I've done a fair amount of speaking and teaching about online reputation management in the last two years. After all, you can't effectively play in the social media and search engine optimization fields without an understanding of how to respond to negative mentions. Most of the time, businesses seem to want to learn about the best way to address (or avoid) negative press. Often, I find myself reminding them they should also be focusing on how to address or respond to their competitor's negative press.

How many times have we seen it? A major player falls flat on their face and the news gets splashed all over the Internet. The Kryptonite bike lock scandal, the PriceRitePhoto fiasco and the infamous Dell Hell posts at BuzzMachine all come to mind. Generally, when these types of problems hit, the blog world and PR world focus on how the company can dig themselves out of the mess.

What I'd like to see is more companies stepping up to the plate with creative marketing when their competitors stumble.

Back when I wrote my ten part series on Making Link Bait and Viral Marketing work, I mentioned the need to capitalize on your competitors failure. In the article, I looked at the brilliant response Caribou Coffee had to a Starbucks PR crisis.

Starbucks emailed a coupon for a free iced coffee to it's Atlanta area employees and invited them to pass the coupon on to their friends and family. As you would expect, the coupon spread far and wide and Starbucks soon found itself handing out free iced coffees left and right. Since they'd failed to plan for scalability, Starbucks pulled the offer, claiming that it had spread "beyond the company's original intent."

The press picked up the story and blogs began buzzing about Starbucks decision to cancel the promotion and the damage it might do to customer relations. A short while later, rival chain Caribou Coffee decided that they would honor the Starbucks coupons at their own store. They issued a press release to that effect and a short while later both news outlets and the Internet were buzzing with news of the offer.

I often find myself wondering what I'd recommend to competing companies when I see this type of thing happen.

For example, last fall Delta found itself in a mess of hot water with breastfeeding moms when one of their flight attendants kicked a nursing mother off of a plane for refusing to cover up with one of the airline blankets. The mother went up the chain of command to seek resolution and was told by Delta that flight attendants had final say over what happened in the airplane cabins. Word began to spread online and more than 800 mothers and babies gathered at major airports around the country two days before Thanksgiving to protest the treatment of this mom.

While Delta sat around waiting for the negative publicity to pass, I sat here wondering why none of the other airlines were taking advantage of the situation. If I'd been consulting for, say JetBlue or American Airlines, I would have been blitzing popular mom sites with an ad campaign. Can you imagine the potential impact on Christmas travel if one of these airlines had put together ads that said something to the effect of "We would never dream of asking our passengers to eat with blankets on their heads" or an ad with an image of someone sitting in an airplane bathroom with a tray of food on their lap and the word "RIDICULOUS!" across the top of the ad?

That's why I was pleased to see the new Nokia campaign on the heels of so much grumbling about the Apple iPhone.

Running with the tag line "Open to anything" the campaign takes a pointed, yet subtle swipe at the anger many have over Apple's refusal to allow the iPhone to be used on networks other than AT&T and over their resistance to third party apps. In fact, the text on the Nokia site says:

We believe the best devices have no limits. That's why we've left the Nokia Nseries open. Open to applications. Open to widgets. Open to anything. So go ahead and load it up. What it does is up to you.

With the tech world buzzing about Apple's latest iPhone software update reducing hacked phones to useless paperweights, Nokia's sales pitch is timely.

Saul Hansell at The New York Times writes:

On Monday, Apple had issued a press release warning of "irreparable damage" to iPhones that have been modified or unlocked from the AT&T network. It also threatened users that "the permanent inability to use an iPhone due to installing unlocking software is not covered under the iPhone's warranty."

This caused a scurry by hackers to develop software that will relock iPhones before software updates.

In fact, Jonathan Seff reports that Apple is indeed refusing help to iPhone users who have modified or hacked their system.

I went to an Apple Store this morning and had to wait a long time for a genius, so I made an appointment for the afternoon. Went in, showed them my phone, and the guy said "it appears that someone tampered with the software on this phone" and said there's nothing he could do. I asked him to restore it, and he said he tried, but nothing changed. He then pointed to the notice in the store that says not to hack the phone, and told me the only thing I could do was buy a new one.

Granted, iPhone users DID purchase the product with full knowledge they could only use it on the AT&T network. That means Apple is well within their rights to "punish" phone hackers and to force them to buy new ones when the old are rendered useless.

However...on the public relations front, it's a bad, bad move.

Nokia offers several new phones that surf the web, play audio and video files and include most or all of the same functionality the iPhone has. Marketing their product in a way that plays off the "flaws" of a competing product is a pretty standard marketing tactic. In the world of social media and online reputation management though, it's always smart to take it a step further. Personally, I'd love to see Nokia ship some free Nseries phones out to bloggers who are posting about their now useless iPhones. It seems like a perfect way to get a competing product in front of users who are probably open to alternatives right about now.

