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Tamara Habib: The eye of the storm

Social media means crisis management for the 21st century is becoming more immediate. Situations can arise fast, and sluggish or thoughtless reaction can make matters worse

By Tamara Habib, business director, Netizency

With increased connectivity, the proliferation of smartphones and the rise of social media comes a plethora of woes for brands and their social media agencies. From dissatisfied customers to logistics issues, or even rogue employees, just about anything can set off a social media debacle. And that’s why now, more than ever, brands don’t have a choice but to be equipped with the right strategy to respond to their customer base at all times.

Social media has given consumers unprecedented access to brands, allowing them to hold those brands accountable in real time. Consumers who are frustrated with unresponsiveness on regular communication channels (phone, email) can employ – and increasingly do – vigilante tactics to get a brand’s attention.

United Airlines seem to have missed this memo, however, having raked in social media crisis after crisis over the past few years. One fiasco was when United damaged a passenger’s guitar and refused to reimburse him. Said passenger, a singer-songwriter, decided to write a song decrying their customer service, and posted it on YouTube. The video now has more than 18 million views.

More seriously, United made headlines again two years ago when it violently dragged a passenger off a flight, for no reason other than it needed his seat to make room for its own employee. The video of the assault was posted on social media, garnering numerous views and further damaging United’s reputation. To make matters worse, the United CEO’s response was far from remorseful, focusing on how the airline regretted having to “re-accommodate” some passengers, further fueling consumers’ anger.

Needless to say, United’s abusive behaviour and lacklustre response lead to significant financial repercussions, with nearly $1bn axed from the company’s value on Wall Street only a day after the dragging incident, and more than 40 per cent of millennials stating they would either no longer fly United or avoid giving it their business.

It’s not just consumers that are a source of headaches for marketers – employees can also become a brand’s worst nightmare, a fact Domino’s Pizza is all too familiar with. In 2009, two of its employees in the US went rogue when they filmed a prank in the restaurant’s kitchen, violating several health-code standards. The video was posted on YouTube, gathering a million views before it was taken down.

Domino’s initial response was subdued, in an effort to avoid alerting more people to the story. But it eventually published a video featuring Domino’s USA’s president apologising for the incident, and responded to individuals online, reiterating its commitment to delivering untainted products to its customers—a response that was deemed rather sluggish and tame by many.

Some brands, on the other hand, simply fail to communicate the right message to their consumers. Last year, Dove launched a bodywash ad depicting a black woman pulling off her T-shirt to reveal a white woman underneath. It was perceived to be racially insensitive, causing a social media uproar. Though the brand apologised swiftly and withdrew the ads, it may have harmed something much more valuable than its bottom line: its brand ethos, unravelling the entire premise of its 13-year-old “Real Beauty” campaign.

That said, some brands get things really right when dealing with a crisis. When KFC changed its delivery provider in the UK earlier this year, little did it know that it would face a #KFCCrisis due to delivery problems that forced almost 700 KFC outlets to temporarily shut down. Fans were up in arms, taking no time to voice their disappointment on social media – even going so far as to file reports with the police in some instances.

KFC managed to salvage the situation by swiftly crafting a brilliant apology ad that conveyed the brand’s sense of humour by turning the brand’s logo into a cheeky “FCK”. It owned up to the shortage and promised a quick resolution.

In the end, while revenue losses were inevitable, KFC managed to turn an unfortunate situation into one that not only saved its reputation but also helped further build affinity with its consumers.

Though a brand mishap leading to a social crisis is almost inevitable in this day and age, no two crises are the same. By the same token, no two social media crisis management plans should be the same. Crafting a strategy is fundamental: decide on what counts as a crisis, agree on who should be involved, who should articulate your message clearly and unequivocally and who should deliver it, make sure that you have the right listening tools set up to track the right keywords, and ensure that all other communication is stopped until the crisis subsides. Ultimately, however, two things are absolutely necessary: speed and transparency. If there’s anything that we can learn from the cases we’ve just discussed, it’s that consumers are smart, discerning, and ever-present on social media, so a “no bull” approach is the only way to go.