It isn't fun to be hated. This month, 10 companies found themselves on 24/7 Wall Street's list of the most-hated companies in America, and, as you might suspect, they aren't saying much about it.
Of the 10 companies on the list, five—American Airlines, Goldman Sachs, Best Buy, Johnson & Johnson, and Sears—simply didn't respond to Ragan.com's requests for comment. Three others—Facebook, AT&T, and Bank of America—declined to comment. (Incidentally, although many news outlets reported that Facebook was the No. 1 most-hated company, 24/7 Wall Street indicated its list was in "no particular order.")
Only two, Netflix and Nokia, had any reply at all.
That's certainly understandable. For lots of people, appearing on a list of most-hated anything would cause them to run into the closet and lock the door. But crisis communications experts are split on whether these companies should try to pretend that 24/7 Wall Street's list doesn't exist.
How they replied
In their responses, Netflix and Nokia both touted what they've got coming in the next few months.
Steve Swasey, vice president of corporate communications at Netflix, says the company is "rebuilding the brand step by step and one member at a time by continuing to add more movies and TV shows to watch instantly, always improving the user interface and increasing the number and variety of devices streaming from Netflix."
Netflix took some big PR hits in 2011 with the rollout and quick pullback of its separate Qwikster DVD service.
Through spokeswoman Gretchen Bender, Nokia pointed to its 2012 Windows smartphone strategy and the debut of new phones with AT&T and T-Mobile and at Microsoft stores.
"These announcements, paired with other recent news, signify a new dawn for Nokia in the U.S., and if [the Consumer Electronics Show] is any indication of the reception in this market, it's a very warm one."
To respond or not
Sean Williams of CommunicationAMMO says the list of most-hated companies falls into the category of "invented stories," sort of like Forbes's list of most miserable cities.
"I can't imagine that being included on the list of most hated will have any impact on anything substantive," he says. "Haters will hate."
According to 24/7 Wall Street, the list comes from two sets of data: public information about customer satisfaction, care, and pricing; and financial records.
Williams says there's no way for companies to win in this situation. "You bring more attention to the story if you comment, and your comments sound too much like claptrap," he says.
Norman Birnbach of Birnbach Communications says companies likely saw little upside in responding to inquiries about the list, but they can certainly do some things to avoid appearing on next year's list.
"These companies need to consider how to acknowledge their mistakes in a way that doesn't go against advice from their general counsel, and how to discuss the ways they're working to improve their customer service and their customer communications," he says.
Jonathan Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management says companies' lack of response is probably the result of any of four causes: denial, arrogance, they're too busy fielding inquiring to respond to everything, or, "They're crying all the way to the bank."
What the companies ought to be doing, though, is laughing, he says. "If any of these companies were my client, I would certainly advise them to reply, and [I'd] suggest that humor would be a good approach."
For example, one company on the list, Johnson & Johnson, made a funny apology video when there was a shortage of OB Tampons. "I wouldn't be surprised if they're cooking up another video like that in response to the 'most-hated' article," Bernstein says.
A lesson to learn
Birnbach observes that most of the companies on the list earned their spots not through huge scandals, but through bad customer service and communication. Only two, Goldman Sachs and Johnson & Johnson, had scandals to deal with, he notes.
"That says something interesting about B2C businesses in the social media age," he says. "It's easier than ever for upset consumers to get the word out, and that's what happened with Facebook, Bank of America, and Best Buy."
Shel Holtz of Holtz Communication + Technology says it's all relative. Netflix and Nokia can use being on the list as a way to shift focus toward new products or new commitments, he says, but Facebook's so huge it can shrug it off. Bank of America and Goldman Sachs probably won't do themselves any favors by responding, because everything they say will be viewed with "deep cynicism."
With AT&T and American Airlines, things are "a bit of a wash," Holtz says. "If I were counseling them, I'd advise a candid acknowledgment of the circumstances that put them on the list and a commitment, accompanied by tangible action, to better listening."
Best Buy and Sears are in a tough spot, he says, since they're retailers with what many view as deteriorating business models. "I'm not sure acknowledging disaffection one way or the other would help without a clear direction for turning their businesses around."
All of the companies on the list probably did take one thing into consideration, however.
"You also have to wonder how many people are aware of the list at all, versus how many would become aware of it if the company responded," Holtz says.