PRWeek EIC: Social Media’s Influence ‘Terrifying, But Ultimately Edifying’

PRWeek EIC Keith O’Brien discusses customer service and branding at’s Social Media Panel.

Here’s something to think about next time a customer service line puts you on hold: Online networking is quickly making happy customers a top priority for media companies. Tuesday night’s panel discussion “The Customer is the Company” brought together top editors and executives at downtown Manhattan’s Tribeca Cinemas Gallery to talk about how tools like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace have shifted the power of branding from advertisers to customers.

“Customers have the most impact on a company’s brand,” said Thor Muller, CEO of the customer soapbox Craigslist founder Craig Newmark agreed, adding that monitoring customer satisfaction not only gives a firm valuable intelligence, but also creates brand loyalty. As Wired contributing editor Jeff Howe put it, “There’s a lot of goodwill that can be bought very cheaply” by being nice to customers.

When it comes to customer opinion shaping brand perception, “it’s always been happening, but you just didn’t know about it,” moderator and PRWeek editor-in-chief Keith O’Brien told FBNY at the post-panel reception. The shift of control that comes with the rise of social media and the communication channels it affords, has been “terrifying, but ultimately edifying,” he said. “Smart companies will tie it into their business.”

So who’s benefiting from service with a virtual smile? Video interviews after the jump.

Companies like, Craigslist, and Tony Hsieh’s have realized that negative word-of-mouth will quickly spread online and hurt their business, while positive buzz will spur sales and establish a strong brand at the same time. Hsieh said his company is “passionate about service” — it has a 60 percent repeat customer rate — and even trains new employees on how to Twitter to create a customer-friendly culture. The approach has worked, according to Hsieh: has seen its revenue rise thanks in large part to its customer-friendly culture.

On the future of social media and its customer service payoffs, Freshbooks’ head of magic — that’s his actual title — Saul Colt was bullish, saying, “Brands aren’t dead — faceless companies are dead.” Wired‘s Howe was more measured: “Here’s what we know about social media: It’s probably going to be important to your business for the next year or so. After that, who knows?”

-Adam Auriemma

Thor Muller, CEO and co-founder of

tonyhsieh.jpg CEO Tony Hsieh

Saul Colt, head of magic at Freshbooks

The sold-out event featured a video simulcast in the bar area of Tribeca Cinemas Gallery.