Protecting your good name

Thanks to Internet chat rooms, message boards, and newsgroups, anyone can broadcast his or her opinions about your company to a large audience. If the opinions are positive, you get some free advertising. But if the spin is negative – a customer beefing about a backorder or a stockholder spreading a rumor about management – your sales, stock price, and brand could suffer.

To dispel and respond to any negative publicity that may arise, as well as get constructive criticism on improving service, many catalogers regularly search the ‘Net for mention of their company’s name. “If one person can find a reference online, others can too,” says Stephanie Healey, new media manager at Omaha Steaks.

The food cataloger, which employs an intern to monitor the Internet for such mentions, came across a college research paper that not only rated the company on overall customer service and policies, but also talked about price discrepancies between its print catalog and Website. “We quickly corrected the problem,” Healey says of the pricing. “Nothing impresses customers more than when you do something quickly.”

Indeed, the benefit of monitoring online discussions is being able to respond quickly to negative comments and false rumors. “Who’s to say what’s being said about us on the Internet is true?” asks Sam Young, director of marketing for Lexington, KY-based military supplies catalog U.S. Cavalry. “That’s why we keep an eye out for our name by searching Yahoo! and other search engines as often as time and resources allow.”

Customers can also lend a hand. Since most catalogers don’t have the time or resources to check online discussions daily, they rely on customers to inform them about what the public is saying. “I’m confident that if anything is said about us, our customers will let us know,” Young says.

As for dealing with detractors, Westbury, NY-based 1-800-Flowers monitors newsgroup discussions “occasionally,” says vice president of interactive services Donna Iucolano. “Our policy has been not to get involved in the public discussion but rather to try to follow up with the complainer in private when possible.”

Catalogers can also follow another course of action against negative comments. Because Internet firms such as America Online don’t disclose subscribers’ identities, some targets of libelous postings are filing “John Doe” lawsuits – submitted before the names of the defendants are known – that enable them to subpoena the identities of the subscribers.