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As a franchisor, you've dedicated years to your business, built its reputation and perfected your products - so what do you do when you know when others are sullying your business reputation?

If your next major business step is to franchise your brand then reputation management becomes vital. You have to monitor and if necessary defend your brand's reputation. You definitely don't want to deter potential franchisees.

With the increasing number of review sites, social media and blogs it's great for the consumer to find information. But do you know what's being said about your business online?

Reputation Management - Addressing the Issue

It's a tough problem, and it's even tougher knowing that the majority of your customers are happy and satisfied. Yet there's always a few who complain. Any potential franchisor who has had his own business for any length of time may expect to come across a few complaints - he should understand it's a part of doing business.

You can't please all the people all the time.

The worst of it is those complaints and negative reviews may exist without you knowing it, adversely influencing your potential customers and franchisees.

You had a good month, how do you know you could have had an even better month if only it wasn't for Bert from Boston spreading his discontent online? Did Bert actually contact your customer service department to talk about his problem?

The only way to find out is to conduct reputation monitoring and address each complainant as you find them.

Set up a Google Alert for each of your brand names and your company name, or use a similar service offered by Technorati which alerts you via RSS feed. If the majority of your feedback is positive, then great, build on it further by thanking those who did leave a positive review.

Addressing Negative Feedback

But in the case of negative feedback forewarned is definitely forearmed.

Sometimes a customer may have a valid complaint. Bert from Boston could have called your customer service department and been blown off or promised something he never received like a replacement part.

By talking to Bert directly you may get to the root cause of the problem. You may need to retrain your customer service personnel as a result, or improve your product. If either is lacking, then improvement is positive for both your business and your customers.

The negative side will be if you ignore the issue. Bert could leave negative reviews on dozens of sites and on FaceBook and Twitter. It could spread like a virus, so reputation management should have been addressed as soon as the first complaint appeared.

It is how you address individual people and issues that will enhance or decrease your business reputation.

When others see that you are striving to resolve Bert's problem, the negativity may just be turned around. Most people don't expect things to be perfect every time, but they don't expect to be ignored.

Make Bert happy and you may just find he'll start spreading the word about how great your company is at resolving problems. The franchisee will see how you handle complaints the right way, and should be impressed. Problem solved.

Yet, you will always get people who complain just for the sake of it. You may even find that negative reviews are being posted by a competitor. Yes it happens, and it's difficult to prove.

That's a job for your lawyer if you feel it's seriously impacting your revenue.

Train Your Staff

Many social media sites, blogs and forums rank well in Google and may come above yours in the SERPs. You don't want a prospective franchisee reading response-less negative reviews of your business before he picks up the phone.

Train one of your customer service staff in proactive reputation management. Have that person be responsible for checking those alerts and RSS feeds daily.

They should then become skilled at responding quickly and diplomatically to any complaints and be able to manage your business reputation online effectively.

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Are You Smarter than the CIA?

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In early 2103, the Director of the CIA became the latest example showing that managing an online profile and a professional reputation is very difficult.

Many people bemoan the fact that your personal life can be so easily exposed and what many consider private conversations can be so public. It is true and in spite of warnings for at least the past 20 years to not put anything in an email that you would not want your Mother to read on the front page of the New York Times many people do just that and are shocked when their private emails end up on the front page of the New York Times.

Not only is it fairly easy to find salacious tidbits and scandalous gossip online, with Facebook and Twitter the news spreads faster, is distorted quicker and travels further than at any time in history.

No wonder many are reluctant to get involved, especially if your reputation is important to your business or career.

Many people I talk to balk when I say that because of their business they have to get involved with social media and need to maintain a good online profile. "No way," they say to me, "did you see the 'Social Network?' Nothing is private anymore."

We need put this into perspective, however.

The last 100 years or so have represented a brief period in history where people could live a private life and a public life.

Billie Holiday used to sing:

If I go to church on Sunday
And I shimmy down on Monday,
It ain't nobody's business if I do.

When we look back at the idyllic village and small town America of the 19th century we often extol the independent small businessman and the local shopkeeper who knew their customers and provided for their needs. We envy the farmer who worked hard then helped his neighbor raise a barn or the friendly cop on the beat who knew everybody's name.

Many people have compared the new online digital village to this romantic, neighborly past.

That may be an over simplification but unlike the mass businesses of the 20th century today's online businesses can better connect to, know and cater to their customers. For more about this read my blogs about Seth Godin's new book, "We Are All Weird," and What Seth Godin's "Weird" Can Teach Us about Social Media Marketing.

The down side of the personal relationship of the villages is that everybody knew what everybody else was doing. If the blacksmith's assistant kissed the farmer's daughter behind the barn you can be pretty sure everybody in town knew about it. The new world of online commerce and community also brings a transparency that many of us are not used to. What should you do about it?

