A number of months ago, the Vancouver coffee scene started buzzing when a local coffee giant traded insults with a customer who posted a negative comment on her coffee blog about her experience with his brew.

Unfortunately from a PR perspective, this argument went on, not behind closed doors as it may have in the past, but on the Internet in the presence of, well, everyone in the free world.

As a result, the coffee shop owner took more heat from blog readers for the verbal abuse he’d leveled at the amateur reviewer than he did for the supposed quality of his coffee (this coffee house has such a loyal following that I doubt one poor review could hurt business).

In an age where Web 2.0 technologies have broken down geographical and economic barriers, encouraging instantaneous, unidirectional communication among strangers who never meet face to face, it’s no surprise that discussions online can become heated faster than a professional espresso machine can steam milk. Nonetheless, this particular coffee shop owner can be applauded for one thing: he joined in the conversation.

Public Relations Online is Not About Publicity

Public relations has always been about more than just getting publicity. It’s about building and managing a positive image through community participation (i.e. writing bylined articles, public speaking, contributing to charity, building relationships with the media and generally being a good professional citizen).

In fact, the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), conducted a four-year study which found that the key component of public relations for smaller organizations has more to do with building relationships with communities than anything else.

In the case of the Internet, with the advent of Web 2.0 technologies that make it easy for just about anyone to publish their thoughts in an uncensored medium (consider that more than 10 million blogs have popped up online in the last couple of years) today’s public relations takes the notion of ‘community participation’ to an entirely new level.

Let’s go back to our friends at the coffee shop and I’ll give you an example.

The Internet is so vast, you may wonder how a coffee shop owner might find out about comments that had been made about his product online. Perhaps he subscribed to a relatively low-cost, self-serve, online ‘brand reputation management service’, designed to alert a subscriber when positive or negative comments are made about a brand or topic on third-party web sites. Didn’t know there were services available to help you manage your public relations online? There are. And smaller businesses are quickly learning that such tools are necessary to successfully mitigate the lightning-fast peer to peer communication that is happening online.

Join in the Conversation or Risk the Consequences

In the case of the Internet, community participation means joining the conversation. That means using every tool at your disposal to expedite the activity. And make no mistake, not getting involved can have dire consequences. Here’s a case in point:

You may have heard about the Kryptonite bike lock defect scandal that broke on a biking enthusiast’s blog. Apparently the “toughest bicycle security for moderate to high crime areas” could be hacked with a ball-point pen. And someone even posted video to show exactly how it could be done . But, the manufacturing defect wasn’t as problematic as the lack of damage control on the part of the company, who didn’t respond until the story had exhausted bloggers and made the jump to mainstream media — The New York Times, to be exact. And then someone launched a lawsuit…

Had the company been monitoring the online world, they’d have had the opportunity to respond to their core market (bikers who are so enthusiastic that they read blogs about biking) while this incident was fresh, and as a result, they might have been able to prevent lots of dollars in lost revenue and a hard hit to their brand.

Follow the Rules and You’ll Succeed Online

Scare tactics aside, the most exciting thing about community participation and the new, easy-to-use, low-cost tools available on the Internet is that you don’t you don’t need to hire a PR agency to join the conversation and manage your own image online. Simply keep in mind a few simple rules, and you’ll never see a Kryptonite bike lock scandal in your business’ future:

  1. The Internet is big and there are only 24 hours in a day. So, subscribe to a brand management/monitoring service or use news/blog readers to make it easier to follow discussions about your brand or topic online. Here are a few low-cost or no-cost services to choose from:
    * Google Alerts – www.google.com/alerts
    * Blog Pulse – www.blogpulse.com
    * PubSub – www.pubsub.com
    * Technorati – www.technorati.com
    * Bloglines – www.bloglines.com
    * IceRocket – www.icerocket.com
  1. Be proactive rather than reactive. Seek out bloggers who cover your industry and follow their blogs. Once you get a sense of their style and their readership, find something relevant to say and join in the conversation. This will position you as proactive, leading-edge business, and may also allow you to follow trends in your market before they hit the mainstream.
  1. Listen carefully. Once you begin talking online, you’ll also need to follow public response to your messages. Remember, you’ve got a no-cost focus group at your fingertips. Listening carefully to what they have to say about you gives you the opportunity to develop more targeted messages next time ’round.
  1. Don’t wait to respond! If a conversation isn’t going to your liking online and you feel it may hurt your brand, respond immediately with an explanation or apology. Remember, in the lightning-fast world of the Internet, little fires can become raging infernos before you know it. Conversely, the immediate, intimate nature of this medium means open dialogue is not only encouraged but expected, therefore, sincere exchange is always welcome.

And that brings us back to the good folks at the coffee house and the big PR lesson here: Once you put it out there, you can’t take it back. A comment you make in the heat of the moment on a blog or website with good search engine rankings can come back to bite you every time someone ‘Googles’ your business or name. It might sound simplistic, but it really is easy to forget when we’re still getting used to the idea that our conversations online are being recorded forever.

In fact, the casual nature of our new communication styles make it easy to forget that business should never be personal. Every opportunity to talk to your customers is an opportunity to create a relationship. So, think carefully before you speak (or type) in the presence of a potential customer. You and your business will be better for it.

For More on Public Relations and Technology, visit these sites:

PR Topic Blogs:

* Media Guerilla – http://mmanuel.typepad.com/media_guerrilla/
* Strategic Public Relations – http://prblog.typepad.com/
* PR Studies – http://prstudies.typepad.com/weblog/
* Micropersuasion – http://www.micropersuasion.com/
* Collective Conversation – http://blogs.hillandknowlton.com/blogs/

Press Release Distribution Services:

* Distribute press releases using free and for pay services such as www.prweb.com, www.bacons.com and www.enewsrelease.com.

Reprint. Originally published in Webnames.ca’s The Server Room