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Managing a social media crisis – The do’s and don’ts

Ruben Pillai, Blackjack Promotions
By Ruben Pillai  //  Tue 20th November 2012
In late October, American Apparel found itself fighting a Twitter backlash after it used the site to promote a ‘Sandy sale’ at those directly affected by the hurricane that left parts of the US devastated. On tweeting the words  “In case you’re bored during the storm, 20% off everything for the next 36 hours”, the brand received a barrage of complaints, with users branding the move ‘tasteless’, ‘insulting’ and ‘low’.

Arguably, its not what American Apparel did that caused the issue (on the flip side of the bad comments, some pointed out that offering a little welcome relief to tens of thousands of bored American’s stuck inside while the storm raged was, well, nice), but the way in which they launched it somewhat flippantly via a tweet.

Twitter is now a global communication tool on a scale that no one could have predicted even as little as three years ago, and it can be used to great effect. While American Apparel were being rapped in the Twittersphere, New York marathon runners were using the site to organize relief and aid for those worst hit on Staten Island.

For brands, the freedom of expression that Twitter allows can be something of a blessing or a curse. It’s great when consumers follow what you are doing, retweet the bits they like and generally interact positively. It’s not so great when you have to defend your name or your actions via the Twittersphere. Social media is a powerful tool, so put a foot wrong and you’re setting yourself up for at best a customer backlash, and at worse a media storm.

For this reason more and more brands are adopting a crisis communications strategy. Long gone are the days in which companies had 24 hours to come up with a crisis response. Thanks to Twitter the reality now is that catastrophic events need to be dealt with in real time or else run the risk of rumours spreading.

Not that coming up with a crisis communications strategy is an easy or straightforward task. There have been plenty of examples where brands have got crisis response via Twitter very wrong, while others who have taken a measured approach came out of the other side faring OK. With this in mind, here are my dos and don’ts of crisis communications management in this age of immediacy.

Do – remain calm under pressure

The recent Lance Armstrong debacle has caused a headache for every one of his sponsors who have been forced to drop him. By far the most high profile of these is Nike, which didn’t immediately terminate its contract with Armstrong, but ultimately took the only available course of action in the face of ‘insurmountable evidence’.  

Some people may question why Nike didn’t immediately sever ties with the shamed sports star immediately as allegations came to the fore. Actually, I think it’s quite refreshing that the brand didn’t jump straight to conclusions and panic, instead standing by their man until the facts became crystal clear. It can be easy, in the age of Twitter, where stories such as this gain momentum leaving a brand as big as Nike, with its 750,000 plus followers under immense pressure to ‘do the right thing’ Usually brands bow to pressure and make quick decisions to ‘save the brand image’, which ultimately did result in Nike dropping Armstrong a week or so later.

In fact it’s not really the relationship that Nike had with Armstrong that has come under scrutiny, much of the Twitter bashing has centred around how the sports giant could drop Armstrong, but didn’t drop Tiger Woods when he was caught out having an affair (in my view the two aren’t comparable – Nike’s partnership with both Armstrong and Woods has been a professional one, with Wood’s problems having come in his personal life and Armstrong’s being within the professional arena). Interestingly, Nike has not used its Twitter feed to enter into any Armstrong related conversation unlike the charity Livestrong, which Armstrong until recently chaired. More on that in a bit.

Don’t – take your eye completely off the ball

Ok so I’ve said above that knee jerk reactions aren’t the best way to plan out a crisis communications strategy, but being seen to do nothing at all can be equally as damaging to a brand.

Last year WH Smith learned this lesson the hard way, after a Twitter user tweeted a photograph appearing to show that the retailer had moved its copies of Gay Times and Attitude to keep them out of sight. The picture, which was uploaded over the weekend, received hundreds of retweets, leaving the brand to deal with a Twitter storm by the Monday morning. It quickly issued a statement explaining its actions but by then it was too late – the damage was done.

Effective crisis communications requires a brand to keep one eye on the ball at all times, in order to respond within an appropriate time period.

Don’t – view social media as a secondary news channel

Back to the Armstrong debacle, and a very Twitter-centric approach taken by Livestrong. Livestrong used Twitter to announce that Armstrong had stepped down as chairman in wake of the scandal, with many subsequent media reports opening with ‘Livestrong confirms Armstrong step-down via Twitter’ or similar. Was this the correct thing to do? With the severity and enormity of the story, was it enough to ‘just tweet’ about it and let the leaves fall as they may? I think that more should have been made out of it, with a press conference called at the very least.

There were numerous questions which needed to be asked and the public definitely deserved to hear Livestrong’s responses, although a press conference was called a couple of weeks later to confirm a replacement. Twitter is a magnificent social media tool which enables brands to communicate with consumers and fans in a way that they have never been able to before, but in this case I think the human touch, given the nature of the whole scenario would be have been more appropriate.

Do – take responsibility for social media blunders

A colleague has been let loose on your Twitter account and has tweeted something decidedly ‘off-brand’. A swift delete might seem like the easiest option – but should it end there? Recently an employee from a US brand called Kitchen Aid tweeted something unsavoury about Barack Obama. Kitchen Aid deleted the Tweet and issued an apology, making clear that the offending tweet did not reflect the brand’s opinion. Next up the head of Kitchen Aid talked on the record to popular tech-site Mashable to apologise for the tweet, taking immediate responsibility.

By speaking openly to the press she pre-empted any ‘social media fire’ that may otherwise have burned bright. There’s proof that it worked too, Mashable went on to publish an infographic demonstrating how quickly mentions of the brand reduced as the apology and media interviews were broadcast.

Of course rectifying a colleague’s ‘outburst’ on Twitter isn’t always quite that straightforward  look at the damage that footballers are bringing to their own clubs and to the FA as a governing body with their various and often foulmouthed rants regarding the recent racism enquiries. How the FA’s image will emerge on the other side remains to be seen. One final tip I’d offer (to brands and footballers alike) is to always take a deep breath and count to ten before sending out a tweet when emotional. Once a tweet is out there, it can be out there for your followers and the general masses to remember indefinitely, regardless of whether you immediately delete it or not.

Managing a social media crisis – The do’s and don’ts
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