Well, first off, you need to be more realistic about your expectations. If you want to be able to reach a wider market online in a personal way that connects with your customers you need to be prepared for a certain level of transparency.

If you are trying to be an alternative to impersonal mass marketers and opaque large businesses then embrace the opportunity for transparency and connection. If your personal beliefes and actions support your business and connect with your customers then shout it from the roof top and tweet till the cows come home. If your personal believes and actions do not mesh with your customers' then be a bit more discreet.

Being discreet means you need to be more careful online. Now I want to go on record as one who really doesn't care what someone does in their private life. That is their business.

I also believe in free speech. I think anyone can say what they want as long as it does not harm another person. Does that mean that I think anyone can and should say and do anything they want?

Well it depends. If you are trying to earn a living online and your business or career depends upon your reputation, then yes, you need to watch what you say. As one online business person told me, posting political or religious opinions on their Facebook page would be like a shopkeeper putting a sign in their window that said: All Welcome except Democrats and Methodists. Why turn away business when that business has nothing to do with personal beliefs and politics?

If your doing business online or if you represent a company or organization and you are active online you need to be careful, even with very personal matters like our friends in the CIA. Monitor your business, your name and your reputation online and avoid giving others the ammunition they need to make your life difficult.

For some more information take a look at some of my past blogs on how to maintain your professional online profile.

If you liked this, you should sign up for the LinkedIn Marketing & Advertising Tips from Franchise-Info newsletter.

Or, for more information on the Franchise-Info Business Directory, call Joe at 1-443-502-2636 or email Joe direct [email protected]

As the impact of social media on businesses continues to grow, many franchisors are seeing the ever-increasing need for a social media policy. Your franchise public relations and branding strategy was carefully developed, and social media is an integral part of both.

To avoid brand confusion, and varying messages, a contractual policy should be developed for franchisees. When developing the franchise social media policy, it should include the following components:

  • Localized Pages: There should be a notation of whether franchisees are allowed to have localized accounts, and if so, how the page should be built - down to the title of the page, account, or group. Consistency in localization is imperative. For example, if you have a location in Plano, Texas and Memphis, Tennessee that both want localized pages, the names of those should be identical except for the city. (i.e. Franchise X - Plano & Franchise X - Memphis)
  • Approval: Whether it's approval of an account on a platform lacking a corporate account, images or contests, there should be an approval process that is laid out step by step for each scenario.
  • Branded Graphics: If graphics are not provided for branding the pages, and posts on the pages, details of the steps needed to gain the approval for those should be detailed. This should include the contact person, and how far in advance graphics should be submitted.
  • Social Media Contest Guidelines: Contest guidelines should note what kind of contests aren't allowed, if co-promotions are acceptable, and a nominal cap for contest prizes if applicable.
  • Key messages: Providing sample posts for the various platforms is a good way to ensure that Franchisees understand what is required of them.
  • Best Practices: A one-sheet of best times, days and character count for posts is a necessary guideline to guarantee that the various pages are successful.

With the ever-changing social media landscape, policies will have to be adjusted to accommodate new regulations. It is important to note in the policy document that it can be changed at any time, and should they occur, how franchisees will be notified of those changes.

Do you see a need for a social media policy for your franchise, but don't know where to start? Ripley PR specializes in franchise public relations, and has social media experts on hand to help you develop the best possible policy for your franchise that will work fluidly with your overall marketing and public relations strategy.

Laurie Kulikowski the Retail & Small Business Reporter for Jim Cramer's TheStreet.com wrote this article entitled - "Looking for an Investment? Here Are 9 of the Best Franchises in America"

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Laurie is an actual financial reporter with financial news writing experience. She was with American Banker 2004-2006 and has been at the TheStreet.com for the past 8 years.

And everyone interested in investing knows Jim Cramer the CNBC Mad Money host and founder of TheStreet.

Laurie wrote a nice article on the best franchises to consider investing in. She did her job.

The PR people and franchise sellers working for the some of the 9 franchises not so much.

Below is the list of 9 Best according to the article with what each franchise says about Average sales per unit and ROI.

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5 of the franchise concepts listed have something they can use to sell franchises the 4 that made Financial Performance Representations don't. 

Here's what the 4 franchises who made reckless claims should do -

  • Stop getting compliance & legal advice on franchise marketing from PR people.

  • Show your franchise attorney TheStreet.com article and if they say "don't worry it's fine that you made an earnings claim" you should find a new franchise attorney.

  • If you have an Item 19 Financial Performance Representation - FPR use it with the FTC required disclaimer message.

  • Get an Item 19 FPR if you don't have one.

9. Visiting Angels

Average annual sales per unit: On average, in 2013, Visiting Angels' franchise owners did $1 million in gross revenue.

