I recently chatted with Donna Tocci, Public Relations Manager for Kryptonite, a company well-known in blogging annals for some damaging information that was disseminated through weblogs back in the early days of blogging, 2004. She kindly consented to answer a number of my questions, some of which will serve to acquaint you with the situation, while others offer great insight into how to address damaging information in the blogosphere.
I’ll admit up front that my bias is that the adverse effect of the blogosphere on corporations is much overblown, and as you’ll see as you read this Q&A, Donna thinks so too. That’s not to say that blogs and bloggers aren’t an influential voice in the marketplace, but just to help clarify that there are still definite limits to its influence and it’s well to keep that in mind as you craft your next marketing plan or public relations budget.
My comments are in italics as you read along…
Q: Let’s start by having you tell me about the “bic pen incident” with Kryptonite locks from a few years ago, please. What, when, who, etc.
This is such a huge question. It’s really hard to go into it while typing especially when there are so many facets to the story. In September 2004, a cyclist learned he could open his tubular cylinder lock using a pen instead of a key and posted this to a forum, not a blog. The story was picked up by bloggers, people posting in forums and the traditional media. Kryptonite researched the allegation, recognized that some (but not all) of the products using tubular cylinders could be opened this way and went to work creating a plan to stand by our customers. Five business days after the post, Kryptonite announced an outline of a plan for a lock exchange program noting that three business days after that the full plan would be in place. Eight business days after the first post, Kryptonite announced its full, free Lock Exchange Program and began taking registrations that day. We began the first exchanges a few weeks later.
Q: A few weeks? Why didn’t Kryptonite announce its Lock Exchange Program faster, to help alleviate the damage?
Well, the Internet moves at real time but companies sometimes can’t – not ‘won’t', but can’t. If we’d announced what we wanted to do before we had the back end in place and couldn’t back it up, that would have been the bigger PR nightmare, right?
So, we had to check with factories, find and work with a fulfillment house, find and work with a shipping company, research customs (this was a worldwide plan), talk with our distributors and get their input and concerns, create a space on our website for registrations and make sure the site could handle the traffic and then worry about whether or not all of the respective softwares could talk to each other (website, fulfillment house, shipper). There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done before announcing a plan like this with so many
Q: How long did it take for your company to be aware that there was negative publicity in the blog community?
We were aware of the Internet involvement with this issue from the first day. This included blogs and forums.
[The common "myth" of the Kryptonite story is that the company wasn't paying attention to the blogosphere and that it took weeks for it to learn that there was a problem, but as you can see it isn't true and Donna and her team were aware of the problem from the very first day. --DT]
Q: When you did learn about the negative publicity, did you see it as a crisis management problem, or did it not seem that dire?
Dave, we were working around the clock to research the allegation and create a plan for our customers. We took this very seriously from day one. Contrary to popular belief, the media attention didn’t make us take notice of this situation; we were already well into creating a plan by the time the traditional media were publishing their stories. I’ve seen in print that only after the New York Times article on day five did we come out with a plan and talk to the media. That’s not true. We were talking to the media from day one.
[Again, the "myth" of the Kryptonite story, that the company was out of touch and didn't know anything had happened until the New York Times broke the story is completely false. Indeed, it is the desire to debunk the untruths and myths about this entire situation that motivated me to produce this interview with Donna in the first place. --DT]
Q: Did your company ever consider legal action against the person who disseminated the information about how to defeat that particular type of lock?
Need to go corporate here. We don’t discuss any legal matters publicly, be they in process or in theory.
Q: A lot of blog pundits are fond of pointing to this situation as an example of why companies need to keep track of the so-called blogosphere, but I’m skeptical. Did it affect your sales figures? Did you get any kickback from bicycle store owners that customers were concerned about this aspect of Kryptonite locks?
Companies absolutely need to keep track of the blogosphere. I agree with that. However, I think it is only a segment of what companies should look at for their marketing and publicity plans. There are millions of blogs, but what are the audiences of these blogs? We know that lots of teens and college students have blogs and, mainly use them to communicate with friends and family. These are our customers, but are they going to corporate blogs? Not so sure about that.
