Damage Control: Social Media Reversals

Corporations continue to get blindsided by social media –which of course, is just a representation of underlying customer or product issues that should be fixed. Companies respond in three ways: 1) Ignore it and do nothing at their own peril, 2) Are responsive but not necessarily in control 3) Assert themselves and be proactive –even during a crises.   The following three examples highlight companies being proactive in the third effort –and analyzes their end result.

AT&T Evangelist Softens Support Woes –For The Short Term
Large telecommunications giant AT&T has had a reputation for ineffective coverage and support –an ailment common the bigger companies get.  Recently, the iPhone community in both NYC and SF in particular have shouted out against the service and dropped calls they receive (my own company has witnessed this ourselves).  As a result, they launched Seth the Blogger Guy, in this video that addresses the conversation head on.

Danger:  Customers were mounting an online revolt by complaining about AT&T service. Thanks to Gene for the submission.
Action: AT&T launched an evangelist program to educate, explain with a personal touch to take on customer complaints.
Risks: Critics have blasted this effort, suggesting Seth really isn’t a blogger, and point out that he’s really a member of the PR Agency Fleishman-Hillard.
Results:  This is still unfolding but I’ll make a call anyways.  This is a PR effort designed to quell off a rebellion that we heard and are responding. Despite the good intentions, AT&T will need to fix the customer issues, or this will simply be remembered as lipstick on a pig.  Secondly, this is an opportunity for the actual engineers and technicians to become the true stars of the company –give them a platform to speak beyond the PR team.

Cisco Fatty Embarrasses Herself –Resulting in PR Cleanup
Tech giant Cisco recently made an offer to an intern in silicon valley to work in their San Jose office.  This not-so-savvy individual tweeted out “Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work.” to her small network not realizing Cisco employees are monitoring the Twittersphere.  One replied back “Who is the hiring manager. I’m sure they would love to know that you will hate the work. We here at Cisco are versed in the web.”  This spun into a media blitz, including a MSNBC article, and even Oprah calling and requesting both parties join the show.

Danger: Even would-be employees can put a brand in danger as the open conversation cascades across the web.  This young woman embarrassed herself and the company –yet in reality, her behavior is akin to Generation Y’s vocal ways.
Action: Cisco responded in an adult-like way, not trying to draw any more damage to this young woman.
Risks: Cisco’s employees who blasted back put the company at risk as ‘picking on her’ need to have an internal crises team to lean on –before responding.
Results: For Cisco, this was handled in an ideal way, and a lesson to learnt by all.  Of course, the real question needs to be answered: why would this individual hate the work?

EA Sports Counters YouTube Attack
Video game maker EA sports is not immune to product faults.  In fact, a recent Tiger Woods golfing game had a glitch that allowed Tiger to walk on water and hit the ball –in which the YouTube community dubbed the “Jesus Shot” by member Levinator25 which has nearly a million views pointing out the games flaw.

Danger: All products have faults and now they are shown directly on YouTube, and other social sites
Action: EA Sports took the critic headon, and released this ‘response’ video showing Tiger –well, doing his thing.
Risks: This was a risky move.  Not only does it highlight the games errors, but it risks embarrassing Levinator 25 and igniting futhur rebellion.
Results: This was a clever response from EA, but unfortunately, it’s not scalable.  With every product likely to have an error, companies cannot afford to have response videos with celebrities.  Instead, launch communities that empower customers to submit problems and fixes –outsourcing support and development.

The conversation is just starting, submit your own example of a company being blind-sided by social customers and how they responded shifting negative energy into positive.

Bonus: Kraft’s new product name received a public lashing from the social sphere, they’ve now created a website to get names from public submissions.  Link via Suzie

  • What a timely post! I was just writing about this to an HR associate of mine. Here are some of my notes to her:

    “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Charles Darwin

    Companies can no longer afford to avoid the social web as a communications medium. They need to become involved in it, to engage in the online world and mingle with their clients and peers. If you truly believe you are the best at what you do then you have nothing to fear by opening up to the social web. Allow yourself to be more transparent. Lead the rest by sharing yourself and offering assistance to others, even if that free assistance gives away some of your proprietary secrets.

    If you can’t then you need to look deep inside your organization and fix a far more challenging issue, your stagnancy as an organization.

    But if you stand on solid ground, empower a trustworthy team and act as the master of your domain, then your web community will want to belong in your world. They will embrace your ideas, offer constructive assistance and reward you by promoting you through their networks.

    This basic strategy should lead to online success and personal prosperity.

  • Thank you Jeremiah for doing us all ORMs a favour by putting these three cases together – the three of them highly illustrative.

