Our society is more polarized today than at any moment in recent memory. Our politics is divisive. Opinions have become more outspoken and outraged. Driving all of this is social media. Social media has allowed millions to have a voice and share their opinion. It is also a driving force in spreading disapproval of a brand when it takes a stand that someone disagrees with. The hashtag #Boycott followed by a brand’s name is one of the most popular ones on Twitter. Brands need to be prepared when this happens.
Here are a few examples.
A local Cracker Barrel in Indiana fired the wife of a man named Brad. Brad went on to social media to demand that Cracker Barrel explain why his wife was fired. His posts were picked up by people on social media with the hashtag #JusticeforBradsWife. The Cracker Barrel social media sites were inundated with comments and questions about Brad’s wife. Traditional media picked up the story which became a humorous running joke. Cracker Barrel ignored the posters and social media outcry. This led to a new hashtag #BoycottCrackerBarrel. The chain took a hit and its stock price went down.
Adidas made a tone-deaf move by sending out an email to Boston Marathon participants with the subject line, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” the day after this year’s marathon – just four years after the bombings at the 2013 marathon. The backlash was immediate. The hashtag #BoycottAddias started. Before it could gain traction and Adidas quickly issued a public apology saying, “We are incredibly sorry. There was no thought given to the insensitive email subject line we sent Tuesday. We deeply apologize for our mistake.”
The heartfelt public apology stopped #BoycottAddias in its tracks. It prevented the incident from turning into a negative three- to five-day story.
A result of #Boycott means that it is more important than ever to make sure that you are prepared with a statement supporting your decision if you are caught in the crosshairs of a boycott. Or if you feel like you’ve made a mistake, make sure the statement explains why you made the decision in the first place and what you are doing to fix the issue. Consumers want to know their voices are being heard and changes are being made.
Social media drives narratives. That cannot be emphasized enough. And it is particularly true during a crisis over customer service. More and more dissatisfied customers are taking to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to express their displeasure over poor customer service or what they view as poor quality products. A case in point happened with the Twitter war between conservative author, Ann Coulter and Delta Airlines.
Coulter’s problems with Delta began, after the exit-row seat she reserved on her flight from New York to West Palm Beach was given away to a fellow passenger without any “explanation, compensation or apology” she claimed on Twitter. Delta’s social media team reached out via Twitter apologizing to Coulter and offering to compensate her the extra money she had paid. But that wasn’t the end of the Twitter war heard around the world. Coulter took again to Twitter attacking Delta, its employees, and even the passenger who took her seat. Delta responded to her via Twitter defending its employees and passengers. The feud between Coulter and Delta was picked up by the news media and is still ongoing. Yet it raises the question in this social media driven age in which every tweet and post is analyzed, how should a company respond when under attack via social media?
These are some things a company should do and remember:
- Respond to the complaint. Ignoring it will only make the customer angrier and lead to others on social media joining in. Like Delta originally did, acknowledge a mistake if it was made, offer an apology, and finally offer a resolution. Always act as if your response will be viewed by the entire world because with the power of social media it probably will be.
- Stand up for the company if you are unfairly accused of something. In the case of Delta, the company stood up for its employees and passengers when Coulter’s tweets began attacking them. This showed a humanizing face for Delta and allowed the company also to stand up against false allegations. They also remembered that part of their brand identity is their employees and they defended that brand DNA that was under attack.
- Use humor and class in admitting a major mistake if possible. Social media can be abusive and snarky. If admitting a mistake, a company is always smart to use some self-depreciating humor in its response and take the high road. Anything else will make the social media crisis worse.
- Have a social media team that responds 24/7. Social media never rests and that why a company always needs to respond right away or else the social media firestorm will grow.
Social media complaints are never-ending. The key for companies is to respond to each in a way that it is one and gone. Failing to do so will ensure that the complaint becomes a full blown crisis on social media and then in the traditional media causing extreme brand damage.