We also know that the technology sector is blogging and paying attention to who and what is out there in the blogosphere. Great. We also know that marketers are out there. Great, too. All of these people can be our customers.
However, is the blogosphere the best ‘bang’ for our ‘buck’. And by ‘buck’I don’t mean money. I mean time. I’m not so sure about that. Each company needs to make that decision for themselves. They need to do the research and spend the time to figure out where their customers are, if that’s the blogosphere then they need a blog. If not, they don’t. They do need a good crisis management plan no matter who they are or how they choose to implement it.
[That's an extraordinarily important question that every company needs to ask itself. It's not a devaluation of the blogosphere as an important vehicle for communication, just a pragmatic and sensible approach to figuring out the best way to communicate with your specific market. And as for a crisis management plan, well, I've been talking about the need for a good plan for years. --DT]
As for sales, again, we don’t discuss actual figures. However, yes, when we stopped selling tubular cylinder products that absolutely affected our sales for ’04. Now, though, we are gaining shelf space back left and right and are back in the swing of things. I believe sales are climbing. We’ve also had a brand study done. Only the preliminary results are back, but they show that our brand reputation wasn’t as damaged as the blogosphere would have you believe.
Also, we know that the majority of the people who participated in our lock exchange program heard about it from traditional media sources. That kind of proves that you have every right to be a little skeptical.
[Another important point. In the big picture the negative publicity that Kryptonite received in the blogosphere hasn't adversely affected the company in the long term. Much of that is due to the savvy response of the Kryptonite team, but it's also a mark of the limits of the influence of the blogosphere. We're an influential bunch, but blogs haven't completely obsoleted other forms of market communication by any means. --DT]
In respect to your dealer question, yes consumers were concerned with the tubular cylinder issue. We were fortunate that Interbike, the bicycle trade show in the US, was the first week of October in ’04. Our marketing team went to town and created new signage and collateral materials for dealers telling them about the consumer lock exchange program and the one for them. We also replaced dealer stock as well as distributor stock. Here’s a little fun fact for you – we’ve replaced over 380,000 locks worldwide, which includes to distributors, dealers and consumers.
So, we gave the dealers all of the information they would need to take back to their customers. They had the answers to all of the questions customers would ask.
Q: If you could go back in time and craft the perfect rejoinder to those initial few postings about how to hack the lock, before the story took on A life of its own, what would you say?
Dave, we can’t go back in time and, personally, I don’t like hypothetical questions. However, I’ve said before and I’ll say again, I wouldn’t change much. I would post a note on our website about us working on the issue a day or two earlier. That’s it. Other than that, I wouldn’t change anything we did then.
Here’s a better question – what would I do now….:) Now, I’ve spent the time to research what is going on online and have created relationships with some of the more influential bloggers. I’ve treated this like I would do with any traditional media representative. I’m confident that, should something else come up like it did in September ’04, I would be able to converse with a few of these folks and, should they choose, they could write about what is going on with us. That may include that Donna has left the building… kidding… but, you see my point.
There is no way for a company to answer all of the individual blog posts or forum posts during a crisis. No way. There isn’t enough time in a day. Having your own blog or even a website that is easy to change information on, like we do, is a way to get out some information, but just like the traditional media, everyone wants their own quote that is unique to their blog or news coverage. Just like you! That is also why companies need to do the research I mentioned above now, before a crisis. Know who the influential bloggers are in your space and start a conversation. Create a relationship or two or ten.
Donna, thank you very much for your time and candor. I believe that this interview should be required reading for everyone who is evangelizing blogging as a market communications tool. Remember, blogging is an important part of a company’s current and future marketing and public relations mix, but it’s by no means the only element, and it cannot become the only element however you spin it. Always remember that ultimately the company has to meet its market, too, not vice versa. Oh, and don’t discount the effect of mythologizing along the way too: Kryptonite handled its situation with savvy and professionalism and has recovered its position, but the “myth” of bic pens and the crushing blow of blogging has grown far beyond the reality of the situation.