    I have worked in online reputation crises scenarios like those of EA sports and AT&T and it is certain that the rules of the game have changed (in the felicitous David Meeerman Scott phrase).

    I would like to argue here that the first question to address by companies is the ‘action vs inaction’ connundrum. When is it right to meet critics head-on and when is it wiser to simply let critics have their way until supporters eventually carry the day? In either case, monitorization is crucial, since it is only through monitorization that we can really be aware of the conversation as it unfolds in real time.

    One more thing: some times it is perfectably acceptable for a compnay to say sorry without losing face. Companies must be ready to learn from customers and enact customer-suggested improvements when appropriate as part of their ongoing business. The PR communications response often adds fuel to the fire by pretending to ‘manage’ problems while failing to solve them. At&T take heed!

  • Oscar

    I think there could be a level of responses that could be created from 1) Do nothing 2) Acknowledge pain 3) Apologize 4) Make efforts to fix it 5) involve customers in process going forward.

    Companies can do many of these without losing face, although each one has its own unique risk.

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  • What do you do when a blogger with a strong Web site attacks a small company and ends up ranking for that company’s name? Large companies have budgets to do something like that Tiger Woods shot, but small companies might not have resources to do a Seth the Blogger or hire a celebrity.

    I’ve dealt with this situation before and am curious as to how other people would handle it.

  • Cory brings up a very good point. How do we prevent viral smear campaigns or online extortion activity? We all know about stories like Amazon.com, where hackers extort money from business by threatening to attack their websites with timed viral attacks by millions of infected computers.

    Is social networking immunized? Is captcha enough? Are we vulnerable to smear evangelists with personal agendas? “Pay me or else…” Could these sinister tactics compromise public confidence in the medium by spreading misinformation? This nastyness could shift this topuc from web strategy to web defence.

    Food for thought.

  • Big companies have combined their customer support departments into customer support/marketing/PR departments. How can we get the most buzz from helping the community.

    EA didn’t have to do anything. That bug doesn’t hurt their reputation at all. But since they got the idea to essentially make a commercial about the bug, why didn’t they make a television commercial. 3 million youtube visits or tens of millions of television views seems like a lot more publicity. I’m sure Tiger got paid the same either way. For example, look how Sony is using Brett Farve to sell TV’s.

    On the other hand, EA is in the middle of a major lawsuit with NFL players not getting paid royalties from the Madden franchise. What would happen if all those players used Twitter, facebook, blogs to launch an attack on EA… That would be devastating to EA

  • Kersten – obviously captcha isn’t enough. Anyone can blog about anything they want, and in my particular case, that hurts small business a lot more than big business. Dell was big enough to take the Dell-Hell hit, but if a small company gets trashed by blogger with a large audience, then what happens to that small business?

  • It’s not about what you do. It’s about constant monitoring, speed of response, and the experience to know what to do. That’s why Cisco comes off well in your stories here.

  • Agreed Josh, having a PR strategy that extends to social is the key here. The strategy should have already been put into place that encompasses listening, having a rapid response process, the right roles, and executive backing.

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  • I had a problem with three companies. I posted a question on Twitter: “What has happened to Customer Service? These companies don’t respond to letters.” I listed Hawaiian Airlines, Home Depot, and Staples. All three had given me some problems in the recent past, and I had written them snail mail letters asking them to pay attention and fix these things.

    Hawaiian Air responded immediately. Donna and Holly from their Network and PR team took me out for dinner when I arrived in Hawaii, and we had a nice chat about the things that needed to be addressed. Ron, their head honcho at Customer Service emailed me, called me, and not only apologized, he took great notes on ways they can improve.

    Home Depot jumped on it in a day or so. By then I had decided to go into the store and take care of the problem that way. So I thanked Home Depot for being on top of things.

    Staples still has not responded to my customer complaint letter nor my Tweet. I have nudged them twice on Twitter, but apparently the office supply giant doesn’t know about the internet. Of all three companies, Staples lost the most money due to their service issues. I’m in their little club, and I was there to make some hefty purchases. Which I happily took down the road to Office Max. They have competition. Apparently that has also not occurred to them.

    Every company needs to have their finger on the Twitter pulse. They need to have Google alerts and Tweetdeck search columns. I foresee a whole new industry — people who will watch all the social media for you. Come on Gen Y — here’s your best job yet!

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  • Great article, and very timely. Today, all companies — particularly small businesses, who may have even more trouble than larger companies in absorbing consumer problems — need to have a strategy for dealing with bad news from social media. For smallbr businesses, the strategy doesn’t have to be onerous: it can be a simple set of policies that are known to and practiced by everyone who represents the company online. I wrote about this in my article “Social Media: Good News, Bad News.” http://thefussymarketer.blogspot.com/2009/08/social-media-good-news-bad-news.html

  • @Matt Dunlap, you make an excellent point here, this is exactly what I was thinking.

