In PR, as in business, we are still getting to grips with content marketing, social media and the use of “the corporate voice” online. What hasn’t changed is the fact that bad news travels faster than good news. In the internet age, it also travels further.
Everyone wants to go “viral” but there are as many fails as there are wins, and when social media for business fails, it fails on an EPIC scale, for the very reason the wins succeed - they go viral. A big problem is that social media mishaps will often be reported and screen-shot before they can be deleted.
It doesn’t often happen to smaller, local businesses, but it did this weekend when the female proprietor of a local gym (who shall remain nameless) appeared to link the heart-breaking loss of Northern Ireland’s mascot “Wee Oscar Knox” to people who don’t look after their bodies in a Facebook post promoting her business. And then this happened. A lot:
Even as I write it, without quoting the exact comment, it seems like a bad idea. But hindsight is a wonderful thing. The woman in question is probably used to speaking on behalf of her business as she does in her personal life, as many young entrepreneurs are, without the digital strategy, risk assessment, and corporate voice decisions that are made by larger companies who pay trained staff or agencies to do this type of online promotion for them.
Needless to say, what is commonly referred to locally as a “sh*t storm” erupted online, resulting in the post being removed and the personal profile being deleted.
If there’s one preparation lesson to learn from the fails of those who have stumbled before you, it’s that brands need to be very careful when it comes to linking a promotional post to a public event. Despite this foresight, plenty of big brands experience their own storms every year on online, like…
…when online store CelebBoutique’s PR department noticed that #Aurora was trending on Twitter and linked it to their dress of the same name, supposedly not realising that there had been a mass shooting. They can claim ignorance but the reputational damage was done.
…or when retailer Gap thought that people would hunker down to some online shopping while Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast of America. They later deleted the Foursquare post and offered an apology.
…or when San Diego Marriott Mission Valley hotel thought free mini muffins and coffee would be a great way to mark the 9/11 terror attacks. Facepalm moment.
…and when cooking site Epicurious thought they could help in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing by promoting some recipes on Twitter.
And the one crisis communications lesson to learn from how such brands recover from their fails? IMMEDIACY, SINCERITY, HONESTY and HUMILITY.
If mistakes are made, you have to be prepared to go through the same social media channels to push an apology as soon as possible. And at the same time ensure that you’re responding to angry customers, no matter how unfair it feels, in order to show that you are listening with empathy to ultimately regain public trust in your brand.
How you handle a backlash is as important, if not more so, than how you worked to avoid one. One thing that will never work is going with your gut instinct to defend, or even worse, become arrogant or rude to the inevitable trolling that will come your way for a short space of time. Case in point, Amy’s Baking Company in Arizona, whose rebuttals on Facebook following a less-than-complimentary appearance on Gordon Ramsey’s American show, became headline news:
The Huffington Post noted soon afterwards that “The bakery has hired a PR firm and has plans for a sold-out reopening event on Tuesday.”
Yes, hire some professional PR help and go into damage limitation mode. It can’t do anymore harm than has already been done.
Whatever you do, don’t go silent and hope it all blows over. Some evidence has shown that brands who don’t respond, as opposed to those who do, can take almost 50% more time to recover “positive sentiment” in online mentions from customers.
And the moral of the story is…
If you’re not sure how something you’re about to say could be received, stop. Backspace. Delete. Talking about issues you have no obvious connection with simply because they’re on everyone’s lips at that time, is a recipe for social PR disaster.
As for the gym. I would personally advise a long, grovelling apology and a donation to the charitable fund specified by the Knox family in lieu of flowers. Then continue to be humble and outwardly polite until the storm blows over. As it inevitably will.