ROI: N/A

Why should a franchisee invest? The senior care industry is booming and it's a service that families will continue to increasingly need as the population gets older and rapidly expands. Every 13 seconds, another American will turn 65 years old, and that will go on for the next two decades. As this happens, the U.S. is bracing for an extraordinary population shift.

8. Wild Birds Unlimited

Average annual sales per unit: More than $500,000 in 2013

ROI: Wild Birds Unlimited's FDD includes this information in item 19. 

Why should a franchisee invest? The franchise system has grown on a culture where all employees are on the same team and can work together to enhance the entire system by training franchise owners in the best practices that were established when the company was founded in 1981. Customer retention is one of the most important aspects of running a Wild Birds Unlimited franchise and the company has developed some best practices to keep people coming back to a store, including providing franchise owners with a customer loyalty program as a way of giving back to their customers, supplying them with useful knowledge about backyard bird feeding and the outdoors.

7. Cruise Planners

Average annual sales per unit: N/A

ROI: We can't predict income as people join our franchise for various reasons. We have the "hobbyist" who joins because as a travel planner, you get to travel at travel agent rates which can be significantly discounted and those people only sell to family and friends to take advantage of those perks. We have the "part-timer" who maybe transitioning into retirement or a new career and yet they want a "plan B" as sometimes the work and life balance can be unpredictable and then we have the people who join us full-time as they have invested in their passion for travel. Also since our owners become full-service travel planners, they make commissions on ALL travel components of a vacation including travel insurance, passport services, hotel stays, all-inclusive resorts, rental cars, shore excursions and day trips, special needs at sea, destination weddings, and much more.

Why should a franchisee invest? Cruise Planners is a low-cost franchise opportunity, which yields high returns and requires no travel experience. Cruise Planners is the largest, privately owned, nationally recognized and continually awarded travel franchise in the country and the Home Office affiliation with the American Express brand really does lead to credibility and respect for our franchisees. Realizing that people want to travel, the worldwide industry grossed almost $70 billion in 2013 and more than 34 million Americans plan to cruise over the next three years. If you are looking for a new career or to reinvent yourself in retirement, the travel industry can be a safe investment as Cruise Planners isn't really affected by fluctuations in the economy and it's a fun industry to be in; who doesn't love to talk about travel?

6. Fitness Revolution

Average annual sales per unit: N/A

ROI: N/A

Why should a franchisee invest? The need for fitness programs is greater than ever, and the evolution of the fitness industry away from access and toward results-based services is taking hold. The most recent trends in the fitness industry have laid the groundwork for quality service providers to step in and meet market demand.

5. Weed Man

Average annual sales per unit:

Average Gross Sales per Location in the U.S. were $579,831 (based on 2012).

Average Gross Sales for the top 25% of U.S. locations - $1.43 million.

Average Gross Margin in 2012 was 57.2%

Why should a franchisee invest? "We are kind of the hidden gem of franchising," Weed Man USA COO Jennifer Lemcke told TheStreet in 2011. "A lot of people overlook the lawn care industry. Once you get a customer [there is an 80% to 85% chance] of renewal year after year."

4. Sotheby's International Realty

Average annual sales per unit: N/A

ROI: N/A

Why should a franchisee invest? Affiliates connect with the most prestigious clientele in the world. The brand supports its affiliates with a host of operational, marketing, recruiting, educational and business development resources; affiliates benefit from an association with the venerable Sotheby's Auction House.

3. Precision Concrete Cutting

Average annual sales per unit: $550,000 per year

ROI: Varies depending on the length of ownership and other factors, however the company boasts "great margins, re-occurring revenue and contracts with major municipalities."

"Our franchise owners tell us that they are four to 10 times what they earned in previous jobs," says Matt Haney, vice president of Precision Concrete Cutting. "Our franchise owners [have] previous backgrounds that vary from [former] Pro Hockey Players to vice presidents at major public companies."

Why should a franchisee invest?

The company has several distinct advantages:

1. Federally mandated demand through the ADA;

2. Proprietary techniques, technology and patents;

3. A sustainable competitive advantage over other competitors;

4. Re-occurring revenue model;

5. #1 franchise owner satisfaction rankings.

2. Kona Ice

Average annual sales: N/A

ROI: More than 80% of franchisees are buying a second unit within their first two years of operation. This figure serves as proof that owners are reaping the rewards of their investment.

Why should a franchisee invest? One of the key reasons Kona Ice owners have been able to grow their business so quickly is because the concept is mobile. Being mobile, as opposed to having a fixed location, creates many advantages. Not having to own their own building or property eliminates high overhead costs that can cripple profitability. Mobility also allows Kona Ice businesses to adapt to changes in the community. Traffic patterns and growth patterns are impossible to predict, but with a mobile business, it is easy to adjust compared to having a long-term lease in a dying location.

