. Never mind those who have had a couple of years to learn how to drive all over again to offset the bizarre behavior of their paid-for car. Let them eat spumoni.

In the auto business, I believe that customer loyalty is worth any investment – particularly important is listening for their voices whenever/wherever possible. CBS has a new TV show called Undercover Boss that tries to humanize CEOs by filming them doing the regular jobs of regular employees even though we know they’re drawing irregular pay checks. The premise is that they can relate better to their employees if working in their shoes. Or something like that. I think of it as a long vanity ad in disguise – intended to polish the tarnished images of companies and bosses alike.

It’s an ‘eat your own dog food’ reality show that misses a better chance to engage audiences. By letting the CEOs be their own customers, TV magic may result. Imagine a software CEO sitting on hold for hours before finally talking to disinterested foreigners about his virus alerts. Imagine a wireless telco CEO trying to use his mobile phone to schedule a flight while stranded in a snowstorm and getting no signal. Imagine all the revenge fantasies delivered by this premise. Or the fixes to broken customer relations management interfaces that might result, too. Maybe this could be a series on YouTube instead… the Six Minute CEO. He/She lives a customer nightmare and fixes it in a tightly-edited upload. Call it mediaCRM and think how it might relate to SocialCRM.

So, I wondered how much the shiny Toyota PR machine had invested in social media monitoring and what shows up in real time. So, naturally, I used Twitter to test my theory. I imagine when a very large brand has a negative reputation event that requires a few months to manage, there’s a plan to quickly hire seasonal employees (like Reputation Reindeer) to pull the sled and deliver presents to all the good boys and girls in social media. And it is so, I surmise, as evidenced by this hugely optimistic posting that nearly collided with my own:

Toyota PR

Isn’t that good news! Well… Maybe not. Maybe this doesn’t come directly from the CEO. Maybe it is coming from the shiny PR shoe stuck in his mouth.

Was this a nearly immediate response to my tweet, you wonder? uh… No. I think it is a robot tweet auto-generated every six minutes to stay in the first page of search engine results on real time Google. Or maybe I just got incredibly lucky to see the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner unfurled for the 2010 Prius at the moment all doubts were laid to rest. For the record, I haven’t heard back from Toyota or its PR people despite having written my 140 character complaint. I suspect the software they use to measure influence has found me to be unworthy of direct reply. Toyota is Horton, I’m a Who. But things can change quickly in Whoville….

Toby Toyota Tweet

Your comments are welcomed.

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