June 17, 2013

Social media not friendly or forgiving to business

A clash between a motorist and a cyclist that moved online results in a loss of corporate sponsors.

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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."

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