In 2006, Wal-Mart was caught red-handed cheating its way through the Internet to receive attention.
Its PR firm hired actors to pretend they were traveling the country in
an RV, visiting Wal-Mart locations as they drove, and blogging about
This was before anyone really realized how the social Web works, and many organizations were taking some risk to figure it out.
But in 2013? In 2013, there are many experts out there in the world who
know what happens when you give a customer, an employee, or a journalist
blogger a megaphone.
Companies stepping in it
Wal-Mart was once again embroiled in a scandal—this time it involved bribing Mexican authorities to
receive permits and to do business in the country. And then again when its PR firm (a different one from 2006)
posed as journalists at a news conference
to try to persuade union workers to allow them to open a store in Chinatown in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, it's not just Wal-Mart that deals with online crisis and
scandals that put them on the front page of The New York Times and every
Other examples abound: Applebee's, Susan G. Komen, Penn State, Carnival Cruise Lines, and, most recently, Rutgers University.
If it seems that this is happening more and more, that's because it is.
The Web provides a way for stories like this to spread like grassfire.
And it's not
It used to be you'd hire a PR firm and have them write a crisis plan
that was then put in the drawer and revisited once a year. An online
wasn't even considered.
Now? Now a crisis can erupt in mere seconds if someone has a bad experience with your organization.
Ten steps for managing an online crisis
1. Act swiftly. Perhaps you sell capital equipment or
professional services or product packaging. Surely your organization
doesn't have any issues. In today's digital
world, an employee could say something racist online. A customer could
have it out for you and spread lies through their Facebook page. A
engage in whisper campaigns
against you. The only way to
win at that game is to be prepared, have a communications expert on your
team (or have one on speed dial), and act swiftly. Not in a week, not
in a month,
not in three months. That same day.
2. Address the problem. It's no fun having to come out
and say you screwed up or something bad has happened or you made a
mistake. It kind of sucks, actually, but it's the only
way to prevent a crisis. It's amazing how two little words work as well
as they do: I'm sorry. Not, "I'm sorry, but…" Just, "I'm sorry."
3. Communicate the story. When a story gets out of control is when you haven't told your side and people begin to speculate. Like with Tiger Woods
when the tabloids were
speculating he was going in and out of a sex addiction clinic (he
wasn't): He hadn't told his side so they began to make things up based
on what little
information they had.
4. Communicate where it happens. If an issue or crisis
is exploding on YouTube, that is where you take to the waves to tell
your story. When employees were caught sneezing and spitting
in food on video, the Domino's CEO recorded a video and his team posted it to
YouTube. He apologized in the same spot people were looking for the employee video.
5. Hire a communications expert. I'm not talking about
someone who knows how to use social media. I'm not talking about someone
who works for a company that has experienced an issue or
crisis. I'm talking about someone who has deep and intense experience in managing
an issue or crisis. Typically these people work in PR firms and
specialize in crisis communication or reputation management. It's
unlikely a company will go through enough issues or crises in its
lifetime to give someone the expertise you'll need if something bad
If you can't afford a communications expert, become friends with someone
who can help you think through issues as they arise. Put them on your
board. If you have a paid board, add them to that. Have that person on
6. Think before you act. Yes, things happen in real
time. Yes, we live in a 24x7 world. Yes, it's fast-paced and you have to
act quickly. But that does not excuse you from thinking. When
we were kids, my dad used to tell us all the time, "Don't ever put
anything in writing you don't want used against you later."
That's very sage advice in today's digital world.
7. Empower your team. Let your team help. Set the
expectations and boundaries, give them the tools and resources they need
to be successful, and let them at it!
8. Say I'm sorry. I know we covered this already, but
it's worth repeating. Of course, you have to mean it and it can't be
accompanied with the word "but." When you
practice saying "I'm sorry" in your everyday communications, it becomes
easier to say it—and mean it—when an issue develops.
9. Back down when you're wrong. If you hold a position
on something and someone points out there is a double standard or you're
being hypocritical, reassess your policy.
10. Have a communications expert on speed dial. Oh, I
already said this, didn't I? Whenever I repeat this to friends,
colleagues, or peers, someone will text me with some smarty pants remark
"How quickly do you respond to communication crises?" Have someone on
speed dial who has lots and lots and lots of experience with issues and
management. You might think you'll never need it—and maybe you won't—but
Murphy's Law dictates the second you don't, something will happen. It's
having insurance: If you have it, you won't need it.
Now it's your turn. What do you advise a company do when the online
fallout is so great it feels like the whole world is writing about it?
Gini Dietrich is founder and CEO of
Arment Dietrich, Inc., and blogs at Spin Sucks. A version of this first appeared on the
FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog.