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BW Businessworld

It Can Get Ugly

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Yesterday Samsung’s botched up handling of a trip the company had organised for reporters and bloggers to the IFA show in Germany vaulted into social media stardom when it became known that the bloggers were apparently stranded in Berlin, their tickets back home and their hotel accommodation cancelled –- or under threat of being so. The PR disaster that followed for Samsung would make any company cringe. Well, except for Samsung, perhaps.
 
Ironically, it was just such a social media disaster that a colleague, Chitra Narayanan, and I had finished writing about. Online Reputation Killers and the fiasco with Samsung would have illustrated rather well, underlining so many lessons.
 
For Samsung, having just barely emerging from a court case that will forever remain etched into the annals of corporate litigation history, it was not a good time to be in the news for the wrong reasons. Coming out looking like the world’s great copy cat, Samsung nevertheless did manage to get some sympathy for being the target of Apple’s relentless “thermonuclear war” against competition of the Android kind. The blogger incident was relatively minor in the general scheme of things, but anyone skeptical or naïve about how quickly and how ugly things can get on social media, should go back and trace the events that led up to Samsung trending on Twitter.
 
But it’s precisely that ugliness that I like about social media. It means that things are coming out into the open. It means the bare facts are up for analysis, and that it’s time for meaningful introspection all around.
 
The Berlin Diary
Young blogger, Clinton Jeff, who writes some nice detailed reviews on his blog, unleashthephones.com, was invited to go to IFA Berlin as the guest of Samsung global. He agreed to go as a reporter, not as a promoter, which was what participants of Samsung’s 'Mob!lers' programme were going as. As a result of a series of miscommunications and possibly some casualness about tying up loose ends right at the start, Jeff and another blogger found themselves, to their apparent shock, being asked to don Samsung “uniforms” and man the Samsung booths at the show, demonstrating products to the press. Apart from anything else, how insulting this must have felt to young men who believe themselves to very much be part of the technology press, one can only imagine. They could even have been in the position of showing off Samsung products to their own friends from the media. That, of course, is all besides the sheer impossibility of doing Samsung’s marketing for them when you have gone to report on products.
 
Well, Jeff objected. And Samsung objected right back. Calls to India resulted in the bloggers’ tickets back home and hotel accommodation being cancelled -– although it’s not clear whether this was a threat that was eventually put into action. So, there were the bloggers, stranded in Berlin, far away from home, and quite an expense away. Not an expense many from this part of the world can afford on their own.
 
The bloggers’ plight spilled on to Twitter after tech online magazine The Next Web, wrote on the incident. Outrage on Twitter fed back into the media and soon dozens and dozens of magazines, blogs and websites took up the story.
 
And who should come to the rescue of the bloggers but Nokia. Bailing both bloggers out, Nokia apparently paid for their hotel accommodation, organised their tickets back, and gave them free reign to cover whatever they liked while at IFA. So while Samsung, who didn’t respond on social media for most of the day, got the brunt of the outrage, Nokia got lots of warm fuzzies for being so nice.
 
Eventually everyone came around to looking at both sides of the picture, realising that there has to be more than just Jeff’s perspective here. Others explained the Mob!lers programme in some detail, pointing out that anyone who participated was clear about their role as promoters and fans. Samsung apologised and Clinton Jeff heaved a sigh of relief and everyone was friends again. Hopefully.
 
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t very interesting lessons to learn for everyone.
 
Should a reporter say yes to junkets?
 
The situation with the bloggers in Berlin also raked up the issue of whether they should have agreed to go on a company paid trip in the first place. While the US tech media feels anyone accepting a “free ride” and a “vacation” should expect no less than being owned by the sponsoring company for that period, Sarah Lacey described this in the crudest terms in PandoDaily. Indian writers see it otherwise. Neither can they individually afford frequent trips abroad to cover shows nor can most of their publishers. Besides, there’s little comfort in a ride on a plane for up to 10-15 hours and the vacation involves reporting on products all day. Few would want to sell their souls for a few hours off in the evenings, even if it is in another interesting country. But the key is in clarity between the company and the reporter on what is expected on both sides.
 
A few tweets discussing this:
Varun (@varunkrish) 04/09/12 8:14 AM
i have even ended up not covering anything if there was nothing interesting
 
Raju (@rajupp) 04/09/12 8:16 AM
@varunkrish same here
 
Varun (@varunkrish) 04/09/12 8:21 AM
@rajupp and theverge had samsung banners right on top :P .. if ads are okay , travel is okay too .. lets call it travel sponsor :P
 
Raju (@rajupp) 04/09/12 8:26 AM
@varunkrish lol! why can't they just do what they believe is right, rather than accusing others. Beats me.
 
Companies need writers as much as the writers need the opportunity to see their products and it’s a mutual arrangement which can only go wrong if one side or the other decides to misuse it. But the fact that it came up for discussion and examination is a positive fallout from what was was a bad day online for Samsung.
 
Blown Out Of Proportion?
Looking at it from the PR agency’s point of view, this was an incident that could have been resolved without a fuss if only it hadn’t been “blown out of proportion” the way it was. While this may be true, it’s time to figure out that social media is about proportion. Rather than being taken by complete surprise at how far things can go online and how quickly, this is an age where companies will need to be prepared for such eventualities.  Everyone has a voice online and everyone can be an activist -– if they feel they have got a case. This is a new reality and one that companies will just have to contend with.
 
Responding quickly is one way to stem the tide. While people inside the company argue that in a large organisation, involving a mix of global and local, it takes time to find out what happened, guard against blaming the wrong person, and deciding on what needs to be done in accordance with internal policies. In the meanwhile though, half the world will have taken up the cause and the cost of not responding will only escalate. Far better to say something at all -– including reassurance that the issue is being looked into immediately -- and remain silent for too long.
 
Is It True?
It’s in times of social crises like these that a good dose of introspection is needed. Was the situation really handled badly? Are there a few policies or something 
else that needs to be changed? One of the nicest things about social media is when crowd power makes you take a good hard look at yourself and fix whatever is wrong, going on to better times.
 
The Crowd Is Reasonable
If outraged people on Twitter were vociferous in their protest, they were also balanced enough to want to look at all sides of the picture. As the day wore on, it was not as if everyone was just anti-Samsung all the way, but many began to search for facts and discuss the background. With the chapter finally being closed now, mistakes on both sides were very clear. If it can get ugly, it can also get cleaned up.
 
Meanwhile, Clinton Jeff needs to figure out what he owes Nokia. 
 
mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter


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