…as the following PR career-suicide maneuver proves.
Jeff Jarvis, one of the best and most credible bloggers about the impact of the blogs on the news media, wrote a post yesterday about Dell Computers’ new blog. A big part of the blogosphere would have been wondering what Jarvis might say about Dell’s new gambit, because it was Jarvis’ bad “Dell Hell” experience with the company’s much-maligned customer service department that demonstrated the power of viral blog posts to impact business, and the powerlessness of conventional PR techniques to counter it.
Jarvis’ lengthy comments about Dell’s blog are worth reading, but for now, I’m more interested in Dell’s reaction to them. It came at two levels. First, on the blog itself, this rather ungracious response:
Yesterday was the first official day of Dell’s one2one weblog and already Jeff Jarvis and Steve Rubel were kind enough to tell us what we’re doing wrong. Thanks for the feedback, guys. We’ll keep working to get it right.
As Tony Soprano’s mother used to say, “Poor you.” Or, as an old boss of mine would say, “Now tell us what you really think.”
So that’s what one of Dell’s PR people did. Tell Jeff what he really thinks. Anonymously, he thought. Here’s how the comment looked:
July 11th, 2006 at 1:29 pm
I honestly think you have no life. Honestly? Do you have a life, or do just spend it trying to make Dell miserable. I’ve been working with Dell the past three weeks researching trashy blogs that worms like you leave all over that frigen blogosphere and I cant (sic) honestly say that Dell is trying to take a step towards fixing their customer service. They hire guys like me to go on the web and look through the blogs of guys like you in hopes that we can find out your problem and fix it. But honestly I dont think you have a problem Dell can fix. Your problem is you have no life.
Jarvis looked up Chris’ IP domain and, guess what. The comment came from GCI Group, which is in charge of the a PR campaign for Dell entitled Rebuilding Corporate Reputation Through Grassroots Efforts. No kidding.
This episode illustrates a lot of things.
First of all, there is no such thing as anonymity if you post on blogs. Time and again, this fact has been proven, to the great embarassment of the poster. My favorite example involves Cathy Seipp and Nikke Finke, two LA writers who don’t like each other. In a comment on Cathy’s blog, Nikke objected to something Cathy said about her. Then there was another post minutes later from someone claiming to be Nikke’s lawyer, threatening a suit. But the IP address showed they came from the same computer. And of course there’s Michael Hiltzik, the LA Times writer who posted anonymous comments on his own blog and others, praising himself and bashing his foes. Patterico busted him the same way.
Secondly, there is just no telling how stupid some people can be. I mean — if you’re at work, take a look at the people around you. Is there anyone who you think could do something so stupid one week after your client started a blog? It calls the sincerity of Dell’s blog into question. Plus, what incredible ignorance of Jarvis’ role! He’s not just some crank with a hard-on for Dell.
Are you sure nobody in your shop would do something like this? “Are you feeling lucky, punk?”
But the most important lesson for PR people is one of the first ones I ever learned. It’s almost a Zen koan: “Don’t believe your own press releases.” Another variation is “Don’t get high on your own shit.”
PR people owe their clients loyalty, but not blind loyalty. You need to be the benevolent outsider looking in, giving a candid, confidential assessment of how things really look to the target audience. In most cases, your client is already defensive enough; you shouldn’t be egging them on or throwing yourself in front of moving trains to prove your love for them. Doing that is bad practice. Just because the client responds like a puppy being scratched on the tummy doesn’t mean you’re giving them what they’re paying you for.
“Chris” sounds like a guy (gal?) who ordered six rounds of the Kool-Ade. But his post is going to cost his client a lot of money and time.
UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis hears from GCI’s Digital Media practice. “Chris” is “a summer intern who got caught up in the emotion” around Jarvis’ Dell Hell tales. Jarvis sees a link between Chris and “Customer Service John” from AOL. To me, there’s a difference. “Customer Service John” followed his company’s policies, and got burned purely because the exposure of AOL’s practices demanded a sacrificial lamb.
“Chris” is an example of lax supervision. Allowing an intern to “get caught up in the emotion” means someone failed to communicate the meaning of professionalism. Allowing an intern to speak for the client means someone was giving this kid too much latitude. Where were the adults? Off pitching new business?
But Jarvis makes a valuable point. The days when a company and its PR people could clamp a lid on employees, and expect to control its image through a “spokesperson” are over. Says Jarvis:
Every one of your “customer service” employees and every one of your “public relations” employees in every encounter represents your company. That has always been the case. Only now, we can record their actions and report them to the world.