1. Home Instead Senior Care

Average annual sales: N/A

ROI: Varies by market

Why should a franchisee invest? With the over-65 population projected to double by 2030 in the U.S. alone, more and more families around the world are in need of in-home senior care. Home Instead Senior Care is fulfilling that crucial need community by community, with the leading senior care franchise in the world. This is an opportunity to own your own franchise business that offers not only growth potential, but also the personal satisfaction of knowing your services make a difference for seniors who want to stay in their homes as they age.

Here's how it starts.

Trade publication reaches out to a franchise brand or its PR firm offering to do a great article to promote your franchise to its readers.

The article will talk about these things -

  • Brand beginnings

  • Founders vision

  • Unique products

  • Market penetration

  • Growth plans

  • Perfect franchisee profile

And those article points are essential to a branding story.

However when the trade publication says our readers won't have any interest in your brand unless you give us some numbers to include in the article.

Now this seems innocent enough, right? This is a legitimate trade news publication and they are just reporting.

Maybe or maybe not.

We all know in most trade publications there is not much separation between the sales and journalism side of the business. And it's pretty clear that you are paying in some way for this "positive franchise PR".

And what does the intrepid CEO or franchise sales executive do about the numbers question?

They talk about -

  • System-wide sales

  • COGS

  • Labor

  • Average Unit Volume - AUV

  • EBITDA

For example FSR Magazine has a great story on Quaker Steak & Lube that would be very enticing to franchise-buyers. However they talk about AUVs being $3.4 Million and "System-wide sales were $156 million in 2013, and are projected to be around $180 million this year".

Quaker Steak & Lube's franchise sales team is going to want to use trade publication email blasts to potential franchise buyers and they are certainly distributing to franchise prospects and put the article prominently on their website. Any ambitious franchise seller would do this.

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Problem is that there's that pesky FTC Franchise Rule about making legal FPRs or what we used to call Earnings Claims.

And the Quaker Steak & Lube FSR Magazine article isn't compliant to use by the franchisor for franchise sales.

And it's too bad since Quaker Steak & Lube has an Item 19 that could have been the basis for a compliant FPR in the article with the correct disclaimer. But, their PR agency put them at risk, $10,000 or more per incident of a misleading advertising copy.

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Okay, I'm taking a brief break from franchising to talk about my other passion in life -- movies. If you see me at the International Franchise Association's annual conference this month, be warned - if you get me started talking about movies, you may not be able to get me to stop.

You may have had a chance to read my article in this month's issue of Franchise Times. This is the promised continuation of my annual "top 10" list. In 2013, I saw more than 200 films. In anticipation of the upcoming 86th annual Academy Awards, I thought I would share my favorites of 2013 with the franchise community.

10. We're The Millers

One of the hazards of seeing 200+ movies a year is that you see a lot (and I do mean a LOT) of previews. And you see them over... and over... and over again. Some previews you get absolutely sick of (I'm talking to you, "Grudge Match" and "Out of the Furnace"); others are a joy to watch every single time.

Paradoxically, when it comes to comedies, the trailers that make me most wary are the ones that are really funny - the ones that I don't mind seeing several times. You know the type: the jokes come fast and furious, and leave the audience members guffawing. Why am I so circumspect about those previews? Because, in my experience, the funniness level of the trailer is inversely proportional to the humor in the actual movie. Most of the really funny stuff is spoiled in the trailer, foisting upon the eager moviegoer the leftovers: a series of limp, tired jokes that don't live up to the promise of this preview.

Happily, "We're The Millers" was an exception to this rule. The preview, which was one of the few that I enjoyed seeing multiple times, didn't spoil most of the great jokes in the movie. My favorite comedy of the year, "We're The Millers" had all the elements of a great comedy: likeable characters, an engaging plot, and actors (particularly Jason Sudeikis) that have that perfect mixture of timing and delivery that give the lines comedic impact.

Listen, recommending comedies is difficult because so much depends on the viewer's sense of humor, which is completely subjective. What I find funny may not be what you find funny. So don't be angry with me if you watch this movie and don't laugh. Also, be warned - this movie is a hard "R." If you're easily offended, avoid this one.  

9. Rush

"Rush" tells the story of a vicious rivalry between two Formula One racers in 1970s Europe: the handsome ladies' man James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the homely Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). These men, matched on the racetrack, could not be more different in personality. James is reckless and a risk-taker in life, while Niki plays it safe; but it is James's charisma and appeal that leads, indirectly to an accident on the track that nearly costs Niki his life.

A glimpse into a world I know nothing about, "Rush" is less about Formula One racing than it is about sportsmanship and respect between rivals. Director Ron Howard is working at the top of his game, balancing the stories of these men and their lives off the track with heart-pounding recreations of the races that defined their careers. While it was not successful at the box office, "Rush" is destined to join the pantheon of great sports movies.

