Beware the Jackal: Why Burying Your Head in the Sand is a Questionable Corporate Communications Strategy

I’ve seen a few companies (I’m looking at you Amazon.com*), treat corporate communications the way an ostrich would – just stick your head in the sand and hope it’ll all blow over.  Instead of engaging with customers, the knee-jerk reaction of many businesses during times of crisis is still to shut down. Disengage. Disconnect.

Though I’m sympathetic to the urge to run and hide from conflict, the days of just sitting tight and waiting for a corporate snafu to blow over are gone. While the ostrich has got its head in the sand, the jackals are out there on the web gnawing on its tail feathers.

Today, everything you and your company do and say can be archived… forever. The Library of Congress recently announced that it’s archiving every tweet made on Twitter. Every one! Now everything you had for lunch and every service you felt poorly about is archived forever. And it’s searchable.

When a crisis strikes, the worst thing you can do is nothing. Nothing is still an action, and it’s a passive one that gives you no control over the dialogue. If you aren’t producing content, then when folks look for information about your company online, it’s everybody else’s thoughts, opinions, and research they’ll be reading – not yours.

The first thing you should do in a time of crisis is go step-by-step through your crisis communications plan (one of the things we also specialize in here at P/O/N), which should include how to respond to questions on social media, how to conduct an internal investigation about the incident, and where and how to issue your statements.

One company I know lived in fear of a single poor publicity piece that came up high in search results for the company – even though the article came out three years prior and the incident had been dealt with. The article was still mentioned by customers and reporters interested in their business because there had never been an official statement about the issue (which also would have helped push the article down in search results), and subsequently, customers had only the brief article and their own imaginations to go on.

In response, we created an aggressive online content push that effectively eliminated the article from the front page of search results and also ensured that other places that mentioned the incident had a link to the corporate update about it so potential customers had all the facts on hand.

Your communications plan should also have a rigorous timeline for your initial fact-finding and statements. For better or worse, today’s hyper-focus on immediacy means you have roughly 24-48 hours to respond to an incident before you start losing credibility.

Domino’s Pizza has been praised in the social media world for its appropriate (though not quite prompt enough) response to a video posted on YouTube by two employees engaging in the… mistreatment of food at one of its franchise locations.  The company immediately launched an investigation into the issue, found out who the employees were, and fired and charged them accordingly. But it didn’t do so in the dark. Within 48 hours, the company posted a video response to the employee video reassuring customers that it was handling the situation and that this wasn’t normal or acceptable behavior at its restaurants.

On the flip side, Amazon.com is notorious for its untimely, confused, and sometimes simply non-existent communications in time of crisis.

When tens of thousands of books with primarily LGBT(Q) themes disappeared from Amazon.com’s sales ranking search results overnight, the company took more than 48 hours to make a statement. The statement they did make was vague and dismissive, as if the issue was of no importance, leading many to believe that the “censorship” of these types of books was purposeful (in fact, it was a simple code error).

A similar communications gaffe occurred when Amazon.com decided to pull all Macmillan titles from its sales lists entirely. Macmillan is one of the biggest book publishers in the world, and pulling books suddenly and without warning angered not only the publisher’s authors, but also their fans. Macmillan authors across the web exploded angrily to the sudden de-listing of their titles. No official press release was put out by Amazon.com. The only mention of the disappearance occurred in a buried thread on the giant’s Kindle discussion forum.

Amazon.com’s “just sit tight and wait it out” strategy has not ingratiated them with authors or their fans, a poor move when the company is leaning so heavily on the continued success of its Kindle.

Personal time and attention to issues is of incredible importance to consumers today. We don’t want to feel like we’re dealing with a corporate monolith. We want real people. Steve Jobs is known for his terse but memorable personal replies to emails and more and more business people and celebrities are responding personally to their fans via Twitter.

H&R Block has gone so far as to create its own user community for folks who want free personal answers to tax questions. This is a particularly great move, as it gets users off social media sites and into HR Block’s own social media space where they can gather user information (you must register to join) and allows them a greater control and customization of the space to suit their audience’s needs.

When in doubt, the best thing to do when you’re confronted with a crisis issue – whether it’s from a reporter or an upset customer online – is to say, “Thanks so much for making us aware of this. We’ll be looking into this issue immediately.”

After logging countless hours on corporate social media sites, I can tell you this: People just want to be heard and acknowledged. They want to know that their business matters to you. They want to connect.

As consumers, we’re tired of the big, bad corporate behemoths, the bailouts, of faceless monoliths in general. We’re tired of endless phone trees and computerized voices and generic emails. We’re used to auto-responders and the kind of “service” that response is going to get us.

Prove to us that your company has a face, make an effort to connect with us, and we’ll go back to your brand. Even if you’re a little farther. A little more expensive. A little less experienced. Because you responded to us. You acknowledged us. We connected.

*thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the thoughts or opinions of P/O/N

Penny Ohlmann Neimann

The Ohlmann Group has a rich history that began in Dayton, Ohio in 1949, where the agency was founded as Penny and Penny by Bob Penny and his wife Jean. In 1964, Walter Ohlmann joined the firm. Ralph Neiman came on in 1969 and the firm became Penny/Ohlmann/Neiman. In 2011, P/O/N was renamed The Ohlmann Group to better reflect the agency's ongoing evolution and collaborative nature.

2 Comments

  1. Helen Mumaw says:

    Great article Kameron. I also feel companies have made a BIG mistake by dismantling or downsizing their customer service staff that can be reached by phone. I understand that handling things online is less expensive, but it is very easy to ignore customers who respond this way. I believe being ignored is what prompts many of the online attacks. I prefer to let my VOICE be heard, literally. I praise Cincinnati Bell’s customer service efforts. We have been customers of theirs for a long time and have been satisified EVERY time we’ve CALLED with a challenge. However, I sent Staples an EMAIL message at the beginning of March regarding my disappointment in their “rewards” program and have yet to hear from them.

  2. I’ve had some success with emailing customer complaints, but that’s generally because I tell them I’ve got a blog and I know SEO, so they’re quick to clean things up before I start posting it to every online forum and social bookmarking site I know 🙂

    I agree about the downsizing of customer service staff. So many negative complaints online could have been totally avoided if the person could just have gotten a hold of somebody at the company and gotten their issue resolved. By the time somebody posts to a complaints board or even the company’s Facebook page, they’ve generally tried to solve the issue at the store level several times and again at the corporate level by calling customer service staff – who either aren’t there, don’t answer, or can’t/won’t resolve their issue.

    In my experience, one of the best ways to use social media for customer service is as an initial point of contact for customer complaints only – so you’d have your marketing/PR team monitoring your social media and then forwarding complaints/issues to customer service, who follow up w/in 24 hours with a phone call and/or email. It really just depends how on top of it a company is with social media, and how well they understand just how big one complaint can become when it reaches a big online hub like digg or boingboing.

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