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August 29, 2007

How to Bounce Back From a PR Blunder

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When it comes to reputation management, the Internet is both friend and foe. On one hand, it will ensure that your embarrassing YouTube video is catapulted into the SERPs quicker than you can slap the person who uploaded it, but on the other, it does also gives you the chance to respond just as quickly.

We’ve been hearing about online reputation management a lot lately. Most notably there was SES San Jose’s Buzz Monitoring session, which saw Chris Sherman, Rob Key, Andy Beal, and Jonathan Ashton center stage talking about how companies no longer own their brands. Your company’s brand is the conversation and the best you can hope to do is monitor it in order to steer that conversation. We heard a lot of great reputation management nuggets on Thursday, but on Friday, the world got to witness a real life example.

Enter Caitlin Upton.

I’m sure by now you know exactly who I’m talking about. Caitlin is Miss Teen South Carolina and the young lady who mangled the Miss Teen USA pageant’s question and answer portion so bad that she can became an accidental YouTube phenomenon. If you did miss it, Caitlin was asked why one-fifth of Americans can’t locate the United States on a map. Unfortunately for Caitlin, as soon as the question was asked, someone turned on her Idiot Switch (we all have one) and the poor girl spun into a nonsensical tangent about "U.S. Americans", "the Iraq", "South Africa" and began concluding sentences with phrases like "everywhere like such as". That was Friday.

Let’s be honest, if this was ten years ago, moms would have laughed about the incident over popcorn with their daughters on Friday night and then went to bed. There would have been a blurb about it in Saturday’s paper and then life would have carried on as normal. But this is 2007. In 2007, we have YouTube! And by Saturday morning, young Caitlin Upton was famous.

Since her prime-time television debut, Caitlin has become the butt of every Internet joke out there. There was her YouTube appearance, Tube Maps have been created to help listeners follow along with Caitlin’s nonsense, and an entire Web site was devoted to mocking her. The Internet is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

It’s easy to laugh at Caitlin, but the truth is your brand is just as vulnerable to attack as Caitlin’s was. One day, when you least expect it, someone will turn on your Idiot Switch. You will say or do things you never ever imagined you would, and it will be up to you to decide how you’re going to address it. How are you going to change the conversation and protect your online reputation?

In Cailtin’s case, she decided to alter the conversation by making light of it. She went on the Today Show and was able to not only defend herself (she’s 18 and it was her first time on national television, give her a break), and get another chance at (somewhat) intelligently answering Friday night’s map question. And she did great. This time around she didn’t mention The Iraq once!

What else is Caitlin doing to change the conversation about her? She’s on People.com giving their audience a snarky Geography Pop Quiz where she gets to read her answers off visible cue cards and be cute on command (something she’s probably very familiar with). If I was Caitlin, I’d step back and see how her small press tour is working out for her and what the SERPs are looking like for her name. She’s made light of the situation and now it’s probably time for her to get out of it so people will move on. I wouldn’t want to see her showing up at the Library of Congress’ Geography & Map Reading Room any time soon. [How long did you Google for that one, Lisa? –Susan] Shut up. Not long, actually. I have crazy Googling skills.

But Caitlin is going to be okay. If it was the power of YouTube that threatened to kill her, it may be the power of YouTube that helps save her. A quick Google search for [Caitlin Upton] or [Lauren Caitlin Upton] shows her Today Show interview has the top result, not the embarrassing YouTube video. That’s reputation management.

The truth is everyone makes mistakes. Even your perfect little company or your infallible leader will at some point say or do something royally stupid. Something so dumb that you will want to crawl under your desk and stay there until some girl goes on national television and starts spouting off about "U.S Americans" just to take the attention off of you. But you can’t do that. Your brand is important and you have to protect it.

If that semi-lucid blog post you wrote after last week’s SearchBash offended someone, apologize, and do it privately. Do not enter into any kind of public forum and pen a 1,500 word dissertation on what happened, what you were thinking and why you said what you said. The truth is people don’t really care why you were an idiot; they just want you to acknowledge that you were and to apologize for it. Avoid the temptation to explain your side to anyone who will listen and instead email the hurt party privately and write a genuine apology. Remember that flame wars are bad and that public perception equals truth.

If you didn’t offend anyone but instead just made a royal ass out of yourself, own up to it and make light of it when possible. We’re all human. Playing up your goofs is a good way to show your audience that you don’t take yourself too seriously and that you’re capable of having a good time. Here’s a secret: People like those who can laugh at themselves. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because we’ve all tripped going up the stairs at least once in our life. You probably have the scar on your shin to prove it.

The key to reputation management is knowing what is being said about you in the first place. Use Andy Beal’s 26 free tools for buzz monitoring to keep yourself in the conversation. If you don’t know what the conversation is about, you have no way to control it.

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One response to “How to Bounce Back From a PR Blunder”

  1. Alexandru | Shylock Blogging writes:

    So true. This is exactly the reason I have about 4 different nick names that I use online. It’s annoying as hell knowing that anyone that knows how to use a search engine can find out absolutely everything I did online since the first time I registered to a forum.

    Or maybe I’m just paranoid and this isn’t such a big problem. Actually, I am paranoid. They can’t find out much about me if they look, but I prefer them not knowing everything about me.



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