PORTLAND - Capt. Jim Harkins, owner of charter boat business Atlantic Adventures and host of a local cable access show of the same name, got an unplanned crash course earlier this month in social media etiquette.
On June 3, Harkins passed a bicyclist in his truck on Martin's Point Bridge. The story could have ended there -- with the two sides disagreeing on how close Harkins drove to the cyclist, Jay Riley, and whether Harkins was abiding by the rules for sharing the road.
Riley later saw Harkins' truck and stopped to take a photo of his license plate. A verbal argument ensued, with both men claiming the other was rude.
According to social media experts, Harkins' first mistake was going on Facebook to support his case, arguing that cyclists were riding recklessly and taking over the roads.
"There are a few cyclists out there who give responsible riders a bad name," Harkins wrote. "You know ... the ones that have a chip on their shoulder ... that think they own the road."
Riley, meanwhile, posted a video of his own, using his cellphone camera, of Harkins shouting out of his truck window, swearing and making a homophobic remark.
"The minute the video went up -- the jig was up," said Dennis Bailey, president of Portland public relations firm Savvy Inc. "There are times when you have to suck it up and come clean and address the problem."
Harkins declined to comment for this story. In a previous media report, Harkins apologized for the remark.
Atlantic Adventures' Facebook page, which drew quick and harsh reaction from cyclists, was taken down within days. A new Facebook page, called "Boycott Atlantic Adventures," was created June 4 and collected more than 900 "likes" within 48 hours.
The bad publicity cost Harkins two sponsors of his cable access show, as DiMillo's on the Water restaurant and Shipyard Brewing Co. ended their sponsorships.
Such bad publicity -- and the online frenzy that could ensue -- is becoming more common, as social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and online review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor have become primary outlets for people to communicate how they feel they were treated by a particular business.
Businesses have to be vigilant about how they handle bad reviews and criticism, and be aware that bad news often travels faster than good news, social media experts said.
Sometimes "a game of back-and-forth draws attention like a sporting event," said Nicole Jacques, a public relations strategist at marketing firm Pulp + Wire in Portland.
"The worst move to make is to become defensive, argumentative or obstinate. Even if you or your company has been falsely accused of an offense, social media isn't a courtroom that provides a fair trial. It's more liable to seem like a lynching mob," Jacques said.
Businesses are advised to think about everything they post online and wait before hitting "enter," the experts said.
"I always tell people, if you have any doubt that something is the right thing to say or not, don't push the button. Sleep on it," Bailey said.
Instead of inflaming the rage of already unhappy customers, business owners need to learn how to quickly address and contain bad postings.
"A social media manager should try to defuse negative discussions before they get out of hand. The best way to do that is to move the conversation outside of cyberspace to a more personal medium, not necessarily to bury, censor or delete it," Jacques said. "Try sending a fiery fan a kind and concerned private message. People use social media as a means of being heard, so reassure an angry audience that you hear them. If they have a grievance, acknowledge it and offer an apology and a solution."
"Whether it's 'We'll look into this, we'll check it out and get back to you,' you have to acknowledge the problem and let the person know they were heard," Bailey said.
The quick response is key to preventing issues from escalating and attracting broader attention, marketing experts said.
Bailey described an incident when he experienced a frustrating scheduling problem with cable provider Comcast. He complained on Twitter, and Comcast immediately responded and asked for his number to resolve the problem. It even threw him a few perks to compensate him for his trouble, he said.
Other companies aren't quite as quick or savvy.
Bailey cited one example: When a customer complained on Twitter that he was getting bounced around Amtrak's automated 800 number and couldn't get any help, Amtrak quickly responded -- by giving the customer its 800 number. Not only did Amtrak fail to listen to the customer's complaint and solve the problem, it publicly revealed its misstep on Twitter, Bailey said.
A spokesman for Amtrak could not be reached for comment.
Other recent social media blunders have also grabbed headlines, such as retailers American Apparel and Gap Inc. making light of Hurricane Sandy by offering discounts and promoting online shopping during the disaster, to fast-food chain Chick-fil-A's Facebook page being overrun by customers upset over the founder's stance against same-sex marriage.
Even attempts to be fun and engaging with customers can backfire, as shown by McDonald's, which last year created the Twitter hashtag #mcdstories for customers to discuss their visits to the chain. Instead, the #mcdstories trend became a dumping ground for customers to vent about bad service. McDonald's acknowledged that "#mcdstories did not go as planned."
Of course, not every grumpy customer can be soothed.
"You're not going to be able to satisfy everyone. At some point, you may have to let it go," Bailey said.
Just as companies need to address complaints, they also need to jump on good news.
Poland Spring bottled water was slow to embrace its viral notoriety when U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., made a lunge for a bottle of its water on live television during his response to President Obama's State of the Union address in February. While media outlets picked up on the odd gesture and noted the brand of water he was drinking, Poland Spring waited until late the next day to post a tongue-in-cheek glamour shot of a Poland Spring bottle gazing at itself in a mirror. While the company eventually responded to its sudden notoriety, Poland Spring may have missed a chance to make a bigger splash, social media experts said.
Some Maine retailers and restaurants ranging from L.L. Bean to Stonewall Kitchen to Bard Coffee have robust online forums to handle customer complaints and suggestions and to promote their brand.
When Stonewall Kitchen wanted to spread the news that a special order of its Maine-made blueberry jam was headed for the International Space Station in August, it used a variety of outlets from Twitter to traditional news releases. The company typically uses Facebook to announce new products and answer customers' requests for the return of favorite items.
"Spreading good news is a thoughtful process and more than just posting on our social media platforms. An integrated approach using social media, press, Web and email marketing allows for greater reach and awareness," said Janine Somers, Stonewall's director of marketing. "Spreading good news doesn't end with distributing the information. Being available to answer questions keeps the dialogue going and enhances relationships with our contacts and guests."
L.L. Bean, which has a varied and active online media presence, has a team of about 30 people who work in e-service customer communications, including email, live chat, Q&A and handling customer service issues on Facebook and Twitter. The company has a presence on 11 social media channels ranging from its blog to Pinterest to Facebook.
Each L.L. Bean retail store also has its own Twitter handle managed by a store manager. The company has 26 Twitter handles for the stores, marketing, customer service, the Bootmobile and outlet stores.
"We try not to share the same contact on all our social channels at the same time. Our goal is to share our content in unique ways to appeal to different followers. ... Your followers want to feel they are discovering unique content that will then compel them to share with their network of friends and followers," said Laurie Brooks, senior public relations representative.
L.L. Bean fields occasional Facebook questions from customers about where its merchandise is made, and will point them to the company's iconic Bean Boots, which are made in Maine, and a range of products from housewares to dog beds to some apparel that is made in the U.S.
"We try to resolve any customer service issues publicly on the social channel where the customer contacted us," Brooks said. "The only time we will take the conversation offline is when we need to obtain the customer's personal contact information or order information. Then we will resolve the issues by telephone or mail."
Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: