That's exactly what happened to Dell Computer this summer. What began as a personal account by former mainstream journalist Jeff Jarvis of his problems with Dell on his BuzzMachine blog has turned into a public perception nightmare for the Austin, Texas-based computer company.
Jarvis, a media veteran of publications including TV Guide and People, posted his initial ticked-off commentary about Dell in June. He had bought a Dell laptop that malfunctioned, requiring him to send it back even though he had purchased an expensive in-home service agreement. That first rant got 108 reader comments, with many trading personal stories of unsatisfactory service.
As June went on, Jarvis continued to detail his Dell experiences. He got the computer back, but it still overheated. Then the hard drive broke, and still no one answered his e-mails. He logged all the activity, giving his write-ups such titles as "Dell Sucks. Dell Lies" and "Dell Hell, Continued." On July 1, a customer service rep finally called and, in the end, offered a full refund.
End of story, right? Not in the Weblog world. The blogging continued to rage, on both Jarvis' site and others, with Jarvis writing an open letter Aug. 17 to Michael Dell and CMO Michael George lamenting their lack of response as well as offering suggestions on how to interact with bloggers. Mainstream media picked up on the story, including BusinessWeek, Fast Company, ZDNet, PC World and the Houston Chronicle.
In late August, a Dell public relations representative called Jarvis to talk about his Dell experience and the company's policies, but even that denouement hasn't stopped bloggers. Through it all, Dell has stood by its policy not to get involved in blogging discussions.
Observers say the Jarvis/Dell saga is only the beginning.
The PR Machine blog, run by IMC Strategies, warns: "Don't for a minute think that this `Jeff Jarvis' thing is a one-time deal for the blogosphere. Jeff Jarvis set the standard. Jeff Jarvis made the mother of all online brand threats. The snowball effect for all industries and products hereafter online is yet to come."