Crises tests the integrity of a company’s communication plan. When mistakes seize consumer attention, outcries flood social media channels. External communications on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social platforms instantly transition from routine marketing activities to a significant public relations showdown. A company’s ability to remain proactive and reactive is shoved into a fast-paced, spin cycle. Disappointed communities will wash the brand in emotionally-charged remarks. The reputation that’s left in the aftermath, as comments settle and the brand dries in a breeze of fresh air, is formed by updated perceptions of the organization’s culture. Consumers will continue to recall how the company responded while it soaked in adversity.
Crisis planning has always consumed great resources, however recent expansions in participatory media are introducing entirely new dynamics. Rising consumer expectations for recurring engagements are compelling organizational transparency. Coordinated rallies in social media, threaded discussions and blogs can back marketing teams into a corner. The court of public opinion is powerful today; prevailing opinions are far reaching and they’re exhibiting an impressive effect on enormous audiences.
A report in November from Al Jazeera, a leading Arab news organization, suggested that “social media powered up the Arab Spring” (Parvaz, 2011), a wave of demonstrations and protests in the Arab World. Time magazine later declared 2011 the year of the protester and highlighted how the Arab Spring had toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, while disturbing regimes in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain (Stengel, 2011). The Al Jazeera report explained how social media “has created a new space for how history will remember its events,” citing a digital trail of Facebook posts, Twitter updates, YouTube videos, Wikipedia pages and blogs.
The fact that everyone with an Internet connection can publish online is a key catalysts for social media’s authority. Shared commentaries on Facebook often reach more than 155,000 people, due to a new “Friends of Friends” privacy setting (Hampton, Goulet, Marlow & Rainie, 2012). With an Internet connection, anyone can seed changes in public perceptions. What’s more, customer care specialists who are exhausting resources due to surges in calls cannot escape by simply unplugging their phones. The inquiries will continue 24/7 on the Internet, where consumers are accustomed to collaborating amongst themselves. Shutting down the official Facebook page or Twitter account will further enrage audiences clamoring for answers. Company representatives must remain online and underline their brand’s commitment to consumers.
Company representatives must remain online and underline their brand’s commitment to consumers.
Penn State public relations personnel were blindsided in November by an enormous undertaking. After Joe Paterno’s former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexually abusing eight boys during a 15-year period, the university was threatened with a tremendous amount of civil legal liability. Sandusky was arrested, but released on $100,000 bail after being arraigned on 40 criminal counts. Social media platforms assisted in expediting information about Sandusky, Paterno and Penn State. A possible ninth victim of Sandusky contacted state police, which turned up the volume of infuriated voices online. Somebody created a Facebook page called “Joe Paterno should resign,” which accumulated hundreds of members in just 24 hours. Riots erupted on the campus after the school’s board of trustees ousted Paterno and the university’s president. Facebook hosted frequent updates from the area, often ahead of broadcast news channels.
As Al Jazeera noted with the Arab Spring, social media archives crises. Remnants of Penn State’s trouble and the universities reaction remain on the “Penn State Football” page today, more than three months later. Nearly 4,000 people have “liked” the football team’s post on Facebook that requested a “Blue Out” during an upcoming game against Nebraska (2011). It encouraged people to purchase blue shirts to support Prevent Child Abuse PA and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. According to today’s count, almost 900 people have shared that post on Facebook and nearly 12,000 have clicked to confirm attendance. Personal struggles between fueling the outrage and supporting the alumni are found within the more than 1,600 comments under the post. The school’s embarrassment is resonating in thriving online populations. In December, Facebook was hosting 483 million daily active users on average (2012c). Of those users, more than 1.3 million identified themselves as U.S.-located college football fans, according to Facebook statistics (2012a).
While most educational institutions have prepared crisis communications strategies, many fail to mention social media, according to a new study from CKSyme.org (2012). The researchers discovered that most of the institutions had crisis communications policies, however only 59 percent mentioned methods to monitor or leverage social media. All it takes is one crisis to ruin years of progress. When communications stumble in a crisis, an academic program can quickly lose credibility and a company’s market cap can bleed millions of dollars.
