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By SARAH E. NEEDLEMAN (Wall Street Journal)
Updated Aug. 3, 2009 11:59 p.m. ET
A growing number of businesses are tracking social-media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to gauge consumer sentiment and avert potential public-relations problems.
Ford Motor Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co., among others, are deploying software and assigning employees to monitor Internet postings and blogs. They're also assigning senior leaders to craft corporate strategies for social media.
Ford's Scott Monty
One morning last December, Scott Monty, Ford's head of social media, saw Twitter messages alerting him to online comments criticizing Ford for allegedly trying to shut a fan Web site, TheRangerStation.com. The dispute prompted about 1,000 email complaints to Ford overnight.
Mr. Monty, who joined Ford the previous July from an advisory firm specializing in social media, didn't wait to learn the facts. He posted messages on his Twitter page, and Ford's, saying he was looking into the matter, adding frequent updates.
Within hours, he reported that Ford's lawyers believed the site was selling counterfeit goods with Ford's logo. He persuaded Ford's lawyers to withdraw the shut-down request if the site would halt the sales. By the end of the day, he Tweeted that the dispute had been resolved.
Jim Oaks, who founded TheRangerStation in 1998, credits Mr. Monty with resolving the problem so quickly. "My relationship with Ford has been better because of this," he says.
Mr. Monty's response won plaudits from social-media watchers. Ron Ploof, founder of consulting firm OC New Media LLC, posted a case study of the incident on the Web, to show clients how companies can use social media to their benefit.
PepsiCo's Bonin Bough
"Social media have magnified the urgency of crisis communication," says Shel Holtz, a communications consultant in Concord, Calif., and co-author of "Blogging for Business." He says seemingly small incidents can quickly spread into bigger PR problems via the Web.
PepsiCo intensified its social-media efforts last November after employees saw critical Twitter posts about an ad in a German trade magazine for a diet cola, which depicted a calorie killing itself. A popular commentator, whose sister had committed suicide, asked, "How could Pepsi do this?"
A Pepsi spokesman quickly posted an apology on his personal Twitter page. So did Bonin Bough, who is Pepsi's global director of digital and social media. Mr. Bough, who was hired for the job in September, says the incident prompted Pepsi to create a corporate Twitter profile; in May it launched The Juice, part of the networking site BlogHer.com.
Monitoring a corporate image in cyberspace is a daunting task, even with technological help. Tracking software can identify hundreds of posts daily, and managers must decide which could prove troublesome. "If you start seeing a lot of people retweeting it, then you know" to pay attention, says Marcus Schmidt, a senior marketing manager for Microsoft Corp.
Some companies use the information to shape responses to news. On July 13, a Southwest Airlines flight from Nashville to Baltimore made an emergency landing in Charleston, W.Va. Southwest's six-person "emerging-media team" scanned Twitter, Facebook and other Web sites for passengers' reactions -- and found mostly positive comments. The Southwest employees quickly posted Tweets praising the "great work by crew and customers onboard."
Linda Rutherford, Southwest's vice president, communications and strategic outreach, says she might have reacted differently if passengers had been more critical. "We would still be complimentary of our crews, but we might not emphasize that as much," says Ms. Rutherford, who added responsibility for social-media initiatives last summer.
Some companies are training staffers to broaden their social-media efforts. At Ford, Mr. Monty plans to soon begin teaching employees how to use sites like Twitter to represent the company and interact with consumers.
Coca-Cola's Adam Brown
Coca-Cola Co. is preparing a similar effort, which initially will be limited to marketing, public affairs and legal staffers. Participants will be authorized to post to social media on Coke's behalf without checking with the company's PR staff, says Adam Brown, named Coke's first head of social media in March.
For now, that job falls to Mr. Brown and three staffers. Last fall, Coke's software spotted a Twitter post from a frustrated consumer who couldn't redeem a prize from the MyCoke rewards program. The consumer's profile boasted more than 10,000 followers.
Mr. Brown quickly posted an apology on the consumer's Twitter profile and offered to help resolve the situation. The consumer got his prize and later changed his Twitter avatar to a photo of himself holding a Coke bottle.
"We're getting to a point if you're not responding, you're not being seen as an authentic type of brand," says Mr. Brown.
Write to Sarah E. Needleman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page B6