Warning: Social Media's Dark Side

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While many medical industry businesses are enraptured with the promotional power of social media, they also need to grasp its perilous darker side—and its ability to damage or destroy a business with a few, choice mouse-clicks.

Domino's Pizza learned this lesson the hard way earlier this year when a video depicting its employees smearing mucus on sandwiches was posted—and went viral—on YouTube.

The video, a staged joke made by two Domino's employees with nothing better to do, was tossed up on YouTube as a lark.

For Domino's Pizza, it was anything but.

Within days, the reputation tarnisher was viewed more than a million times, became a topic du jour on the micro-blogging service Twitter, and showed up numerous times in the top 10 Google search returns for keyword “Domino's.”

“It sickens me that the actions of two individuals could impact our great system,” says Patrick Doyle, Dominos president, who made his apology about the incident in a video Domino's posted on YouTube.

Unfortunately, pharma industry businesses have also had to deal firsthand with the sting of reputation disparagement in social media.  Johnson & Johnson, for example, decided to pull a TV ad depicting the sometimes painful drudgery of toting babies around, after a backlash from outraged “Motrin Moms” blogging about the ad on line and “tweeting” on Twitter.

Plus, other pharma businesses are facing reputation threats in social media from imposters posing as company representatives. “There's someone on Twitter pretending to be Pfizer, for example— with 643 followers—who has been linking to some negative articles about the company,” says Eileen O'Brien, director, online promotions for Compass Healthcare Communications.

Bruce Arnold, founder of Caslon Analytics, a web marketing firm that counsels clients on managing reputations online, says no company, and no industry, is safe from social media's dark side.

“Some (posts) are little more than a repository for juvenile humor: graffiti, comments that X is the devil, animations of creatures urinating on the corporate logo,” Arnold says. “Others feature detailed and sometimes persuasive critiques, including ‘insider' documentation, and are associated with newsgroups.”

“Financial analysts have attributed falling share prices to particular campaigns, noting that some domains claim a regular audience of 20 to 50,000 visitors,” he continues, “and that information on those sites has been accepted and echoed by the mainstream media.”

Adds Andrew Schirmer, EVP at McCann HumanCare:  “We're counseling our clients about the ‘realities' of social media.”

For medical industry businesses, the take-way from Domino's rude awakening is to pro-actively develop a reputation management strategy before the horror occurs, and be ready to pounce when a silly joke—or worse—threatens to go viral.

That strategy, web marketing experts say, needs to encompass  social media in all its forms, including video sites like YouTube, networking sites like Facebook and MySpace and micro-blogging services like Twitter.
Fortunately, there are a number of tools and service providers companies can use to protect brand image.
    
Do it yourself  
One of the easiest ways to secure a general idea about what's being said about your firm on the web is to monitor the major online communities, mailing lists and blogs—all places where those looking to shape public opinion tend to congregate.

The quickest way to begin the process is to sign up for Google Alerts (www.google.com/alerts), which enables you to track mentions of your business name, including mentions on YouTube.

You'll also want to sign up for an account on Twitter, the micro-blogging service, which you can use to monitor the posts there.  Signing up for an account here will also prevent someone else—including a dissatisfied customer—from grabbing your brand name, and masquerading as a company representative.

One caution:  if a company representative does begin to post on Twitter for your brand, make sure he/she knows the neighborhood.  “You need to be transparent,” O'Brien says. “You can't hide. You can't be disingenuous. If you're not transparent, you'll be found out, and there will be a backlash. It's all about trust.  You only get one chance to be who you really are.”

Meanwhile, blog posts can be tracked with the free blogwatch service Technorati, which has been around since the blog phenomena went large, and does a great job of monitoring what's being said, and keeping track of newly created blogs. 

And Boardtracker.com, a free service that monitors buzz on the countless discussion boards on the web, is also an essential do-it-yourself tool. It's also a good idea to keep tabs on anything that may be cropping up about your company on podcasts—or grassroots radio-show type productions that are beginning to crop up on the web. Podcast Alley (www.podcastalley.com) offers an excellent overview of what's going on in that space.

Other free reputation management tools to check out include BlogPulse (www.blogpulse.com), which tracks blog posts; Keotag (www.keotag.com), which tracks keywords, including company names, that are being used as tags on the web; Seeking Alpha (seekingalpha.com/tag/transcripts), which tracks the postings of conference call transcripts on websites; Yahoo's Upcoming (upcoming.yahoo.com/), which tracks notices of upcoming new conferences, by keyword; Google Trends (www.google.com/trends), which tracks the most popular keyword searches on the web; and Compete (searchanalytics.compete.com/site_referrals/), which tracks the top website referrals for any keyword search.

Reputation management service providers
If do-it-yourself daily monitoring becomes overwhelming, you may want to consider reputation management services from marketers in the medical industry, like O'Brien's Compass Healthcare Communications. The company offers a “Brand Bodyguard” service, which monitors conversations about its clients on blogs, discussion boards and websites. The service also pro-actively creates positive content on the Web to edge out negative content.

Other services, like BlogSquirrel by CyberAlert will automatically monitor blog postings containing your company's name and/or other keywords, and send you daily reports about those postings via email. The service also offers you tools to ensure you'll receive fewer alerts about posts you consider irrelevant. Plus, you'll also be able to maintain a “digital clip book” with the service, which you—and any other appropriate member of your firm—can refer to when necessary.

Nielsen Online, will monitor blogs, as well as postings and activity throughout all social media forms, including discussion boards, YouTube, Facebook and the like.

And Webclipping.com, a long-established service, will also track what's being said about your company on the web, keep you apprised of competitors' activities and send out alerts about copyright or trademark abuses.
Nielsen Online combines the auto-monitoring of blogs with human analysis to help companies avoid potential PR nightmares. One especially interesting feature: Intelliseek's software is programmed to include analysis of “natural language,” so you'll be to find positive or negative posts about your company, even if those posts are rendered in poor grammar.

Factiva Insight: Reputation Intelligence offers a more comprehensive look, monitoring what's going on with your brand across virtually all media. Offered as a joint venture of Dow Jones and Reuters, Factiva tracks company mentions in mainstream media, radio and TV and in posts on websites, blogs and comments in discussion groups.

The firm also employs a “reputation analysis tool,” which automatically sifts through all the mentions of your company, and churns out reports about potential problem areas. Reputation Intelligence can also portray such public opinion data in graphical form for easier dissemination company wide.

Other reputation management services providers to check out include Radian 6 and Visible Technologies.

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in New York, NY
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