8. The Kings of Summer

Joe is a teenager living with his recently-widowed father, a gruff man who uses his biting wit as a defense mechanism to cope with his own loneliness. Joe and his two friends, each of whom are dealing with their own problems at home, decide one summer to run away from home and live in a ramshackle house they build in the woods near their hometown. Enjoying their newfound freedom, the boys live the summer happily in the house until a girl enters the picture, when jealousy and pettiness threatens to destroy their friendship.

My favorite movie of Sundance 2013, "The Kings of Summer" is a coming-of-age film that is both incredibly funny and poignant in a way that feels authentic and natural. It's a fun an easy watch, perfect for movie night at home (but it's not for young kids or pre-teens).

7. The Sapphires

"The Sapphires" is another retread of that well-known story: four Aboriginal girls, facing massive racial discrimination in 1960s Australia, form a Motown-inspired girl group and tour war-torn Vietnam playing to U.S. servicemen. What, you say you've never heard that story before? Neither had I. I love it when I learn something new from a movie; it's even better when the movie is as entertaining and infectious as this one.

Often, movies that deal with difficult subjects have an atmosphere of emotional gravitas that can leave the viewer drained. It is exceedingly rare for an inspiring film about overcoming adversity to also be infectiously optimistic and fun to watch. Somehow, "The Sapphires" manages exactly that. 

Roger Ebert once said "no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough." While that is true of almost all of the films on my top 10 list, "The Sapphires" was the 2013 movie that most surprised me when the credits started rolling - the 103 minute running time flew by, driven by charismatic performances wrapped around delightful musical performances that left me wanting more.

6. All Is Lost

Robert Redford plays a man alone on a yacht in the middle of the ocean, left to battle a chance accident and the elements using only his wits and the few supplies he has on hand.

Being a frequent moviegoer, one of my principal frustrations when watching a movie is when the filmmaker treats me like an idiot. Instead of leaving me, as an audience member, to do the work and figure things out for myself, the director decides to spell it all out for me and make it crystal-clear. I don't like to be patronized or played down to. "All Is Lost" does none of that.

What I loved about this movie is that you learn almost nothing through dialogue. You, the viewer, are forced to watch actively for clues to decide why the man is out there alone. You question his actions, and are forced to consider how you would respond to the challenges thrown his way. As a result, every viewer's understanding of the movie is guided by his or her own experiences.

>5. Nebraska

A cantankerous elderly man (Bruce Dern) receives a come-on solicitation in the mail from a marketing company informing him that he "may have won $1 million," and he immediately starts hitchhiking to the company's head office in Nebraska to claim his prize. After first trying unsuccessfully to talk his dad out of the misguided mission, his son (Will Forte) decides to drive him there, hoping that he can use the trip to bond with his father. The road trip takes the pair to the father's home town, where he crosses swords with his family, friends, and former business partner.

"Nebraska," a film that looks both lovely and stark in black-and-white, is another home run by director Alexander Payne ("Sideways" and "The Descendants"). The cast is memorable, featuring a number of unknown, first-time actors that add to the authenticity of the movie; everyone has someone like "Uncle Ray" or "Aunt Betty" in their own family, and their living room feels like our own. Like many of the other movies on my list this year, "Nebraska" is about loyalty, family, and the bonds that tie us together.

4. Starbuck

Did you see trailers for that Vince Vaughn movie, "Delivery Man?" It was actually a remake of "Starbuck," a little-known gem of a film from Canada (in French, with subtitles). "Starbuck" tells the story of David Wozniak (Patrick Huard), a ne'er-do-well fortysomething with a good heart. David discovers, due to a mix-up at a fertility center to which he donated when he was a young man, that he has over 500 biological children. The children sue the center to learn his identity (which has been kept secret), while David learns more about them and acts as a "guardian angel" to each of his kids.

"Starbuck" is a comedy about what it means to be human: it's about connection, love, loyalty, friendship, belonging, and, most of all, family. While it's touching and heartfelt, it's also easily one of the funniest movies of the year. I challenge you to watch this movie and not get choked up by the ending, which is profoundly sweet without being artificial or cloying.

3. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

One of the troubling side effects of the Internet's omnipresence is that we are now so accustomed to receiving our news instantly that much of what engages us on a daily basis has begun to feel disposable. In fact, one might argue that much of modern pop culture has been reduced to daily memes or soundbites that light social media ablaze today, but are forgotten tomorrow. There have been many casualties of this instantaneous culture, including countless hard-copy magazines that have died off in the wake of the Internet revolution.

Connecting with the world and with other people has never been easier, or harder, than it is today. When we can "visit" another country or meet people with the click of a mouse, it is all too easy to stop trying to personally connect with people or places. But there is no substitute for reality; there is no better way to feel part of this world than traveling and experiencing it for yourself. This is the lesson of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

Bearing little resemblance to the short story by James Thurber, the Walter Mitty in this movie has lived inside his own head for most of his life, but circumstances force him to leave his comfort zone and experience Life for himself. During his travels, Walter learns a great deal more than books, magazines, or his computer can tell him - an experience that resonates with anyone who considers him/herself a traveler. Ultimately, this movie is about the value of personal connection and experience in a world that makes it possible for us to avoid those things.

