Social media is one of those things that is absolutely necessary in today’s marketing industry. Any company that is trying to sell a product or service and either rejects, doesn’t understand, or doesn’t know about the tools and ability to use social media to promote their product or service, in my opinion, is running behind the times and can stand to lose market share to their competition. One of the things that I have run into, even during the somewhat limited time I have been researching and looking at social media as a marketing tool, is that companies (especially their legal teams) can be somewhat uneasy about using social media. Primary reason? The have no control over what is said. This can sometimes be good and bad. For example, I manage the Ford Communications team YouTube channel. The only three rules that apply to any comment left on a video: 1. No profanity, 2. No speculation or rumor conversation about upcoming products, 3. Has to be directly related to the video or another comment. Outside of that… whatever is posted is posted. Funny thing, is that this works out ok most of the time as for every one bad comment that is posted, there are about 5-10 others posted that knock down the bad comment and praise Ford. But what happens when disaster strikes and a fed up customer, who may have a very large following online in their social media platform, posts a very negative review, experience, or video and it multiplies from there into a cesspool of negativity towards your company or product? What does a company do? Ignore it? Hope it goes away? Write a press release?
Every seminar, book, and resource I have ever read on the topic has had the same exact answer… respond using the same exact way the damage is being done. If someone posts a bad review on their blog, have someone important in the company email or call the person to fix the problem and then post an apology/solution as a comment on the blog. If they make a YouTube video (like the whole Domino’s cheese thing) respond to consumers using a video in YouTube. Writing a press release might be a part of the response to handle broadcast media, but it’ll never reach most of the people who are still watching or reading the bad report online. Bottom line, monitor social media and use it to manage your reputation. Don’t be scared of it or try to pretend it doesn’t exist because that will not accomplish anything. One great example of how to use social media to monitor and handle your reputation online comes from Comcast. This summary comes from Augie Ray and was posted on Social Media Today:
Comcast Responds: This is the story of a potential disaster that was largely averted. Michael Arrington, owner of the enormously popular blog TechCrunch, was getting bad service from his ISP, Comcast. Michael’s connection was down and Comcast was not resolving the problem with the speed Michael expected, so he started “tearing into Comcast on Twitter.” Problem is, he has 12,000 followers, so his tale of woe was reaching huge numbers of people, all of whom are early adopters and significant consumers of technology. Unexpectedly, 20 minutes after his Twitter post, Michael got a call from a Comcast executive who wanted to know how he could help. Comcast was monitoring Twitter and reached out to resolve the issue. What could’ve been a PR disaster was turned into a cause for praise and compliments, thanks to Comcast’s proactive use of social media.
So a great example of how a company can use social media to help manage their reputation online to prevent a possible disaster. A current example of this is with United Airlines. The long story short, on a flight to Nebraska, Dave Carroll witnessed his $3500 Taylor guitar being mishandled by baggage handlers which resulted in it being broken. He tried for 9 months to get them to replace/repair/pay for the guitar. After no luck, he decided to write a few songs and now has posted the first on YouTube. Click here to view the video. This video (and the promise of 2 more) is a huge opportunity to United to turn some bad PR into something good and make themselves look good to all the consumers who are currently being served this negative review. Jason Murphy posted in a blog on SEOmoz.org an advisory letter to United on how to handle the situation and I think these points could be used by any company as the basis for how to handle bad online PR like this. Here are the main points from the blog or you can click here for the original post.
Acknowledge it happened and that you were wrong. By taking this official stance and letting your employees, PR firms, and ad agencies know that is your stance, you are opening the doors to allow mending to begin. This goes beyond a few corporate tweets or a press release. This needs to be a letter to all your employees so they can adopt the same views and show it in their customer relations. It’s true that you abided by your internal policies and this was a series of coincidental bad timing and follow-up, you still need to adopt the internal stance that you wronged a paying customer. Without this first step, nothing else matters.
Respond to Dave directly using Dave’s way. Write a song, produce a video. This doesn’t need to be as thought out and well produced as Dave’s video, but it should definitely be humorous and light hearted. But it should also say “We’re Sorry!” loud and clear. For example, you could use the lyrics “It broke our hearts when we heard we broke your guitar”. Using Youtube, post this video as a Video Response to Dave’s. This video might have an opportunity to go viral too, so get some quick minds on it and get it up ASAP.
Send an email to all your consumers on your mailing list. It would be best if this was a letter from the CEO. Inform consumers of the video, that you thought it was fun and done very well, and that you are sincerely sorry that you caused Dave so much grief but you are thankful that he was able to have some fun at your expense. Link to this video directly from your newsletter so consumers know what you are talking about, and realize you aren’t trying to hide it. Next acknowledge that you are aware that Dave isn’t the only one who has had misfortune regarding baggage handling. Apologize to all your customers in this email. Then explain that you’re working directly with your contracted ground crews to enforce stricter baggage handling policies.
Create a campaign asking every user to create their own YouTube music. Use those videos as part of a advertising campaign (online and ofline) to show that United Airlines now offers better baggage service. “No one cares about your stuff like you do, except for us.” or something along those lines would make for a great message. The prize: 5 new Taylor Guitars or free airfare for a band (any 4 people).
Hire Dave Carroll to produce a commercial. Yes, I said that. Hire him. This would go way beyond anthing you could do by paying to replace a relatively unknown band’s music equipment. By hiring him you are giving him, his band, and their creative abilities massive exposure. You are also ultimately owning up to your mistake and making the best of this situation in the most transparent way possible. The commercial doesn’t need to about baggage handling, but it does need to show Dave’s face and be a catchy jingle.
The association between United and guitars has been made, so leverage it. Do something crazy like offer every member of the studio audience of Ellen a free guitar (cheap $100 Gibson acoustics from Costco) and free tickets for two. If anyone reports a broken guitar upon arrival at their destination, they get a million Mileage plus miles. It doesn’t have to be to this extent of crazye (or maybe you should), but the idea is to get people thinking that you are serious about protecting their luggage, even if it is a guitar.
Finally, and this should be a no brainer, feature Dave’s band Sons of Maxwell in your in-flight entertainment. Write a cover story for your in-flight magazine, play their entire catalog in your in-flight music, and maybe even do a documentary for your in-flight TV. These are just a few of the many, many ways you can capitilize on this moment of misfortune, and turn a negative into a positive. I’m sure that the community where this letter is posted will also have additional insight in their commentary to this letter, since I know they are some of the brightest minds on the entire Internet. Dave’s story isn’t finished. He promised that he would write three songs. Song 1 is produced. Song 2 is written. And with the attention he’s getting, you can bet he’s going to write Song #3 soon. If you and your agencies play your cards right, the third song will be like a happy ending to a story. It will be about how you finally listened and you helped out. Ultimately, the goal here should be that when Dave writes his third song, the title should be something about “United bought me a brand new guitar!”
So what is the overall moral to this story? As a company, your online reputation should be just as important to you as it is in broadcast and printed media. It is always important to track and react when a customer is unhappy or your reputation is being tarnished. The key thing to keep in mind is that the reaction and/or apology must use the same delivery that the initial complaint or bad PR came from. Especially in social media, it is important to reach consumers using the same tools that use to communicate. Issuing a press release when a ‘tweet storm’ is taking place will not only waste your time and not communicate to the proper audience, but it could give you more bad PR in the end.