The major challenge for a business after a major crisis is regaining public trust. It has taken years for a business to build the trust and now that the crisis has hit, the business must begin rebuilding the trust again. It helps if the business had a reservoir of goodwill prior to the crisis and managed the crisis with a strong response. It cannot be emphasized enough that in having a strong crisis management plan in place during the crisis helps in the rebuilding.
So now moving forward what is to be done?
The first step is to explain now that the crisis has passed what steps the business is doing to ensure that it will never happen again. This message must be conveyed to the public, vendors, and internally to employees. This should be done in a strong way, outlining the specific steps that are being taken.
A greater emphasis on customer satisfaction and service is critical during this time period. Look at the steps United Airlines took after its disaster when a passenger was dragged off one of its flights.
The organization might want to look at developing a new mission statement as it emerges from the crisis. This should emphasize more than just profits. It should put a premium on customer service and making the world, the country, state, or city a better place.
Ethics and sensitivity training programs based upon the crisis should be instituted. This helps ensure that every employee knows the proper procedures and what is expected of them.
Also a greater emphasis should be placed on community outreach and charitable programs. This will help rebuild goodwill and also show that the company cares.
Rebuilding a reputation after a crisis doesn’t happen overnight but it can be done. Just as with the crisis, you need a strong plan for after the crisis to regain public trust.
It cannot be stressed enough that any good public relations strategy should include a crisis communications plan. Too often brands and companies overlook this and when a disaster strikes, they are caught unprepared. One aspect of a crisis communications plan is determining who should be called in and consulted when the crisis hits and a response is needed.
So to paraphrase the movie, Ghostbusters, ‘who are you gonna call’ when a crisis strikes?
- The CEO/President – As Harry Truman famously said, “the buck stops here”, and that is particularly true during a crisis. The CEO/President is the public face of the company during a crisis. They set the public tone for the organization.
- General Counsel/Organization Attorney – A crisis often involves a legal issue. Any response during the crisis could have legal implications. A lawyer is essential to review and answer these questions.
- Company Communications Officer – This is the internal communications specialist who knows the company’s brand story and values. This person will work to ensure the company response corresponds with them and includes both internal and external audiences.
- Human Resources Officer – A crisis affects an organization’s employees. This person helps make sure that proper information is relayed to employees during the crisis and helps address any misinformation and concerns among employees.
- Social Media Officer – A major mistake many companies make during a crisis is forgetting to have a response on social media and to monitor social media. This person ensures that the social media response is consistent with the traditional media response.
- Outside Public Relations – This is an outside public relations professional who brings an outside and objective perspective to the crisis.
Identifying all the key players that are needed within the organization is essential for a cohesive crisis communications response when disaster strikes. Far too often, organizations waste precious time during a crisis in identifying what personnel are needed for the crisis.
Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The same could apply in planning for a crisis. A crisis can happen at anytime. It can affect any brand. A crisis doesn’t care about the size of the organization. With social media and the 24/7 news cycle, a crisis that might never have gotten any attention several years ago or only localized coverage can be splashed across the networks and make national headlines, destroying years of positive brand building. What is worse is that much of the damage could have been avoided if the brand had done some crisis management planning.
When the first media call happens or first negative social media post goes live, most brands are still scrambling on how to respond to the crisis. They are determining who will speak for the brand, what stakeholders need to be addressed, what the response should be, and the legal implications. By the time they have determined all of this, the crisis is engulfing their organization, they have lost several news cycles, and social media is exploding.
That is why as Eisenhower said, planning is indispensable. Effective planning will address the importance of moving quickly under pressure; not losing critical news cycles and allowing social media to run amok. It also allows for potential regulatory and political impact to be evaluated immediately.