2. Before Midnight

In "Before Midnight," we catch up with Jesse and Céline (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), the two lovers that met first on a train outside of Paris in 1995's "Before Sunrise" and then crossed paths again in 2004's "Before Sunset." We learn that, in the time since the last movie, Jesse left his wife and moved to Europe to be with Céline.

In the first two movies, Jesse and Céline - who were not yet together -- were still idealizing one another. In this movie, they are facing the reality of living together and feeling the pull of conflicting priorities. Loving someone from afar is easy; sharing your life with them is hard. And, because we've grown with them over the past two decades, their pain hurts us, too. "Before Midnight" is the rare film that feels so real that it aches.

1. American Hustle

The film begins with a statement: "Some of this actually happened." With that opening salvo, we begin a rollicking journey of crime, con men, politicians, government agents, lies, and betrayal that explores the blurred lines between right and wrong.

Based on the FBI ABSCAM operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, "American Hustle" tells the story of con artists Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) who are used by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to lure elected officials into accepting bribes - so that the Bureau could capture it all on videotape. A string of politicians are ensnared by the trap and convicted, but the film asks the question: in a game of deceit, who is the real villain?

Easily my favorite movie of 2013, "American Hustle" is an example of first-class filmmaking. The ensemble cast (rounded out by Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner) inhabits the characters and breathes life into the history. The story is well-constructed and laced with observations about loyalty, relationships and the human condition that are both wry and apt, leading to some of the best comedic scenes of any film this year.

Runners up: Disconnect, The Great Gatsby, Man of Steel, Thanks for Sharing, Girl Most Likely, New World, The To Do List, Side Effects, Wadjda, Filly Brown, World War Z

So, what do YOU think? Do you agree or disagree with any of my choices? What were your favorite movies of 2013?

When it comes to online brand management, franchises often have much more to consider than traditional businesses. Why? Because they must manage the brand online not only for the franchise as a whole but for each franchise location.

This can become a daunting task, and if it is not handled properly it can lead to disaster.

Managing your franchise brand successfully online will result in:

●Brand consistency in all local markets
●#1 Rankings in all markets
●Prompt and effective online customer care in all markets
●Prompt and consistent damage control in all local markets
●Consistent engagement and participation on social networks in all local markets

For some that may seem like a tall order, especially when considering the size of many franchise systems today.

How do you do this? The basic answer is relatively simple: you need a solid online strategy that works for both franchisor and franchisees.

There are essentially four primary components to creating a franchise-wide online strategy.

Part 1: Internet Marketing Model

This is the foundation of your online strategy and it answers three primary questions: How, Who and Where.

How?

●How will the Internet be used to ensure the franchise website lands on Page 1 for relevant searches in all of its local markets?
●How will the website be used? (Brand page vs. local pages, for example)
●How will social networking be utilized? (Will there be Brand pages and/or local pages, and which social networks will you use?)

Who?

●Who will ensure that the page 1 Google rankings are achieved...franchisor or franchisee?
●Who will manage the website?
●Who is responsible for setting up and maintaining social networks and delivering social care?

Where?

Where will funding come from to cover the cost of these initiatives?

Click here for more information about creating an effective Internet Marketing Model.

Part 2: Internet Usage Policy

This will define how and franchisees and their employees (as well as corporate employees) can use the Internet.

This is your protection. It outlines what can and cannot be done online, and it is absolutely crucial. Without this you leave yourself open to the potential of many negative outcomes, including lawsuits, breaches of confidentiality and more.

It is also an opportunity to empower your franchisees to engage online in the proper ways.

Consider these questions:

●What are your expectations for online communication?
●Are franchisees and/or employees allowed to comment on or answer questions about the company?
●How will you monitor franchisee and employee engagement?
●How will you enforce policies?

Click here to find out more about creating an effective internet usage policy.

Part 3: Social Care Policy

Good social care means good customer service delivered through online platforms. It's crucial today because more people are turning to places like Facebook and Twitter to get their customer service issues resolved than using the phone or web help forums.

For franchises, this means that you have to be there...not only for your franchises as a whole, but if anyone in any location has a customer service issue related to one of your franchises, you have to have a system in place to deal with this.

Delivering good social care is relatively simple. It is the process of the following three things:

●Monitor
●Listen
●Respond positively in each given situation

You need to have your policy in place so that you and your franchisees know exactly what to do and who is doing it.

Click here to find out more about developing a social care policy for your franchise.

