By Abbey Klaassen
Jun. 3, 2009
Thanks to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, all sorts of new critics and activists are finding their voices amplified online. So what to do when an online firestorm erupts?
The two most recent case studies are Amazon—which was recently the target of a “Twitterstorm,” as thousands of titles, many of them gay- and lesbian-themed, disappeared from its all-important sales ranking system—and Domino’s, whose public relations problem lies in a YouTube video showing two employees defacing a yet-to-be-delivered sandwich.
“Credibility is the currency of the ‘new normal,’ ” says Steve Cody, managing partner and co-founder of communications firm Peppercom. “Tell me what happened yourself. Don’t allow me to hear it from others. If I do, I’ll lose my faith and trust in you. And, in an era when faith and trust has been tested to the breaking points, brands like Amazon and Domino’s need to be a whole lot smarter and a whole lot swifter.”
Here, six tips for if—or when—it happens to your organization.
1. Listen to the what—and to the who. Sure, the usual advice about having a social-media-monitoring infrastructure is important, but not nearly as important as knowing exactly who’s doing the talking and gauging where that might lead. Who’s angry—and how angry are they? Is the uproar isolated or widespread? Are these people your customers or not?
Priority No. 1 has to be the people who make up the majority of your company’s customers.
2. It’s OK to say, “We don’t know.” By far the biggest issue most of the angry Twitterers had was that Amazon didn’t respond quickly and, when it did, the vague answer it offered—the problem was a “glitch in the system” that was being fixed—didn’t satisfy the masses who had already gotten fired up. The next response from Amazon came a day later, when it issued a statement calling the incident an “embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error.”
Now, it’s likely Amazon didn’t really know what was going on—at one point a hacker even tried to take credit for the issue—but most social media experts say that wasn’t the problem.
“A lot of people have this idea that you can only respond when you have every ‘i’ dotted and ‘t’ crossed and have figured out what’s going on,” says Jeff Rutherford, founder of Jeff Rutherford Media Relations. “It’s perfectly fine if you say, ‘We’re aware there’s an issue; we’re not ignoring it, and we’re working hard to get to the bottom of it.’“ Amazon has always been tight-lipped from a public relations standpoint, and in this case it cost them.
3. Address the crowd where it’s gathered. Understandably, companies don’t necessarily want to call attention to a crisis by making a big, flashy statement. After all, in many cases (and some would argue most) these firestorms don’t leave the insular communities in which they start. While a small number of consumers had heard about the Motrin debacle, the brand called further attention to the issue when it issued a public apology on its Web site and confused consumers who ended up there for completely unrelated reasons.
Amazon would have gone a long way toward quelling the uproar by addressing it on Twitter, where it was largely taking place. And had it swallowed its pride and tagged the posts #amazonfail, it would have been rewarded with hundreds of retweets—valuable earned media from the crowd it had previously angered.
“You don’t have to bow to the Twitter torches and do everything they tell you to do,” says Jackie Huba, co-author of the Church of the Customer blog. “But you can’t stick your head in the sand and ignore this building, growing outrage about what you’re doing.” A little secret about human nature: Knowing someone is listening to you is often more important than getting exactly what you want.
4. Tone matters. In the case of Amazon, what grabbed several observers was the incongruity of its cold-sounding responses (“The problem is a glitch and it’s being fixed”) and the friendly, easy brand persona it has cultivated over the years.
“People don’t expect companies—even Amazon—to be infallible,” says Diane Hessan, CEO of Communispace. “They do expect those companies to want to learn, to want to engage with their customers, to want to listen hard, and to show genuine commitment to fixing the problems, with the human voice that they’ve become known for.”
5. Explain how you’ll address the future. So Amazon’s issue was a mistake, a cataloging error. Most people seem to be buying that. But what if it happens again? And how should Domino’s assure customers its sandwiches are safe? Marketers must communicate how they will prevent future pitfalls.
“I’d rather be open and transparent about a problem such as the ones you describe, own up to it, explain why it happened, talk about what steps have been put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again and, critically, apologize for the mistake,” says Peppercom’s Cody.
6. Invest now to prepare for accidents later. Strong, emotional brands that have built up years of consumer good will seem to be more insulated from long-term hurt. Few consumers judged much-loved Whole Foods when its CEO was caught posting comments on financial sites under a fake name. Another consumer darling, JetBlue, has recovered valiantly from its Valentine’s Day massacre, in which passengers were left stranded on board on a runway for eight hours.
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