The ability to compliment, cajole or criticize a company in a public forum such as Facebook or Twitter puts a powerful bullhorn into the hands of the little people that can force a corporation to take notice.
Then, again, sometimes it's just a quiet online conversation.
Earlier this month, a group of parents upset about American Eagle Outfitters' decision to withdraw financial support for a day care center near its SouthSide Works headquarters started a Facebook page. The page has about 40 friends, mainly parents sharing information and stories about finding new day care. The issue drew a mention from a local blogger, but the discussion seems to have remained relatively low-key.
For Local 23 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, a Facebook page used to rally the membership during negotiations with Giant Eagle helped in its efforts to keep attention focused on the battle of wills between the two sides. Tony Helfer, president of the local, said that between 750 and 800 people were officially following the page. While the majority have been union members, he said a number of politicians also had been checking in.
Using the Web as a means of changing corporate behavior turns out to be complicated. Every comment posted on Twitter does not get seen 'round the world, even if a few do. And every grassroots campaign doesn't get the right mix of fertilizer and water to really spread out and bring the attention to an issue that its creators might want.
That kind of attention, marketing professionals say, requires a mix of the right content -- a message that grabs peoples' interest -- and a way to tap into established networks of people who are already talking to each other.
Randy Strothman, who has a marketing business on the North Side, said online connections helped last fall when residents were fighting a Duquesne Light proposal to put a large station in Allegheny Commons park.
He said those concerned did not set up a Facebook page but that they did send out an e-mail to a group of interested people who passed it along to others. Someone posted it on a Yahoo! chat site, spreading awareness even further. "These things can turn viral," he said.
Other examples of recent efforts to use social media to pressure corporations include the Boycott BP Facebook page with almost 700,000 fans of punishing oil giant BP, which has a broken well spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
There also is a push on to pressure PNC Financial Services Group to avoid lending to companies involved in mountaintop removal mining. A recent report by the Rainforest Action Network and the Sierra Club criticized the Pittsburgh bank for being active in the business but not having an investment policy to address the issue, unlike Credit Suisse, which the group said adopted a policy last fall to "promote responsible mining practices that protect the environment, ensure worker health and safety, and engage the public through consultation and disclosure."
There's been some blogging about the issue and a couple of demonstrations, enough to associate the topic with the company's name on an Internet search.
All the Internet chatter is getting companies' attention. "To the extent that all this is additional information being put out there, yeah, absolutely it would affect their images," said Michael Walsh, assistant professor of marketing at West Virginia University.
Sometimes a company will respond, sometimes it will decide it's better to stay on the sidelines.
At American Eagle Outfitters, a corporate spokeswoman said the South Side-based retailer keeps track of online discussions. "We absolutely pay a lot of attention to Facebook," said Jani Strand. "We listen all the time. We respond as much as we can."
In the case of the day care center, the company has said it decided not to support Bright Horizons at SouthSide Works any longer because not enough employees were using the center. On Wednesday, a poster announced that an agreement had been worked out to hold a meeting involving parents, American Eagle, Bright Horizons and the day care center's landlord.
Mr. Helfer, at Local 23, said his union's decision to use Facebook for the first time during a round of negotiations with Giant Eagle was meant to make it easier for members spread out geographically to get involved.
That has meant that union leadership takes its lumps, in addition to Giant Eagle management. "We don't delete people off because we don't like what they say," said Mr. Helfer. While union members were the target audience, Mr. Helfer said they probably weren't the only audience. "We do know the company is watching us, and that's fine."
"Overall, we see no issue with the use of social media in such a manner if the purpose is to keep those involved updated with information that is not of a confidential nature," replied Dan Shapira, Giant Eagle general counsel. "While Local 23's usage of social media had no direct impact on our negotiations, it did appear be a tool well received by those team members interested in such updates."
Whatever the issue, it must meet a certain standard to get heard over the cacophony of online noise, said Tom Dowling, managing director of marketing firm Burson-Marsteller's Downtown office.
Those trying to be heard must have credibility. For example, the union already had a relationship with its members. Environmental organizations have an audience. And even companies that use social media to inform and not just promote their products can build credibility when it comes time to respond to criticism.
Those who seek to use the Internet to make a difference in the business world also have to get past what Mr. Dowling described as the "So what?" factor.
There are lots of complaints and causes, and most people have many other things to worry about, he noted. "Everybody thinks their cause is the most important issue."
Teresa F. Lindeman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2018.