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Businesses quick to monitor Internet sites to halt trouble

| Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012, 11:38 p.m.
Tribune-Review file
Patrons at Mad Mex in the North Hills enjoy lunch.

When a company's good name, products or business strategy become targets on Internet message boards, review sites or social media platforms, firms large and small move quickly to rescue their online reputations.

“Some of these companies have spent 100 years building a brand and a reputation,” said Michael Kiefer, general manager of online reputation management firm BrandProtect. “And they can be hurt in an instant by a disgruntled employee or angry customer.”

BrandProtect started in 2002 as one of the first firms of its kind, said Kiefer. Today the Toronto-based company has about 500 clients, including a major Pittsburgh corporation that does not want to be identified, and offices in Chicago, Boston, London and Singapore.

He quoted Warren Buffett's famous quip about it taking 20 years to build a solid reputation but only five minutes to ruin it.

“We monitor (the Internet) because we like to know what's being said,” said Stephanie Green, marketing and design writer for big Burrito Restaurant Group, which has about 900 employees at its East Liberty headquarters, 16 restaurant locations and catering operation.

Like other local companies, Green said, she watches what is posted on Twitter and Facebook pages belonging to big Burrito, which owns the Mad Mex chain and several other restaurants. She also pays attention to what is posted on websites such as Yelp and Urbanspoon, restaurant review sites. Other sites that businesses check include CitySearch.com, Angie's List and Ripoff Report.

And for good reason.

More than eight in 10 customers reported that online reviews influence their perception of a company, according to a study conducted this year by public relations firm Weber Shandwick.

Other recent surveys found that four out of five people based their purchase decisions on negative online reviews, and that people can detect fake online reviews only about half of the time.

Green said she finds only a few negative posts each month and tries to rectify the situation, if possible.

“Nobody is perfect, and we make mistakes sometimes,” Green said. “But I think that is what makes us a good company. We try to listen and make things right.”

Kiefer cited examples in recent years where posts and video footage have gone viral online and harmed the reputations of companies such as FedEx, Burger King, United Airlines and others.

“Millions and millions of people see this stuff at amazing speed,” Kiefer said, adding that many companies are only starting to realize how important it is to monitor their online image. “I think on the social media side, they are just starting to wake up.”

Range Resources Inc. often feels the heat from people and groups opposed to parts of the natural gas and Marcellus shale industries, said company spokesman Matt Pitzarella.

“If you look at certain parts of our industry, you will hear complaints. It's an emotional topic on both sides,” he said. “If you look at us as a company, it's overwhelmingly positive. ... But there is a small but vocal minority that doesn't like what we do, and they will never like what we do.”

Range handles in-house the job of checking what is said online about the company, with employees typically following what is said on MarcellusDrilling.com and other industry-specific sites, Pitzarella said.

H.J. Heinz Co. also uses its own employees.

“Heinz has a comprehensive in-house system in place to monitor what is being said about our brands and our business in social media globally,” said spokesman Michael Mullen.

“This monitoring is an important element of the company's focus on understanding and leveraging evolving consumer preferences, opinions and trends. It also enhances our ability to respond to consumer inquiries and to identify and manage potential issues.”

PNC Financial Services Group uses its staff to monitor online comments on Twitter and Facebook, spokesman Fred Solomon said.

“Our goal is to identify emerging customer issues and to reach out with the appropriate assistance via private channels,” Solomon said.

That can prove helpful not only in responding to criticism but in providing customer service.

An example occurred on Sept. 27 when hackers directed a flood of traffic to the website of PNC Financial Services Group, overwhelming the system and preventing customers from gaining access. One expert called it the biggest cyberattack of its kind to hit the United States, which also affected Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.

“Social media channels were the fastest, most effective way to hear and communicate with our customers,” Solomon said.

It's not just large companies and corporations that pay attention.

Businesses with fewer than 100 employees in 2011 spent about $1.6 billion in managing their online reputations, according to an annual survey by Virginia-based media consultant BIA/Kelsey. That figure is expected to eclipse $5 billion by 2015.

“Customers are using online resources, advertising and social media voraciously. And businesses have to follow their audiences,” said Steve Marshall, BIA/Kelsey's research manager.

“It's only going to continue to intensify, and probably at a rate comparable to what we've seen over the past few years.”

Jason Cato is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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