Social media crisis management: Whatever you do, don’t do this

There are at least three ways to conduct a social media marketing campaign: The right way, the wrong way, and the unfathomably stupid way.

Some months back, a large fashion retail chain focused on the adolescent mallrat segment found itself in the middle of a firestorm. It’s unclear how much time the company had to prepare for this, but it should not have been taken by surprise. Companies make questionable decisions all the time, and sometimes those decisions come back to bite them viciously. How the company manages such crises often reveals a lot about its fitness for the shark tank that is American retailing.

What I observed, over the course of a couple of days, was an object lesson in how to lose at social media crisis management. It was morbidly fascinating.

I’m going to leave the company’s name out of this post, because I’m that kind of guy.

Suffice it to say that the company was shaken – but, unfortunately, not stirred until it was too late – by a leaked internal memo, in which it informed a large number of its full-time, in-store employees that it was summarily reducing their hours to 29.5 per week and cutting off their health care benefits. The leaked letter did not draw a connection between this decision and the Affordable Care Act, but it took bloggers – and customers – no time at all to make this leap.

It would take the placid, grinning faith of a four-year-old for the individuals in Marketing to assume that such an action on the part of HR could be executed quietly – that such a memo would not quickly find its way out into the light of day. But it is clear that the company was not prepared for the deluge of savagely hostile posts on its Facebook page.

Yes, these things blow over – people exhaust their wrath quickly. But for several days, every attempt to engage and amuse the company’s young followers, and their parents, with chirpy, lightweight girl-talk was met with dozens – often hundreds – of hate-comments. Interspersed between the boycott threats and the re-posts of the blog posts about the leaked memo, were comments like this:

“Yes, another father of two teenage girls who will not allow his credit card to grace your store again. Un-American and despicable. I will repost this many times.”

“You have forever lost my business due to your actions with your employees. It is abhorrent to me to find out that you have made the vast majority of your employees part-time so that you may take away their benefits. Yes, Obamacare is taking effect…but you cannot tell me that you don’t have sufficient earnings to cover whatever might happen with healthcare costs (which by the way) may even go down for your employee population! You are just taking advantage of this change to boost your earnings by taking away other employee perks. So, count me out!”

“Unliking your page for treating your employees like crap. They are reducing hours so they do not have to pay insurance for their employees. They are cutting corners to save a few pennies at the expense of their work force. I will never shop your pathetic store again.”

…and so on, completely drowning out any positive messaging.

Obviously, these things happen, and marketers respond, if sometimes belatedly. So why am I referring to this as an object lesson?

Once it became apparent that it couldn’t simply wait for the unrest to die down, the company might have posted a large, prominent explanation of its position, presenting its reasoning and signing it in the name of someone of senior executive stature who was willing to draw fire away from the company’s affirmative messaging – the stuff about kids and their brightly colored clothes.

Instead, obviously delegating the handling of the crisis to a trained gibbon, the company crafted a response – a single, boilerplate answer, written as though it were a personal message. Then, on the second day of the crisis, that answer appeared as if addressed to the author of the first in a thread of literally hundreds of angry comments. “Hi, Stephanie,” it began, and then offered a couple of paragraphs of weak rationalization for the hour and benefit cuts.

The name wasn’t actually Stephanie, and though I would feel better if I could quote the actual text of the message here…I can’t. The company attempted this tactic for most of a day and then gave up. It has since deleted ALL of the page’s content for that particular day from Facebook.

In any case, the aforementioned simian staffer then worked his or her way down the thread, responding to each successive post, one by one, with the exact same boilerplate response. Only the name was changed: “Hi, Jeff…” “Hi, Jessica…”

Forget the words – picture the visual impression this made. After about 25 repetitions of this insipid rejoinder, the response itself started to spawn counterattacks:

“I see you’re working your way down the list of hundreds of hostile comments, responding to each with the same cut and paste rationalization for your revolting decision to cut worker hours. You’re going to be at this all day, of course. I can save you a few seconds, though. Skip me – I don’t need or accept this bullshit answer. Thanks anyway.”

The lesson then:

Social media marketing is not the same thing as advertising. It’s a conversation – a big, clamorous rally, and it is going to get unruly sometimes. There are going to be naysayers even when you don’t have a full-blown crisis on your hands. When you do have a crisis, don’t act as though you can simply reason with your critics one at a time. Remember, everything you do in social media, you’re doing in public. Imagine working a room – how long would it take your guests to catch on to the fact that you’re telling each one the same cheesy story?

Better to get up in front of the whole group, tell your story once, and then make the rounds in listening mode, with the rationalization machine switched off.

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