When communications stumble in a crisis, an academic program can quickly lose credibility and a company’s market cap can bleed millions of dollars.
Tony Hayward took over BP in 2007, and then renewed the company’s commitment to safety. When BP’s Deepwater Horizon exploded in April 2010, people were killed and an oil spill threatened the fragile marshlands of the U.S. southern states. Before that tragedy, the London-based oil giant had few followers on Facebook. During the peak of the crisis, tens of thousands of people were connecting with BP via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. They left trails of outrage by submitting comments. BP wasn’t prepared and the company’s image remains shattered. The official “BP America” Facebook page has 189,000 followers today. It’s encouraging more with a regionally-focused welcome line: “Our commitment to the Gulf Coast continues” (2012b).
When a FedEx customer posted a video on YouTube in December (FedEx guy throwing my computer monitor, 2011), the company faced serious embarrassment. The clip showed a driver tossing a computer monitor carelessly over a fence during a delivery. The video attracted nearly 200,000 viewers on YouTube in a single day, according to the Daily Mail (2011). FedEx responded on YouTube within two days (FedEx response to customer video, 2011). Matthew Thornton III, FedEx U.S. operations senior vice president, shared his outrage.
“On behalf of all of us at FedEx, please except my apology,” said Thornton. “I am upset and embarrassed for our customer’s poor experience. This goes directly against all FedEx values – it’s just not who we are. We were determined to make this right and I am very pleased that we were able to meet with our customer, who has accepted our apology. We have resolved the issue and the customer is satisfied… I can assure you we are working within our disciplinary policy and the employee is not working with customers. The most disappointing thing about this incident for me is, it absolutely does not represent our 290,000 professional, dedicated team members worldwide.” He said the video is used internally, “as a reminder that every single package is precious cargo to you, our customers. This will serve as a constant reminder of the importance of earning your trust with every delivery.” The official response has attracted 490,208 views, 3,340 “likes” and 296 “dislikes”. One of the 1,511 comments hailed the response, suggesting other companies never respond to service complaints. “Thanks FedEx, this video made me trust (you) more on how loyal you are to us, the customers,” said the YouTube user. For the record, the original video has since pulled in more than 8.5 million views and 25,163 comments. Numerous complaints centered on inadequate management and irritating discrepancies in the delivery industry.
Putting “crisis” into your policy
What are your company’s vulnerabilities? Common areas of concern include product recalls, service changes, natural disasters, guilt by association and coordinated smear campaigns. Does your social media policy identify the best practices to employ during crises? Social media policies must be well integrated into crisis communications tactics, including explanations of social media management and monitoring systems. Discussing minor problems offline prevents those issues from snowballing, but alarming crisis requires online, public discourse.
Social media management systems organize inbound marketing and community relations efforts, as well as standards for publishing and measuring effectiveness. It’s critical to identify a centralized office for gathering and distributing adequate resources and timely information. People in the crisis hub will feed the spokes updates, while focusing on accuracy and consistency to minimize confusion. Official Facebook, Twitter and blog posts must confront inaccurate or ambiguous reports. People have a genuine desire to understand their world. When they’re consumed by fears or prejudices without timely, accurate information, they’re prone to accept anything that helps form conclusions. Patience has a short fuse in today’s media landscape. People won’t wait long to know where to go next. Several free monitoring systems help identify escalating issues and measure public understandings and sentiments. Remember that crisis-fueled explosions of online content makes it easier for the public to report information than consume it. Ensure their reports are well informed. Listen, respond and assess, continuously.
Free social media monitoring tools
Commendable social media policies empower employees to use social media channels responsibly, according to a study by Altimeter (Owyang, Jones, Tran & Nguyen, 2012). Every top-rated company in the report had a policy that allowed rank-and-file employees to use social media professionally. By encouraging their participation in backing the brand, the businesses promote a greater sense of employee ownership. Cisco’s internal social media policy instructed the protection of proprietary information, while Ford told employees to “make it clear that the views expressed are yours.” Coca Cola allowed people to represent the brand after completing its social media certification program.
