Gini Dietrich: Critics, crises and content marketing ‘crap’ (Q&A)

Arment Dietrich's co-founder on handling online criticism, enduring Twitter firestorms and why the backlash against content marketing is building

Gini Dietrich’s new book, Spin Sucks: Communication and Reputation Management in the Digital Age, helps business leaders navigate the new rules of PR. Dietrich, founder and CEO of Chicago-based Arment Dietrich and author of the top-rated blog Spin Sucks, was the featured speaker at Thornley Fallis’ Third Tuesday events in Ottawa and Toronto this month for the Canadian launch of her book. (Thornley Fallis is a partner agency of Arment Dietrich.) Here, Dietrich talks to Marketing about how to handle online criticism, what to do about Twitter firestorms and why the backlash against content marketing is building.

Gini Dietrich

You wrote Spin Sucks for the C-suite, not PR professionals. Why did you want to address business leaders and not the PR industry?
I spend a lot of time on the road speaking to business leaders and it’s become very apparent over the last five years that not only do they feel like social media is a necessary evil, but they don’t really understand how to incorporate it into the things they’re already doing. So I really wanted to give them a look at what PR is, what it means in the digital age, how they can hold their teams accountable and what kinds of metrics to look for.

In your book, you talk about crisis communications in the social media age. You wrote that “all it takes is for one person to have a bad experience doing business with you and you’re finished—both online and off.” But it seems like there’s a social media crisis every week. Are these “crises” really that damaging for brands?
It depends. The latest one with US Airways I don’t think will be very damaging. I think they handled it really well and took it all in stride. But then you have organizations like Kenneth Cole and I use him as an example in the book. He continues to use shock PR to increase his website visitors, which he equates with increased sales. But when you look at his stock price, it continues to decrease. So if it’s a one-time thing and you handle it well, like US Airways, it’s not going to hurt you. But when you’re Kenneth Cole, it continues to hurt him.

How can companies repair their image after a social media crisis?
Make sure you say you’re sorry and outline what you’re going to do to solve the situation. Secondly, don’t get defensive. The biggest mistake most organizations make is we take things personally. We get really defensive and start debating and arguing online. It’s really important not to do that.

Should employees be fired for inappropriate tweets?
If it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, if the person continues to screw up and it’s one more screw-up, then yes. But it’s easy for the social mob to come out, like with the Justine Sacco controversy over the holidays. She sent a stupid tweet and then she got on a plane and flew to Africa without any internet access and by the time she had landed, she lost her job. She didn’t have the chance to defend herself and the company took the social media mob mentality and fired her before she even got off the plane. I think that’s irresponsible, it’s not good leadership and it’s not the way an organization should be run.

Brands on social media open themselves up to negative comments, trolls, etc. How do you manage online critics?
If it’s real criticism, if a customer is unhappy with a product or a service, the most important thing is to make sure the person is heard. Most people want to have a conversation. They want to say, “My luggage got lost” or “There were spiders crawling on the wall in my hotel room.” In those situations, people want to be heard and they don’t want to go through the customer service phone tree to get help. So it’s about listening, taking the conversation offline and making sure that the public sees that you’re paying attention.

In Spin Sucks, you write that a backlash against content marketing is building up. Why do you think that is?
There’s so much information coming at us all the time. We have to be really careful about where we spend our time and the types of things that we read and consume because we’re busy. The top 10 lists or ‘the things Kim Kardashian taught me about running a business’ – that kind of crap isn’t going to fly anymore.

So what’s your advice for brands doing content marketing?
One of the things I talk about in the book is it’s a marathon, not a sprint. This is really hard for people to understand in today’s digital age because we want instant gratification. If you do these crappy things that get a lot of attention, it works in the short-term, but it ends up hurting you. When you treat it as a marathon and you go at it carefully and strategically, it doesn’t matter what new social network is out there, or what changes Google has made, because you’ll always be doing things right. You won’t have taken any shortcuts to hit that short-term, instant gratification.

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