Part 4: Communication and Engagement Plan

This is an ever-evolving plan for engaging with your audience online. Among other things, it will identify:

●the types of content you'll create
●where and how that content will be distributed
●how to engage proactively with your audience for online growth.

Of course...this is all just the beginning of successful online brand management. It requires consistency, dedication and adaptation in order to keep your franchise on top.

Connect with me on LinkedIn, when you need to know more about how to effectively manage your brand online.

As brands integrate social media marketing into their business plans, they often voice concerns about doing it “right.”  They look to competitors to figure out what seems to be working, but they often overlook a detailed risk analysis from both a marketing and legal perspective. 

Almost a year after, The Altimeter Group released its new report  “A Strategy for Managing Social Media Proliferation”, many of its findings are still relevant.  Altimeter reported that companies’ resources are strained to manage all their social media operations and may need the help of outside vendors. The result is often chaotic social media management. In determining how to manage social media, brands should consider several key legal issues and include strategies for minimizing risk in its business plan.

Who owns your social media accounts? Altimeter’s report highlights that companies may have as many as 178 discrete social media accounts, not including employee accounts. How many of those companies thought through the legal implications of who owns the intellectual property associated with the brand accounts and the employee accounts? The ongoing battle between PhoneDog and Noah Kravitz may prove instructive on this point, but absent a court precedent, brands need to take proactive steps to establish ownership of their intellectual property in social media.

  • Best Practice:  Establish ownership in writing BEFORE launching social media accounts. Do this in employee manuals, policy statements, and contractually with employees, and consider filing for trademark registrations to protect your monikers.

Outsourcing could be an invitation for disaster. Altimeter warns that the marketplace has a low barrier to entry for social media vendors, and consequently, companies need to understand their vendors’ capabilities and weaknesses before hiring them. Altimeter recommends a full test drive of products before hiring, but what of the other elephant in the room, legal liability? Social media vendors, as a whole, do not accept legal liability for their work. They are typically unwilling to warrant the legality of content or indemnify against enforcement actions. What happens if data security is breached? Who is clearing the sweepstakes that the vendor is helping brands post to Facebook? And who is bearing the risk of liability? Digging even deeper, most brands overlook due diligence on their vendors’ patents to determine their validity. Imagine the business interruption after hiring a vendor, becoming reliant on them, and then losing them to a patent infringement lawsuit.

  • Best Practice: Before you hire one of the vendors mentioned in Altimeter’s report or any other vendor, look carefully at your contract and assess not only potential legal liability but also how the vendor will work with you to avoid an investigation or crisis from occurring in the first place.

Policies are not sufficient. Altimeter recommends the use of third party experts and taking the time for policy development. But policies, in and of themselves, may be insufficient. Take the FTC’s recent investigation of Hewlett-Packard Company and its public relations firm, Porter Novelli, Inc. or its November, 2011 investigation of Hyundai Motor America regarding potential violations of the FTC’s Endorsement and Testimonial Guidelines. In both cases, the brands’ agencies sought to induce a small group of bloggers with gift certificates in exchange for urging bloggers to promote the brands. In both instances, the FTC dropped their investigations because of the small numbers of blogger recipients and the brands’ revisions to their social media policies. At the same time, the FTC continued to remind advertisers that they are responsible for the actions of their agencies.

  • Best Practices: The FTC’s Business Center blog offers the first practice point here. In December, 2011, describing the Hyundai case, it offered a mnemonic “M.M.M.” to help guide brands into compliance with the FTC’s Endorsement Guides: 1) Mandate a disclosure policy that complies with the law; 2) Make sure people who work for you or with you know what the rules are; and 3) Monitor what they’re doing on your behalf.  For a second practice point, it is essential to have your policies dictated by your practices and not the other way around. A policy crafted by an attorney in isolation from company marketing efforts will not serve you. Altimeter wisely recommends a social media planning audit. Legal counsel should be actively involved throughout all initiatives. In addition, bi-annual audits are highly recommended because social media marketing strategies shift frequently.

For more in-depth examinations of the Hewlett-Packard and Hyundai cases, see my posts (click here)

© Kyle-Beth Hilfer, P.C. 2012

Kyle-Beth Hilfer, Esq. has over 20 years experience as an attorney specializing in advertising, marketing, promotions, intellectual property, and new media law.

Ms. Hilfer is a graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School.  She is of Counsel to Collen IP.  Read more about her law practice, click here.

In June, I had the great pleasure of attending the Corporate Social Media Summit in New York City, put on by Useful Social Media.  It was a fantastic event populated by the people in charge of social media for some of the world’s biggest and most influential companies, in industries across the spectrum.  Those who spoke shared insights that they’ve gained from their social media experiences, both positive and negative.  This group of highly sophisticated professionals truly represented the state of the art in corporate social media.

