Hitting the Delete Button Is Never an Effective PR Tactic

Last Updated Oct 19, 2010 5:28 PM EDT

A few weeks ago, Apple CEO Steve Jobs was involved in a bit of a PR brouhaha with a Long Island University student.

Long story short, the student pinged Apple's media relations team with a question that she said was "crucial to [her] grade in the class." When the team didn't respond, she emailed Jobs -- known for often responding personally to emails -- to try to get an answer... and to complain about the PR folks.

In the reported email interchange between the two, apparently it ended with Jobs telling the student to "please leave us alone."

This has been the subject of some merriment in the mainstream media (and of great commentary over at the PR blog Spin Sucks), but I was particularly struck by the PR advice dispensed by Good Morning America: Perhaps Jobs should just have hit "delete" instead of getting into an online kerfuffle with the student.

Good Morning America, when exactly did you get into the PR business?

If you are a public touch point in any way for your business, the single most important thing you can do is to respond to inquiries in a timely fashion.

PR is not just about sending out press releases, as I've said before. It's about managing and nurturing your organization's relationships with its stakeholders, to convert them into supporters and, possibly, even evangelists.

So it's not just "PR people" who have to do this.

If you're not already doing it, please take a few minutes and set up the following to start listening, really listening, to what your customers are saying about you online:

1. Set up a RSS feed via Google Alerts for your business' name, as well as keywords.
This is really easy to do. Simply plug your search terms into Google Alerts, and then select "feed" in the "deliver to" drop down menu.

Of course, you have the option to get these alerts delivered to you via email, but I find it easier to have them come into my RSS Reader.

Do this as many times as you have to, with all the keywords you know are relevant.

2. Do a Twitter search for your business name and keywords... again, really easy to do.
Once you've done this and have tweaked the keywords to your satisfaction, select the "feed for this query" on the top right of the results page, so that again, these results are pulled into your Reader.

3. Cover your bases.
If you really want to be comprehensive, use a free (as in, you don't have to pay for it, but you still have to put in the time to do it) tool like Social Mention, which is "like Google Alerts but for social media."

In my experience, Social Mention is a bit temperamental, but I'd rather have all my bases covered than not.

4. Once you've done this, create a folder in your Reader and pull all these feeds into that.
That will help you keep your "listening platform" organized, and I highly recommend Michael Hess' recent post that walks you through how to take this a step further, by listening to who's talking behind your back.

That's the easy part.
Once you've done this, please set up a system whereby you not only look at what's showing up in this D-I-Y dashboard, but that you actually respond, be it to a blog post, comments, tweets, whatever.

If they have a question -- answer it.

If they have a gripe -- respond to it and see how you can help.

If they're praising you to the skies -- thank them for it.

Shashi Bellamkonda of Network Solutions (disclosure: a client of mine) does this via a cross-functional team that handles customer service, PR, and social media. "It doesn't matter where the inquiries come in, he says, "they are all responded to."

One of Bellamkonda's tips is to include your customer service hotline information (or email) when setting up out-of-office emails. That way, even if you can't see the query, your customers know what to do next.

As far as Apple's media relations team's response (or lack thereof) to this situation goes, it's not what I would have done.

And if I were Jobs (which, clearly, I'm not), I would have forwarded the student's first email to the MR team, and told them to take care of it. End of story.

But ignore the email?

Well, that's downright silly.

Image: Jolante van Hemert via Flickr, CC 2.0
Shonali Burke is Principal of Shonali Burke Consulting where she helps turn businesses' communication conundrums into community cool. She's considered one of 25 women that rock social media.