Social media-caused crises: Dominos shows the possibilities

I’m in LA consulting with clients all week but found the story about Dominos and their social media crisis fascinating. If you haven’t been following it two now former employees pulled a prank, posted a video on YouTube, which went viral generating over a million views. Twitter talk went crazy. The damage to the company’s reputation is significant.

What I also find fascinating is how quickly these events are now wrapped into content for conferences and consulting–guess shouldn’t surprise me given this blog. But Ragan Communications quickly integrated the inside story of Dominos response to their Social Media Boot camp program featuring internet communications guru Shel Holtz.

The pace of marketing quickens along with the pace of crisis and the necessary response. I’m feeling too old for this game.

Later Edit to this Post: As is now becoming increasingly typical, once a social-media crisis reaches critical mass (maybe someone can study to see how many YouTube hits or tweets it takes to reach that point) the mainstream media jumps in as well. Here’s the NYT story on the Dominos problem.

The mainstream media, particularly the big nationals like networks and NYT, LAT, etc. still carry the weight that makes their attention almost the definition of a full blown crisis. So, how to prevent that when it all starts with a couple of immature employees doing something they think is funny? Be fast. Be very fast. Even, then, I certainly am not saying all these kinds of crises can be averted.

I noted a few comments about my post about the Ad Age story that suggests these social media crises may not be as significant as some might think. I certainly did not mean to suggest that there is nothing to worry about (Dominos certainly shows that). But it does show that having someone involved in the crisis response who can reasonably assess what is going on, likely impacts, long term impacts, critical audiences impacted, appropriate messaging, etc., is critically important. You can’t respond to every social media attack or rumor run rampant as if the company’s future is at stake. But every eruption has the potential for being that future-challenging event–so knowing how to respond and how far to go requires the best information, judgment and experience. Other than that, be fast.

How the Air Force deals with blogs

Someone sent me this link from a blog called eaves that is presumably an internal document from the Air Force about how to deal with blogs.

It is very interesting on several levels but I can’t add much that blogger David Eaves has already said, so read his post about this. His point about how command and control structures deal with this wild arena of social media is a good one. Blogging, and tweeting even more, is designed as a solitary function. To do so and respond in a large organizational environment has all kinds of inherent conflicts.

At the same time what strikes me is this handy little chart is codified good judgment. In other words, it seems to try and capture what common sense, good judgment and a good understanding of social media would lead you to do. I far too often make the mistake of thinking such good judgment is common. Too often it is not. That’s why this sort of tool might be very useful in your organization.

New to Twitter–best primer I've seen

I’m sharing this little gem of a primer on Twitter with clients I’m consulting with. So thought I’d share with you as well. It’s the best, simplest and clearest guide to tweeting and the world of Twitter I’ve seen.

Pat Philbin teaches the realities of crisis management today

Pat Philbin, some of you may remember, was the head of External Affairs at FEMA. I’ve been very fortunate to call Pat a colleague over the past year or so and we continue to work together. Pat recently spoke to a group of students at the School of Journalism at Indiana University. Here is a report on his visit to campus including some hard lessons learned from personal experience.

There are few in this business who have been around for awhile who haven’t been stung by the realities of instant news and infotainment. Pat was stung harder than most. Yet you will have to go far to find someone who better exemplifies the leadership and ethics that Pat discusses. Such is life in Public Affairs today.

Why the outrage over AIG bonuses may be a good thing

There are so many relevant lessons in crisis communications in our current economic crisis that sometimes it is hard to know where to start. An article from Daily Dog about new outrage against Fannie and Freddie paying “retention bonuses” reminded me of one important lesson.

I’ve written before about the increasing sense of ownership that the public and stakeholders seem to have over almost any large company, government agency or big institution. In my book I called the “public franchise” where non shareholders and just plain old members of the public have gotten the idea that they should have a very strong say in corporate actions and behavior–particularly when it might affect them. You take that sense of ownership and you add public money–that is taxpayer money–that is yours and my money–and you get a sense of ownership like nothing else. Now a great many of us believe that with even one dollar of our hard earned money invested, we should have virtual veto power over corporate actions.

AIG should have understood and clearly didn’t that their freedom to operate as a company was forever lost when they took bailout money. Any bank, financial institution, automaker or anyone else who gets bailout money needs to understand clearly that the media, the public, activists, busybodies and just about all of us have the feeling that we now have purchased a huge degree of control. It’s our money, we have the right.

And the administration reinforced that understanding powerfully with the sacking of GM CEO Wagoner. Did the government buy GM? no. Did they assume majority ownership? No, but did their “investment” give it the supreme control–control typically held only by the board? Yes. That is the message. Even a minor staken, even a miniscule investment, even the smallest injection of bailout money means that public (and its representives) now owns that company in a very real sense. The public franchise has taken on a much deeper, more significant and powerful meaning.

Is it the death of private enterprise and the free market? I don’t think so. These are dark days for people like me who believe in the efficiency of free and open markets. But the bailout money (necessary evil in my mind) and the government and public reaction with outrage to perceived abuses of the public franchse is sending a very very powerful message to all private enterprises. Will you sell your birthright for a bowl of soup? I know if I want to keep my freedom to operate, to make fundamental management decisions on behalf of the owners and customer, I would be very very cautious about any level of taxpayer involvement. And that is a good thing.

Crisis Communication in the Age of Twitter

Just wanted to draw your attention to an article by Pat Philbin and myself in the April 2009 edition of PR Tactics newspaper.

There is very strong interest mong many in crisis communications and public relations in general on the topic of social media. At the recent Ragan/PRSA conference on social media I talked about its impact on crisis communication and my message was it changes everything and it changes nothing. By that I mean that social media is having profound impacts on the speed of communication and how people interact with each other. This means that crisis vulnerability increases (because of the easy viral nature of much of it and the ease with which those unhappy with you can create a furor). These same tools used to attack are also effective when used to defend.

But ultimately, social media changes nothing. When you look at what your job as a communicator is. the fundamentals don’t really change. Companies and organizations have to behave properly and act appropriately in a crisis. This is what matters to people. It seems to always come down to two fundamental things: relationships and character. This was true when we were hunkered down around a campfire, and it still is true. Character is shown in action, not words. But words are critically important in communicating about that action. And today, those words must be delivered with incredible speed, focused on direct, interactive communications with those who matter most, and with a degree of transparency that may be unprecedented in our history.

Maybe we don't need to worry so much about online attacks

Along with many others in the crisis and reputation management business commented on the Motrin ad featuring a mother carrying a baby. Johnson & Johnson quickly pulled the ad and apologized. I used this as an example at the recent Ragan/PRSA conference relating to the hair trigger outrage that seems to characterize so much of the conversation on the internet–something I’ve been calling “toxic talk.”

This article in Advertising Age suggests that companies involved in this kind of viral outrage need not be overly concerned. For one thing, the internet and the conversation doesn’t impact everyone–90% of consumer hadn’t seen the ad (probably more did because of the controversy–which could be a good thing considering that most people really liked it). It’s also interesting that the research showed that while some didn’t like the ad, a small percentage saw the ad as negatively impacting their impression of the company.

What does this mean Social media and “toxic talk” doesn’t matter. Hardly. But it does caution PR folks to be careful about over reacting. It also shows that the controversy online can be beneficial in pure awareness level (say anything you want but make sure you spell my name right school of PR), and that just because a few take umbrage does not mean that the entire world is offended. Did J&J do the right thing to pull the ad? Probably, but those under attack should take comfort from knowing that most people out there, even on the internet are pretty reasonable. What it does show more than anything is that you better be paying attention to what they are saying–both the outraged ones and the rest of us.