    To me it seems a case of EA taking itself and its products a bit too seriously.

    It’s not so terrible that this kinda glitch exists in the game, it’s this kind of error (present in many games) that ads an extra sprinkling of fun and humour. I’m sure they saw a bunch of additional sales off the back of those huge YouTube views.

  • This is why I launched ATTHELL.com after AT&T dropped the cell service in our Oakland Hills area. After numerous youtube videos, blogs, emails, FCC letters, and many calls, the local media and even the politicians picked it up as well and ATT was forced to deal with me. The result: they installed a brand new tower about 300 yards form my house that fixed our cell hills problem. I could have switched to T-mobile, but I wanted to fight them and I won. Social Media can be a bitch for some if you know how to use it.

  • Very interesting and timely post Jeremiah. It won’t be long before we hear about a CEO of a Fortune 1000 getting canned for not having a proper social media response strategy.

  • Very right, @jesse. Legally, a lot of these pieces are starting to set precedent. As a PR or social media agency, we need to stay committed to secure set up, monitoring, and maintenance — while finding time to stay creative with our responses. The EA response in this case was great, while not scaleable, it still does warrant brownie points.

  • These are all great case studies to learn from currently. In ATT’s case it’s all about authenticity, and by them using a PR guy and dubbing him as a blogger it’s off to a bad start. They are already taking this initiative down the wrong road. Hopefully they’ll be able to regain trust, but it’s looking doubtful. With the Cisco case it’s all about being knowledgeable (the intern not realizing everything that gets published on the net stays on the net) and responsiveness (Cisco’s timely and appropriate response). Lastly, with EA I like the creativity, and agree it’s not scalable, but they could have done something similar and more cost effective to drive that point home (i.e. use some nifty video editing tricks and manipulate clips that are already out there – if possible).

    I think these are all excellent lessons for anyone in the social media space to check out. Thanks for sharing.

  • Admitting fault and liability is always a sticky, legal wicket. In PR and SM, it’s the court of public opinion that matters.

    AT&T uses fake blogger guy to divert blame away from its poor network and onto its customers for using their phones as advertised/designed. Two-years post iPhone, they’re no significant improvements to the network, but there’s $ for a PR/SM campaign. Lipstick on a pig indeed.

    There’s no one-size-fits-all, and what works for Cisco or EA may not work for someone else. I agree that there needs to be a SM plan, and listening and monitoring are important steps to avoid being blindsided.

  • @clayton, perhaps AT&T has changed their approach to PR, but last time I interviewed one of their executives I had to go through Fleishman-Hillard representatives.

    Apparently they had outsourced their Corp PR function to Fleishman-Hillard some time ago. Meaning, they *are* the official voice of the company in all public-facing matters. I’m not defending their approach — just clarifying your point about AT&T authenticity.

  • Jeremiah:

    Great post as other have noted. Three questions?

    1. Why is it that companies today are mostly responding only to Social Media tweaks and not to snail mail? I suspect that snail mail is hidden so no need to be responsive.

    2. Most companies still are not responding to anything. Consumer be damned?

    3. Even the social media elite are unresponsive. I won’t name names, but I am still waiting for a response from a thoughtful communique I made to a well known video social media property. I guess what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander.

    All the best,

    Gerry Corbett

  • Jeremiah:

    Thanks for the props. This was an interesting case as it involved privacy and HR issues. The wrap on this came from our SVP Corporate Communications Blair Christie who wrote a social media “lessons learned” blog and looked at this whole issue as a learning opportunity for us all.

    She stated, in part, “Words are powerful and you have to be willing to stand behind those words or be ready to defend them. Maybe we all already knew this, but with Twitter and social media and new ways to communicate, maybe “re-learning” isn’t a bad thing.”

    Full blog here: http://blogs.cisco.com/news/comments/with_social_media_cisco_is_listening_participating…and_learning/

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  • Great post Jeremiah! Companies who jump on the social media bandwagon are not always sure what they are getting into. One wrong move will lead to bad publicity on the world wide web. Its important that companies understand social media and its implications. Monitoring your brand online is a necessity today in order to be on the lookout for an irate customer or a disgruntled employee. An appropriate and timely response is important too. Companies that ignore the power of social networks should take a lesson from the Domino’s incident. It spread like wildfire. Damage control needs to be high on the agenda in such cases.One of my friend wrote about this in my blog : http://blogs.position2.com/online-reputation-management-defending-your-online-persona

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