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Navigating a PR crisis in a social media landscape

Consumers are often willing to give companies a pass for wrongdoing.

March 13, 2015
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Lambert Edwards
Jeff Lambert, left, and Derek DeVries say how companies handle crises affects their standing on various social media platforms. Courtesy Lambert, Edwards & Associates

What do the following people and brands have in common? Home Depot, Target, Bill Cosby, Justin Bieber, New York Police Department, Facebook, American Apparel, Washington Redskins, Sea World, Under Armour, DiGiorno Pizza, Urban Outfitters, DHL, Dr. Oz and Hot Pockets.

Answer: They all weathered a public relations crisis in 2014 — some of them better than others. They represent just a sampling of the companies and celebrities whose images took a hit last year, thanks to social media.

Using Infegy’s social media analytics tool Atlas, Jeffrey Lambert, president and managing partner of Lambert Edwards & Associates, and Derek DeVries, LE&A digital media strategist, were able to narrow in on the top five public relations crises of 2014 and analyze why they gained traction.

Lambert said smaller local companies could learn dos and don’ts from national and international brands that gained an unwanted spotlight last year.

According to Lambert and DeVries, those scandals drawing the most attention in 2014 were: Sony, the city of Ferguson, the National Football League, General Motors and Uber.

The Sony hacking scandal took the top spot for a couple of reasons. Lambert said, first, it involved celebrities.

“When you put a movie like ‘The Interview’ tied to a brand, it accelerates much quicker,” he said.

Second, President Barack Obama weighed in on the handling of the scandal, and foreign policy issues and censorship took center stage in the conversation.

“It rocketed to the top because it had a foreign policy component to it, and the president commented on it,” DeVries noted.

Up until it was revealed that Sony had been hacked, the brand had enjoyed a relatively good year in social media.

“We look at a sentiment chart — generally really positive sentiment throughout most of the year. Then, when the scandal breaks, it starts to go really negative,” DeVries said.

In August, the city of Ferguson and its police department came under fire after the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

“That one was probably the most relentlessly negative throughout the year given the tone of conversation, and the city really made a number of PR missteps and really bad decisions in terms of how they responded to the situation,” DeVries said.

For instance, the level of force used by police in handling protestors and the jailing of national news media members escalated the crisis and pushed it further into the national spotlight.

“Issues involving race, you often have an almost wholesale negative tone,” Lambert said.

The NFL thought it had weathered the Ray Rice storm earlier in 2014; then the videotape was released.

“The Ray Rice scandal really got traction because of the prolonged mishandling, the surfacing of the video, and then the discovery that the NFL leadership had access to that video when they made the initial decision,” DeVries said.

Despite making it into the top three spot of 2014 scandals, Lambert said because of the NFL’s fan base, it also recovered more easily than other brands might have.

“The NFL is supported by fans — which is short for fanatic — and they are fanatically in favor of their team and the organization as a whole,” Lambert said. “So there wasn’t a lot of drop-off because they really disconnected the idea from the brand. They really were able to separate what happens off the field from what happens on.”

DeVries added, “A lot of people in their audience are probably more loyal than a Sony’s audience might be. They quickly rebounded after.”

General Motors’ bad press carried over from 2013 and had to do mostly with its flawed ignition switches, but the company was also wrapped up in the airbag recall that hit several auto manufacturers.

“They had a pretty negative year,” DeVries said. “Despite their having a fairly well-praised release for 2014 and receiving a lot of praise for how they handled the recall, there was still just a lot of overwhelming negative conversation.”

Lambert said GM still managed to end the year with good financial results, and he credited its product and operations with helping keep customers despite all the negativity online.

Uber had a string of scandals that led to its descent in public opinion polls, DeVries said.

“They actually had a buffet of crises throughout the year: a lawsuit from the National Federation of the Blind; one of their regional operators was sabotaging competitors through scheduling false fares; there were some leaked comments by senior leadership threatening to retaliate against journalists who reported negatively on them; some privacy abuse allegations; and an alleged rape overseas that got coverage here in the United States.”

Uber is another company that benefited from a loyal fan base even when the social media negativity was at its highest.

“People are generally pretty happy with their experiences (using Uber), and since social media reflects a lot of what consumers are saying, there is a lot of positive conversation about Uber regardless of what their leadership is doing,” DeVries noted.

Lambert agreed, saying consumers are often willing to give companies like Uber a pass when they’ve done something wrong.

Of the top five PR crises, Lambert singled out GM as having handled it the best and Uber for the worst handling.

“I would say probably the best example would be GM,” he said. “Part of that is they’ve learned from experience. They’ve had recalls and issues over the years — everything from bankruptcy to product recalls — so their process is built for speed and built around owning it, responding directly to the customers affected and being proactive.

“The opposite of that would be Uber. I think, because of their youthfulness as a brand and as a company, they don’t have the same response. They kept making the same mistake over and over again.”

There are several tips companies can take away from all this. DeVries said transparency and understanding the context of an issue is key to weathering a crisis.

“I don’t think the NFL treated it as serious of a crisis as it should have been treated because they weren’t paying attention to the overall crisis of an increased public interest in the topic of domestic violence,” DeVries said. “They saw it as a couple of one-off situations when, really, the public sees it as a larger systemic situation. They didn’t consider that in terms of treating it with the proper depth it needed to be treated with.”

Lambert said when a company is facing a crisis, it needs to determine whether the issue is societal or organizational and act accordingly.

When the issue is societal, it is important to bring in third parties with the right expertise to help understand and manage the issue, he noted.

“It has broader ramifications. Things like race or domestic violence have societal impacts that go beyond the organization, and that is an important piece to remember,” Lambert said. “An organizational issue, you have the ability to control and manage it.”

Another key response is transparency and owning up to a mistake.

“There are a lot of organizations, like the NFL, that feel they control the flow of information, which isn’t true anymore or is less the case nowadays,” DeVries said. “They tried to play off decisions or claim things that aren’t true, like not having access to the video. Those are the sorts of things that very easily come out later that can really undermine an effort.”

DeVries pointed out the opposite of that is GM’s transparency.

“GM has been very open and transparent about everything,” he said. “Mary Barra has been in front of everything and willing to take criticism when it’s warranted and let people in on the process.”

DeVries said one thing a company should be doing is engaging the public on social media when there isn’t a crisis.

“One of the positive things about social media is it gives companies more opportunities to talk about the good things they are doing,” he said. “Talk about those things regularly as they are happening to help build that equity, so when a crisis hits, people are able to take that crisis in the context of everything a company is doing, good and bad.”

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