It's funny how once you get in the mind set of online marketing, you find examples in the least likely places. A few weeks ago while visiting my small hometown in Northeast Ohio I was surprised to find a great example of reputation management from a small company. While the example takes place offline, the four steps they took to manage their reputation could easily (and inexpensively) be reproduced online by any small business.

First, a little background on what caused the reputation problem.

The small town I grew up in was home to a family run grocery store that had served the community for more than fifty years. It was the type of place where the owner was often bagging groceries or ringing up orders along side his employees. As usually happens in situations like this, the aging owner passed away and his sons failed to run the store as well as he did. Competition from national chains was intense and the workers, no longer treated like part of the family, were reluctant to make concessions to help keep the store running.

The store closed.

Not long after, a local company purchased the space and reopened the store. The new owners' other stores were not unionized. This new one is not either. The store refused to negotiate with the union and hired an entirely new staff. The union responded by sending picketers to stand outside the store with signs.

The problem is, the grocery store is set back from the road by a few hundred yards and the road is the main road through town. This means people see the picketers, but don't really have the chance to read their signs. To the average person, it looks like the store's employees are on strike.

In an area of the country dominated by blue-collar jobs, having your employees on strike is a great way to drive customers to the competition. The grocery store had to respond and respond fast to spread the word about what had actually happened.

Here are four steps they took that small businesses can learn from.

You've Got to Advertise

There's a large billboard on the main road in and out of town. This road is the one most traveled by residents on their commute. The company purchased the billboard and is running giant signs stating "Grocery Store X is NOT on strike." It's a simple billboard made up of just five words.

But it's enough to make someone think.

It's actually the way I first learned about the situation. I was on my way to my parents' house for a visit and spotted the billboard. I ended up asking my mom what was going on and getting the full story.

The lesson here? Sometimes you have to buy ads in the right places to get the truth out about your situation. If you're dealing with a PR crisis, properly placed ads can at least start people on the road to the truth. Consider buying relevant AdWords ads for the phrases related to your crisis, especially if you don't already rank organically for the terms. (For example, Mattell bought AdWords space for phrases like "lead paint toy" and "toy recall" and links them to their recall list and public statements about China and lead testing.)

You can also change up your existing brand advertising to address issues. When I wrote my five part series on the Google Nofollow controversy, we changed some of our existing ads on third party sites to a scary font that read "1-2, Google's Coming For You" and "3-4, Drop Your PageRank Score." We then linked those ads directly to the articles rather than to our home page.

When you're in PR crisis mode and you have to set the record straight, there's nothing wrong with buying face-time with your audience. Every small business should have a plan in place to shift their ad dollars (or allocate new ad dollars) to spreading the word about their situation.

Word of Mouth

The first thing I did after spotting the billboard was to ask my mom what the story was. She quickly filled me in, having seen the billboard herself and having gone hunting for information.

Word of mouth and viral marketing work well for selling, but they also work well for reputation management. Just as people are more willing to believe the word of a friend when it comes to liking your product, they're also more likely to believe the word of a friend on what the 'real' scoop about your PR crisis is.

Jet Blue's corporate response to the night of a million cancelled flights is a great example of this. They leveraged social media tools like YouTube and their corporate blog to start the conversation. They issued what appeared to be a sincere apology and outlined specific steps they were taking to remedy the problem. Their response was unique enough and they seeded it in social communities well enough to set things buzzing via word of mouth.

Word moves fast in a small town and it can move fast in online communities as well. The Internet has allowed word of mouth to spread further and faster than it does offline. Getting information about this grocery store from my mom allowed me to consider the situation more quickly and to form a positive response. Learn to leverage the conversation online and you stand a much better chance of defending yourself.

Work the Press

The next step the company took was to get in touch with the local media. They issued press releases explaining the situation and contacted local newspapers and TV news crews. By properly working the news angle (we're being picketed by people who have never worked for us) they managed to get favorable coverage in several local media outlets. This helped get the word to potential customers and lent credibility to the store's version of the story. After all, even a "guilty" company can buy an ad and print something that isn't true.

With newspaper and nightly news coverage, most people are a little more willing to listen to a company's side of the story.

This works online as well. Contacting mainstream media will generally result in online coverage, (often at sites that already rank well, giving you additional chances to capture the search results) but you'll also need to work the blogger and social media sites.

This is one of the reasons it pays to take the time to build relationships with key bloggers and with the social media communities related to your business. You'll have a much easier time getting bloggers to cover your side of the story or having your response spread through social media sites if you are already viewed as a trusted member of the community.

This is the tactic we used last week when Robert and I responded to the toolbar PageRank drop for Search Engine Guide. While Robert has never been a vocal part of this site (preferring to stay in the background running operations), he's been part of this industry for nearly a decade. In that time, he's built up a reputation and earned respect from those in the industry. When word began to spread about our PR drop and various stories about the incident began to circulate based on speculation rather than fact, he responded.

The story went hot on Sphinn in less than thirty minutes and quite a few bloggers and discussion forums linked to his side of the story.

Respond at Your Store

The last thing they did was to add some signage to their store entrance. I stopped by the store to pick up a few items while I was in town and as I entered, I noticed an eight foot sign near the front door. It was a simple enough sign with block lettering and it outlined some facts about the store. It noted things like "33 of our 37 employees live here in 'Smalltown'" and "Our store manager is 'Smalltown' alumni." It then listed the names of every employee from 'Smalltown' and the department they worked in.

As I wandered through the store, I could hear conversations taking place on the same theme. A woman at the bakery was engaged in conversation with the woman at the donut counter. The store worker introduced herself by name and the customer immediately responded "wait, are you so and so's daughter?"

Suddenly the stranger at the store wasn't a stranger, she was the daughter of an old friend. Suddenly the "new" store felt more familiar.

When a PR crisis strikes, people will still come to your web site. In fact, many will come just to test the waters and to see what the big deal is. Respond to them properly and you've got a great chance to win them over. Fail to acknowledge the challenges you face and they may wander away for good.

For decades, a rumor has spread online and off about Procter and Gamble. The rumor says the P&G CEO is a devil worshipper and a large portion of corporate profits support Satanism. It's a ridiculous rumor, but P&G chose to address it. (In fact, the Sally Jesse Raphael show also addressed it, as they were part of the rumor.) They issued a letter to the media, garnered news coverage and included an official statement about the rumor on their web site for years.

Addressing an issue head on at your own web site can be a great way to build credibility and answer the questions of the skeptical. After all, the guilty generally lawyer up and stay mum. While it's a good idea to hire a savvy PR company to help you with your presentation, (or at least to review what you've come up with on your own) you'll need to walk the line between appearing open and appearing defensive. Come across as too defensive and you'll lack credibility.

Putting it to Work

Four simple steps taken by one small town grocer in an attempt to break in to a new market. While they had a slow start, these four tactics have worked well enough to drive business back up. They're making in-roads in the community by reaching out and sharing information.

Your small business can do the same thing online. It's great to have a plan in place for responding to criticism or a crisis, but your plan can't simply focus on the message of your response. It also has to focus on delivery. Thinking these options through ahead of time and building the bridges you'll need to cross if a crisis happens is crucial to managing your online reputation.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

October 30, 2007

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.


Wow, Jennifer, that waa a great analysis on how vital marketing can be to the survival of a business. You had me cheering for the store. Thanks!

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > 4 Lessons in Online Reputation Management from a Small Town Grocer