As such, their insights into best practices online carry significant weight.  Although no one speaker or panel focused specifically on the legal issues surrounding social media activity, they dropped several pearls of wisdom that are relevant to those issues.  Since I approach social media from a legal perspective, I drew from the speakers’ comments the following lessons on minimizing legal liability:

 

  • First and foremost, “it’s insane not to have a social media policy,” as one speaker put it.  “Your employees are going to use social media whether you like it or not,” said another, so define what they can and cannot do online.  Not only will this offer you a potential shield from liability if an employee violates those guidelines, but a social media policy is also an important mechanism for engaging your employees and educating them on your company’s overall social media philosophy.  Best Buy, for example, summarizes its entire policy with the tagline, “Be Smart, Be Respectful, Be Human.”
  • But don’t oversimplify your policy, either.  One speaker quipped that his company’s entire policy was the following: “Don’t do anything stupid.”  But subsequent presenters responded (and the Twitterverse appeared to concur) that this is not the right approach for most employers.  Cisco’s Andrew Warden, for example, observed that “stupid” means something different to a recent college grad than it does to middle-aged professionals.  Rather, as Paul Butcher, Head of Digital for Citi, suggested, pepper your social media policy with real-world examples, so that all employees can grasp what it is that they should and shouldn’t do.
  • Don’t restrict your employee’s online activities too harshly, either.  Setting aside the labor law liability that this can create, and the lost opportunities for enhancing your brand, an overly draconian policy may say more about your hiring practices than it does about social media.  As Gregory Weiss, A.V.P. of Social Media for New York Life Insurance, observed, “If you don’t trust your employees, maybe you’re hiring the wrong employees.”
  • Train employees who use social media the most.  Best Buy trains their online community representatives for an entire week, then monitors what they post for 90 days.  Gregory Weiss suggested that social media issues be raised at every new hire orientation.
  • Have a social media policy that governs how third parties can use your site, too.  This includes your Facebook page.  Coca-Cola has a nice, trim policy on its Facebook fan page that Ashley Brown, Coke’s Director of Digital Communications, encouraged attendees to copy.  But there are very few absolute rules that all companies must follow when crafting these policies.  For example, after a healthy discussion on whether it’s ever appropriate to delete a third party’s post on your corporate Facebook page, the apparent consensus was, “rarely, but sometimes.”  Other speakers suggested locking down your Facebook wall so that third parties can only comment on your posts, but not start posts of their own on your wall.
  • Keep track of what different employees and departments are doing online.  This is especially important in large, geographically dispersed companies.  Both Coca-Cola and Southwest Airlines require individual employees to sign their posts on the corporate Twitter accounts with their initials, making it easier to trace the author of a particular post on an account to which many individuals contribute.  (It also has the effect of humanizing the brand, as one speaker noted.)  Citi has an internal Sharepoint location where all employees must pre-register their intentions to launch a new social media site.  That allows every relevant department, including legal, to review those plans before they’re launched.
  • People will cheat in online games.  Tim McMahan, head of Union Pacific’s web team, learned this in running his company’s innovative  online contest.  Be prepared to handle it.
  • Finally, my favorite piece of advice: “Become close friends with your lawyer!“  Several other speakers echoed this sentiment, including Tom Hoehn, Director of Marketing for Kodak.  Citi’s Paul Butcher added that good legal counsel is essential for identifying the risks–because there will always be some risk–so that you can ultimately weigh those risks against the potential benefit to the business.  Coca-Cola’s Ashley Brown rightly noted that the legal world as a whole hasn’t yet caught up with new media, but also emphasized that part of their success is due to the support and flexibility of their legal team.  Coke has two lawyers entirely dedicated to its social media engagements.

For more insights from these speakers that go well beyond the legal context, check out these summaries of the event from other attendees:

Learning From Leadership at the Corporate Social Media Summit (quoting Yours Truly)

Success Lessons from Corporate Social Media Summit Part 1Part 2

65 Tweetable Moments From the Corporate Social Media Summit

10 Big Brand Lessons From the Corporate Social Media Summit

Or search Twitter for the hashtag #csmny.

Guest post by Brian Wassom.

Brian D. Wassom is a First Amendment lawyer in the broadest sense of the term. He litigates copyright, trademark, publicity rights, entertainment, and related IP issues, all of which involve drawing the boundaries of legally sanctioned monopolies over creative expression and otherwise-free speech. He also assists media companies and journalists in exercising their freedom of the press, by helping them obtain access to information and defending them from claims of defamation, invasion of privacy, eavesdropping, and the like. Brian advises religious organizations as well, whose rights to free exercise and separation from government are likewise enshrined in the First Amendment.

Brian authors the legal blog Wassom.com, which addresses the law of social and emerging media. A regular feature of that blog is "Augmented Legality," the world's first publication dedicated to analyzing the legal principles that will govern the revolutionary technology called "augmented reality."

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