“Someday, Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal will be studied in crisis communications textbooks. And not in a good way.”
Although virtually any consulting company will tell organizations to have a PR crisis management plan and team at the ready, many don’t. That’s why a PR crisis — expected or otherwise — can totally derail a company’s day-to-day operations.
Of course, many crises are unexpected. Volkswagen certainly didn’t expect to be caught falsifying emissions reports. So, the company wasn’t prepared when the news came to light. Yet, even when there’s no intent to cover up deliberate wrongdoing, crises can strike seemingly out of nowhere. And, once underway, there’s often no telling when or how they will end.
This unpredictability makes it hard for brands to react to flashpoints that may turn into crises if not recognized quickly and handled in a thoughtful and deliberate way. If you can’t pinpoint the spark, see the instant reaction and how it unfolds, and figure out what your customers expect, you’re essentially blind, fighting a shadow.
Fortunately, real-time social media conversations can help brands identify potential crises early, and allow them to identify the best course of action moving forward.
In this post, we’ll show how social media data can help brands at the three stages of a PR crisis:
- Pre-crisis warning signs
- Full-fledged crisis
- Post-crisis damage control
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One Angry Customer Does Not A Crisis Make
The online business dictionary defines a crisis as a “critical event or point of decision which, if not handled in an appropriate and timely manner (or if not handled at all), may turn into a disaster or catastrophe.” Brand crises come in several forms, including: The “total blindside” — Volkswagen and Samsung. The “whoops that’s not what we meant” — Bud Light and DiGiorno Pizza. And the “we should have seen this coming” — iPhone battery-gate and Facebook.
It’s a good idea for brands to define what a crisis looks like for them. Since consumers often go first to Twitter and Facebook to express anger or disappointment with a brand, social media analytics can help organizations predict how a crisis will unfold. By looking at historical social media data, brands can also analyze the reactions to past missteps and those of competitors. With this perspective, they can define potential crisis scenarios and effective response strategies, well before a crisis even hits.
Batterygate: Apple Could (and Should Have) Seen It Coming
Corporate culture can have a big impact on how companies react to potential crises. Take Apple, for example. As Slate columnist Will Oremus points out,
Apple has an entrenched culture of secrecy, which also shapes its public communications.
Of course, this makes for dramatic product launches, but it also creates ideal conditions for conspiracy theories to flourish. In this case, rumors that Apple intentionally slowed down older phones each time it released a new model, so customers would buy the new one. It turns out, the company was using software to slow down older phones as their batteries degraded, which caused them to shut down unexpectedly.
Had Apple paid attention to the volume and sentiment of online conversations about the performance of older phones, the company could easily have gotten ahead of this.
As we can see in this chart, the conversation about old models and batteries has long been prominent. The specific issue of batteries slowing down started gaining traction on social in August 2017.
Instead, when it finally revealed the truth, Apple was “rewarded” with outrage. The company apologized, but the damage was done. And, for many, that apology simply fanned the flames, as did the offer to replace batteries in older phones at a discount. Too little, too late, even though the software fix to older phones did solve the performance issue as intended.
Of course, Apple has a very loyal customer base. And, from all indications, the battery-gate brouhaha did not affect 2017 holiday sales. As the sentiment chart shows, consumers were angry about the battery issue with older models when the truth was revealed, causing negative sentiment to rise. But because of Apple’s loyal customers, positive sentiment recovered afterwards.
Apple’s loyal customer base may have saved them from lasting damage here — and most brands wouldn’t be so lucky. The worst PR crises — like battery-gate — don’t just drag down brand reputation, they can actually affect revenue. If a problem persists, especially a product issue, customers may move beyond public frustration venting and actually call for a boycott.
Apple was able to avoid the worst of this in battery-gate, but the company also missed an opportunity to enhance its reputation with customers rather than tarnish it.
Second, it can inform efforts to employ a four-step “apology framework:” admit, explain, express regret and make it right. And third, it can offer real-time feedback on these efforts.
For example, this chart shows the movement in consumer sentiment in the days that followed the posting of Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad to YouTube on April 4, 2017.
A day after the clip aired, Pepsi apologized for the ad, but its apology only exacerbated the problem. The apology lacked depth and negative sentiment grew even higher. The second uptick in volume was thanks to the United scandal, which was instantly compared to Pepsi’s PR crisis.
The topic wheel below reveals that the Pepsi commercial triggered conversations about a lot of issues relevant to Black Lives Matter. If Pepsi had been paying closer attention to the conversation, it might have crafted a fuller apology and made additional outreach efforts to its audience.
As Forrester noted in its analysis of Facebook’s PR crisis, organizations need to make their crisis communications swift, frequent, and back them up with action. Pepsi only managed one out of three.
In fact, if Pepsi had really been doing its social media due diligence — not just in crisis mode but keeping up with our culture’s hot buttons — it might have crafted a completely different type of campaign. One that was sensitive instead of oblivious to issues of racial and social justice.
Whoops, That’s Not What We Meant
On September 8th, 2014, DiGiorno Pizza accidentally jumped on a serious
conversation about domestic violence when it used the trending hashtag #WhyIStayed to promote its pizza. That hashtag was created for domestic violence survivors to share their stories.
DiGiorno was quick to recognize its mistake: the tweet was deleted within minutes and the brand apologized and explained that it did not research the context of the hashtag before posting. But it was too late. Many Twitter users took screenshots of the post and the backlash against DiGiorno quickly gained momentum.
Before the ill-fated tweet, overall social media conversation about DiGiorno was largely neutral. Positive sentiment outweighed negative two to one. And a lot of people enjoyed DiGiorno’s tweets, engaging with them by retweeting and liking.
In the ten days following the tweet, 72 percent of brand conversation was related to the crisis. Surprisingly, the volume of positive conversation exceeded the negative by a large margin — 21 percent to 5 percent.
For DiGiorno, acting fast, admitting its mistake, and sincerely apologizing went a long way toward earning forgiveness and minimizing negative publicity. And forgiveness must be earned. On September 8th and 9th alone, DiGiorno tweeted more than 200 personal apologies to users who were offended by the tweet.
Social Media Never Sleeps
News of corporate gaffes can spread with the speed and intensity of a wildfire. Brands no longer have the luxury to wait before acknowledging, explaining and apologizing for them. Social media analytics and constant monitoring of real-time online conversations should play a prominent role in the crisis management strategy of any brand.
For more information on brand crises, download our case study: Lessons in Brand Crisis Management