Planning allows the brand to know what stakeholders need to be addressed. Often in a crisis, the concern is with addressing the public and investors, with vendors and employees forgotten causing great damage. It allows for a company procedure for when the media calls and for employees to know who to refer the call to without getting caught in a gotcha moment with a reporter. Planning allows for a coherent social media strategy to coincide with the traditional media response. Far too often, brands forget the social media component as they are scrambling to deal with the traditional media. This mistake can be avoided with some planning. Finally planning can help develop the empathy that will be essential in a crisis. Just think of United CEO Oscar Munoz’s initial response to the passenger being dragged off the plane, had he shown some empathy with his response much of the ongoing damage could have been avoided.
Planning won’t make a crisis go away but it will lessen the impact of the crisis. That is why it is critical to have a crisis management planning session and to incorporate it into your overall public relations plan.
For years, businesses have known that a crisis could arise from an accident, product defect, or random statement by a company spokesperson. Now in this highly polarized political environment many businesses are finding that a crisis can arise from advertising on a polarizing show or sponsoring events that are politically charged. Social media not only goes after shows or events they consider wrong but against the advertisers and sponsors. Just see how JP Morgan Chase was forced to temporarily halt their ads on NBC News because of the Megan Kelly interview with Alex Jones or the hits that Bill O’Reilly’s advertisers took before they pulled their advertising. As a result, businesses are being forced to rethink their approach to crisis communications.
So what should businesses be doing in this new era of political divisiveness and crisis communications?
- Do a risk analysis of all sponsorships and advertising that could potentially cause a public backlash among the right or left. In this analysis review all social media and traditional media mentions.
- Develop a prepared response in case your businesses is targeted because of its various sponsorships and advertising, and have it ready.
- Engage with activists on social media. Remember, that social media drives narratives not merely on social media but in traditional media as well.
- Remember all of your audiences – internal and external.
- Stay consistent on the message and response that you have decided for your business.
In today’s charged environment anything can cause a crisis for businesses. More and more many businesses are finding themselves in a crisis due to indirect association. That is why crisis communications is more essential than ever before in any overall public relations plan.
The past several days have been a public relations nightmare for United Airlines and it does not appear that things will be improving for the embattled airline and its CEO, Oscar Munoz in the near future. The United saga began when Dr. David Dao was violently dragged off a Chicago, IL to Louisville, KY flight due to the flight being overbooked and room being needed for 4 flight crew. The entire incident was filmed by other passengers with their smartphones. Dr. Dao was so badly injured that he will need reconstructive surgery. Compounding the damage was the tone deaf response from the airline, particularly its CEO, Oscar Munoz, to the incident. Munoz originally praised United’s employees and blamed Dao for the incident. After an international furor aroused, fueled on social media and late night television, Munoz apologized to Dao finally and made an appearance on Good Morning America that made him look anything but sincere.
Added to this debacle were fresh news stories of other passengers who had been threatened when United had overbooked flights, allegations that United Airlines was behind negative stories appearing in the media about Dao’s past, and reports that United was considering suing passengers who had recorded the Dao incident. United is of course facing lawsuits. The company’s market share has dropped by an estimated billion dollars. United’s public image is in ruins.
Soon things will get even worse for United. In the next few weeks, United will announce Munoz’s annual bonus that is expected to be $10 million or more. The cause for the bonus is raising United’s short term profits. How did Munoz achieve this? By having the airline sell more tickets for flights than they have seats (overbooking) and refusing to pay passengers enough to voluntarily give up their seats. The core reasons that led to the crisis United is facing.
So what should United do to begin repairing its image?
- Announce that it is deferring Munoz’s bonus. Or even better, have him announce he is rejecting it or donating it to charity.
- Announce that it will discontinue overbooking. Yes, the practice is legal and other airlines do it but this practice is now lethal for United.
- Munoz needs to do more interviews apologizing not only to Dao but all customers and announce what steps the airline is taking to assure better customer service.
- Announce a companywide customer service training program for all employees.
- Take out full page advertisements in leading newspapers across the nation apologizing and announcing again the steps the company is doing to improve the customer experience on all flights.
United needs to realize that the damage its reputation has suffered has been severe. It isn’t fatal but the longer the company takes in moving forward with its crisis recovery program, the worse its reputation will be.