When it comes to managing your own online reputation, the question is not simply how you respond to criticism about your own product or services. These days, you need to be tracking the reputation of your competitor and thinking about how you can capitalize on their failures. If you're one of the few companies that has positioned itself well enough that criticism is rare, then start being proactive in terms of building that reputation even stronger.

Setup alerts on your competitors names. Take the time to read their reviews at sites like Amazon, epinions, Yahoo Local, Yelp and so on. Find out what consumers don't like about them and address that issue with your own products, services and marketing. When appropriate, contact these unhappy customers and find a creative way to introduce them to your own product.

Unhappy customers are going to go looking for an alternative. Why wait for them to find you, when you can meet them at the exit?

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

October 1, 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.


Nice article, Jennifer. The title does make one squirm - feels like a call for back-stabbing your competitors when they're down. But it's a reality of business. I especially liked how you picked up on the Nokia bit. They have done a few smart things this month, and opening up the N-Series phones is just one of them.

Great point Jennifer! The most recent example I can think of is Mattel's "lead paint" crisis. They did a terrible job of PR the first week of the recall and the competitors have been slow to respond with any sort of online tactics.

Thanks guys!

You know it's funny, because the concept of back stabbing never dawned on me, but I've seen a few folks comment here and elsewhere that that's what this feels like.

I always just figured it was another way to differentiate and to take advantage of a competitor's flaws. I don't think I'd go so far as to directly call them out, but I think you can address the issues without directly throwing stones, you know?

Look at the Nokia example. It's pretty clear they're taking a swipe at Apple, but they don't come right out and say it. (As opposed to the swipes Apple takes at PC users with their "I'm a Mac" commercials.)

Same for the airline ad I suggest. Nothing says you have to make an ad that says "We'd never treat you like Delta did" but you can basically say the same thing "We don't expect any of our passengers to eat with blankets over their heads" and get the point across without using names.

Megan, on the lead paint front, I was sad to see Melissa and Doug's fail to really capitalize on things. Their toys are made in China, but didn't fall prey to the recalls. Someone I know online called them to find out if they were issuing any recalls and they gave her an excellent response.

They said that while they valued exporting labor to China, they understood that the trade off in labor fees required higher safety and QA fees. They outlined the testing and QA process they had in place and it was quite stringent.

Unfortunately, I never saw them issue any type of public release or statement about this. I also didn't see anything on their web site. Here was the perfect chance to make note of the fact that they've ALWAYS had such high testing and they blew it. :(

Brilliant point!

I think far too many people miss out on the fact that like with all things, while one thing goes down, another must go up. Newtons law anyone?

The old saying - "no such thing as bad publicity" might not be entirely true. But I'm sure going to be looking about for similar cases and to see what I can offer possible clients.

Back stabing? I always put that in a personal category. And it's never personal if it's business. Well... almost never.

There is one point which bothers me--where I grew up, baring your breasts in public, for any reason, was considered indecent exposure. It may only have been a misdeameanor, but it was (and still is) a crime. Do we go after this mistake (or was it just perceived as a mistake) by Delta and, in the same breath, encourage bad behavior?
I'm all for taking out the competition if they get stupid (the iPhone, or example), but where do we draw the line? Where were the voices praising Delta for requiring that a passenger obey the law?
Is this entirely a the-ends-justify-the-means operation, the newest version of W. R. Heart's yellow journalism, or is there journalistic integrity and social responsibility involved?


Putting aside the obvious issue that I have personally with those who feel a child should not be allowed to eat their meals without a blanket over their head, I'll simply suggest that you take a look at the law.

Breastfeeding is not only SPECIFICALLY exempt from public indecency laws in nearly every state, it's also specifically protected as a legal right in 36 of them, including the state in which Delta took issue with the nursing mother.

So no, we're not encouraging women or people who break laws. We're encouraging the companies that take the time to know and understand the law and to understand that breasts are not a dirty, lewd thing. Instead, they are the means by which the greatest majority of babies in the world find nourishment. There's nothing about that should be hidden, especially considering that grown-ups have full control of their neck muscles, which means they're more than capable of looking in another direction.

Hi Jennifer, Boxers have a saying..."Whenever you're not training, someone else is training to beat your ass." If you don't step in when your competition stumbles, who will? This may be a harsh reality for some people in to accept, but not responding to changes in your competitors' reputations just means lost opportunities for you. Or, if a company in your niche makes a stupid PR mistake, you might be lumped in with the guilty by mere association. Taking extreme measures isn't always called for, but it does behoove you as a merchant to pay attention to what is being said about you and other companies in your niche. There are a number of free tools for monitoring online discussions about your company name. I have posted a list of a few free ones at the MightyMerchant eCommerce Blog, http://blog.mightymerchant.com

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