Don’t underestimate the digital influencers, online leaders who carry enough clout to spread stories like wildfires in dry brush. They’ll popularize Facebook pages, Twitter hashtags, YouTube videos and blog posts. They will demand information and defend the public’s ability to share and discuss it. When it comes to a crisis situation, digital influencers are binary – they’ll take one side or the other. Welcome their criticisms and solutions. Never argue with them or patronize the value of their input. The easiest way for a company to earn their support: Immediately admit mistakes, memorialize victims and explain corrective actions, steps that will prevent future problems. Respect is earned by demonstrating transparency and accountability. The influencers will create massive movements of information that can connect groups and change public opinion. Just a handful of theses online leaders can suppress contempt in thousands of people. As they form digital tribes, they feel empowered to construct a culture of curiosity that’s open to challenging the status quo. After an organization’s reputation plummets, it takes receptive communities to reverse that momentum.
Bind their fears
Effective crisis mitigation requires communicators to bind people’s fears. According to Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert (2004), we have a “psychological immune system” that lets us feel truly happy even when things don’t go as planned. While speaking at a TED conference, Gilbert said people exercise “a system of cognitive processes, largely non-conscious cognitive processes, that help them change their views of the world, so that they can feel better about the worlds in which they find themselves.” When a natural state of happiness isn’t achieved by getting what we want, we can synthesize happiness to fill that deficit. The psychological immune system works best when we aren’t afflicted with ongoing uncertainties, he said. In other words, people who endlessly deliberate over ramifications and outcomes, or overall situational instability, have a hard time feeling better about a bad situation. We ease our anxieties with commitments to reasonable conclusions that dissolve unpredictability.
“When our fears are unbounded and overblown, we’re reckless, and we’re cowardly,” said Gilbert. “When our fears are bounded, we’re prudent; we’re cautious; we’re thoughtful.”
The majority of honest mistakes are forgivable within the majority of audiences. Achieving forgiveness within online social groups starts with a swift and emphatic apology, coupled with a meaningful reconnection that reigns in fears. Social media is a terrific venue for businesses owners to admit their mistakes and humanize their brands.
Cksyme.org. (2012, February 14. The state of crisis communications in higher ed. Retrieved February 22, 2012, from Cksyme.org: http://cksyme.org/the-state-of-crisis-communications-in-higher-ed
Daily Mail. (2011, December 20). ‘This won’t be his best day’: FexEx vows to track down delivery man who tossed computer monitor over fence. Retrieved February 23, 2012, from DailyMail.co.uk: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2076432/FedEx-guy-caught-throwing-monitor-fence-YouTube-video.html#ixzz1nGPI6Pqv
Facebook. (2011). Penn State football. Retrieved February 23, 2012, from Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PSUFball/posts/137143276391549
Facebook (2012a). Advertise on Facebook. Retrieved February 23, 2012, from Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ads/create
Facebook. (2012b). BP America. Retrieved February 23, 2012, from Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/BPAmerica
Facebook. (2012c). Fact sheet. Retrieved February 23, 2012, from Facebook: http://newsroom.fb.com/content/default.aspx?NewsAreaId=22
FedEx guy throwing my computer monitor [Video]. (2011, December 19). Retrieved February 23, 2012, from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKUDTPbDhnA
FedEx response to customer video [Video]. (2011, December 21). Retrieved February 23, 2012, from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ESU_PcqI38
Gilbert, D. (2004, February). Dan Gilbert asks, why are we happy?. Retrieved February 23, 2012, from Ted: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html
Hampton, K., Goulet, L.S., Marlow, C. & Rainie, L. (2012, February 3). Why most Facebook users get more than they give. Retrieved February 23, 2012, from Pew Internet & American Life Project: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Facebook-users.aspx
Owyang, J., Jones, A., Tran, C., & Nguyen. (August 31, 2011). Social readiness: How advanced companies prepare. Retrieved February 23, 2012, from SlideShare.net: http://www.slideshare.net/jeremiah_owyang/social-readiness-how-advanced-companies-prepare
Parvaz, D. (2011, November 2). The Arab Spring, chronicled Tweet by Tweet. Retrieved February 23, 2012, from Al Jazeera English: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/11/2011113123416203161.html
Stengel, R. (2011, December 14). Person of the year introduction. Retrieved February 23, 2012, from Time.com: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2101745_2102139,00.html