Increasingly there are signs that companies with much brand value at stake are understanding the new rules of public information. The first one being speed in the age of instant news and online attacks.
Here’s the most relevant segment from this story from Brandweek about P&G, Starbucks, McDonalds and others who have been fighting rumors of being associated somehow with the devil:
Despite P&G’s success, some companies hesitate to act out of the fear that the additional attention will spread the rumor even farther. Instead they wait for a story to achieve a certain level of traction before responding. How do they determine what that level is? “We could tell the rumor was having an impact by the number of calls we were receiving about it,” said Loftus. “Today, that’s e-mails.”
But analysts warn the increased speed of communication has changed that. There is no way to tell when a piece of false information will suddenly become the Web’s story du jour. “The rules have changed. Until about 2000, the rule was you wait until it hits critical mass,” said Mike Lawrence, evp at Cone Communications, Boston. “Now you have to respond quickly, before it hits critical mass.”
As has been discussed here many times, one of the most critical questions for communicators and executives is when to respond. Respond too soon and you risk elevating a story that may die a quick and quiet death. Wait too long and you risk finding yourself in a deep hole that could have been avoided. Getting your listening posts in place and having the wisdom and judgment to know when to pull the trigger is critical. But, has this story shows, increasingly there is little time for deliberation. And the unpredictability of what gets traction on the web increases the thorniness of this problem.
(Greetings from sunny LA–here for a few days for business and to greet my beautiful new granddaughter born early Saturday morning)
A few months ago it was new–now it seems common. Starbucks used YouTube to respond to the accusations of Oxfam, David Neeleman from JetBlue posted an apology video on their website and now President Emil Brolick of Yum (Taco Bell and KFC) has put an apology video on his site relating the rat story that made its rounds on the Internet. (See my PIERblog post).
Note to crisis managers and communicators: your crisis plan had better now include provisions for quickly videotaping an apology from your CEO as well as the knowledge and capability of quickly putting this up on your website and on the proliferating video sites such as YouTube.
If you want to see a preview of how reputation battles will be fought in the near future, just look at Oxfam vs. Starbucks. Oxfam posted a video on YouTube on December 16 that vigorously attacked Starbucks for its policies relating to Ethiopian farmers. They showed a number of on the street interviews with people who were shocked at Starbucks terrible policies–using of course the information that the activists had provided them. (This in itself is a very troubling and unethical approach–give people misinformation and then ask them what they think about it and then put them on camera denouncing the horrible company).
Starbucks responded on December 20 with their response to the accusations with a video posted on YouTube. It was not slickly produced. Not nearly as intensely produced and edited as the Oxfam video because frankly, the people making the accusation have a lot more time to produce than those responding. But Starbucks responded quickly and effectively. They took the accusations straight on. No anger. No defensiveness. Just corrected the wrong information and the overly simplistic accusations.
And it was all done on YouTube. What does the blog world think of this? Here’s a comment from a blogger on slashdot: Regardless of the outcome of this particular incident, the move on Starbucks’ part comes off as unmistakably in touch with today’s communication modes and methods.”
I agree. Starbucks gets it. And Oxfam and other activists had better take note of a basic and increasingly important law of public information: credibility is everything. From this observer’s point of view, their credibility is quite low right now.
Seems like Seattle is a great place to grow companies that come to dominate their markets–and then get viciously attacked for their success. Of course I’m talking about Microsoft and now Starbucks.
This story from the Daily Dog discusses a lawsuit filed against Starbucks from a Seattle coffee franchiser complaining about monopolistic and predatory practices. One quick side comment about the “Dog” story. It starts with”Starbucks isn’t called the Evil Empire for no reason…” Oh come on. I thought the evil empire dates to Reagan and the USSR. Not sure who is calling Starbucks the evil empire (suspect it is competitors) but for a PR-oriented publication to offer a lead like this is, well, a little yellow. Yes, I own Starbucks stock so perhaps I have a vested interest, but this rather obvious imitation of the mainstream media’s worst corporate-bashing tactics is surprising to me in a PR-industry publication that ought to be more critical of this kind of attention-grabbing writing.
But on to the main point–the monopoly claims. I can’t comment on the specifics, but in our town located just 80 miles north of Seattle there are lots and lots of competitive coffee places and even small franchises. The one owned by my neighbor has about 10 stores. Starbucks only has a few in town. We have a strong strong anti-corporate attitude in our university town and so when Starbucks opened a store downtown a few months ago, there was a real reaction against it. I usually go to the non-Starbucks places closest to my office. But I went to one the other day and the horrible music was up so loud that the barrista behind the counter, who insistently bent over the counter working on something for about 7 minutes, could not hear us even when we tried to get his attention. We walked out. Went to the next place. One person was in line ahead. The idiotic barrista dinked around with his single drink for so long, engaging in casual conversation with him, completely ignoring me and my guest in the process that after about 10 minutes of this we walked out. We went to Starbucks. They served their usual completely consistent Americano and actually did what I asked when I said I only wanted half a cup of water in it. That doesn’t often happen in a non-Starbucks store.
Microsoft was super aggressive and no doubt engaged in business tactics it later came to regret. And it was beat about for its dominance and success and made to pay for it, just to serve as a lesson in case anyone thinks that success is what they really want. But did this change the public’s opinion of Microsoft? No. Their reputation has improved dramatically but mostly I believe because of the emergence of a new giant–Google. Claims about King Bill and Microsoft’s complete dominance are now a memory. The new target to attack is someone who doesn’t even ask you to pay for all the functionality they offer–and how is innovating for profit charities.
So, lawsuit-happy failed franchisers, stop blaming Starbucks’ success for your failures. Get out there and Google them.