Yelp PR Head Discusses Company’s PR Challenges And Opportunities

Two days after The New York Times asked Yelp co-founder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, “If nothing else, do you think you have a public relations problem?” we caught up with Yelp VP of Communications Vince Sollitto.

The Times article, titled, “Running Yelp, the Site Business Owners Love to Hate,” refers in part to three class action lawsuits against Yelp on behalf of eleven businesses, which allege the company has tried to get businesses to advertise on the site by saying it could alter their reviews.

Sollitto has extensive PR experience, having formerly served as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s handler and also head of communications at PayPal.

We asked him how he would respond to the Times headline, “the site business owners love to hate.”

“I don’t think it’s necessarily representative, since there are thousands of businesses on the site,” he said.

Expanding on that, he said, “I think we have an education problem.”

“It’s one where we have to educate the marketplace. Part of our challenge is that Yelp services the local small business market, which is often referred to in the advertising world as the ‘holy grail,’ because it is a huge, vast market still being under-served online. It’s a huge market to reach because it is fractured. Just as it is difficult to sell to them, it’s equally difficult to educate them.”

From the PR perspective, “the best thing you can do is to continue to produce a quality product, which satisfies a need,” he said. “Clearly Yelp is doing that. More than 30 million users are coming each month to Yelp to find a great local business. In the meantime we’re going to continue to work on our education to small businesses and media.”

One of the things that has confused users and small businesses is the algorithm Yelp uses to rank user’s reviews.

Sollitto likened the company to Google. “Google goes out and determines what pages are the best on the internet when people search for something and in what order they appear. In a sense that is exactly what Yelp does. In order to do that, we have an algorithm that helps us determine the value of those reviews and also helps protect against efforts by people to manipulate those reviews.”

Yelp employs no PR agency and has an internal PR team of four.

“We try to take a very broad approach,” Sollitto said, in terms of the company’s PR strategy. “We make sure we are active in the social space via our blog, Twitter and using both video and text to reach the small business audience and continue to work through the mainstream media. We’ve done interviews across the board with mainstream press. I’ve found the Q&A format to be helpful because these are complicated subjects. We need an opportunity to answer accusations, explain why it’s happening, but also explain why we do what we do.”