Move fast and make nice Getting a correction made for inaccurate news reporting was never easy. Today, when news coverage spreads all over the world in seconds and is picked up by thousands of blogs, correcting false information is like herding cats. Complicating the task is the fact that you're often dealing with people who aren't trained journalists, and who therefore aren't inclined to fess up to a mistake. The PR team at SHIFT Communications' San Francisco office faced this challenge last summer, when a YouTube video accused one of the firm's clients of lying about a product. At the time, SHIFT was working with UGOBE, the creator of robotic creatures called "Life Forms" that mimic real-life behaviors (the founder of the company created Furby, the toy that responded to humans). The company's first product, a dinosaur "life form" named Pleo, goes on the market this year. Its selling point is that the Pleo, using artificial intelligence, develops its own "personality" and reacts differently to new situations and new people, making it a unique creature instead of just a toy. In February 2006, Pleo was presented at DEMO, a showcase for groundbreaking technology products. As SHIFT senior account manager Julie Crabill explains, a prototype Pleo dinosaur, which didn't have full functionality, was demonstrated to a live audience. "When you go to DEMO, you have six minutes to show your product," Crabill explains. "So you always have a video backup to show the audience, in case you have a problem." That backup video, as well as videos of the actual demonstration, were given to media contacts, displayed on the DEMO Web site, and were generally "out and about," says Crabill. In August 2006, someone shot the two videos side by side as they displayed the Pleo—which, since it was a prototype, didn't display the individualistic behaviors that the actual product will display. "Since in the two videos, Pleo did the same exact actions in the same order, this person immediately questioned the legitimacy of UGOBE's claim that all Pleos will evolve differently," Crabill explains. "He thought he was doing consumers a favor." The person posted the side-by-side comparison on YouTube with the description, "The world's first life form—debunked … UGOBE don't release two videos of the same fake product!" Within an hour of the video's posting on YouTube, comments started to pop up on related blogs all over the world, and the controversy was related on Pleo's Wikipedia posting. (In addition, UGOBE's CEO started getting profanity-laced e-mails, accusing the company of fraud.) Crabill and her team picked up on the chatter right away, since they had Google and Technorati alerts, as well as RSS feeds, in place. "You have to keep your eyes open," says Crabill of the need to monitor the blogosphere closely for such quick-moving controversies. Once the staff had figured out how the YouTube poster had made his mistake, they needed to decide how to respond. Traditional PR methods didn't seem appropriate for the social media environment in which YouTube operates: A press release wouldn't reach the same audience that might have seen the video or the corresponding blog comments; and pitches to the mainstream media about the controversy would be just as ineffective. Instead, Crabill went straight to the source of the problem. "I decided to post a response under the comment section for the video, identify myself and post my e-mail address," Crabill explains. In a smart move, Crabill did not attack the creator of the YouTube posting, or any of the other commenters who had slammed Pleo after watching the video. "Can't wait to hear feedback once Pleo comes to market. Let me know if you have any questions," Crabill wrote before providing her e-mail address. By posting her comment the same day as the video appeared on YouTube, Crabill was able to change much of the negative tone of the commenters, since most of them now understood why the videos were so similar. She posted a similar response on the video creator's blog. By acting fast, she prevented the controversy from becoming bigger (and reaching the mainstream and technology trade media). "Speed is of the essence," Crabill says. "And by being totally transparent and identifying myself, I disarmed them." The creator of the YouTube video even wrote to Crabill apologizing for any trouble he'd caused to the company. "I told him that we welcome skepticism, and that we want people to talk about the product," relates Crabill. Responding to misinformation in the social media world requires an open mind, Crabill advises. "You have to welcome consumers' cynicism," she says. "How can you be a company that's dealing with the public without allowing them to tell you what they think is wrong with your product?" Also required: executives and clients who understand how social media works. "You need a client that trusts their PR firm to react fast," says Crabill. In other words, there's no time for approvals and rubber-stamping before strategy kicks in, since he who responds quickly wins.