Crisis Management: What to Do When Your Business Makes a Public Mistake

Is your business ready for a social media crisis?

Are you wondering what you should do if you or a colleague makes an embarrassing public mistake?

To learn how to handle a social media crisis, I interview Gini Dietrich for this episode of the Social Media Marketing podcast.

More About This Show

Social Media Marketing Podcast w/ Michael Stelzner

The Social Media Marketing podcast is a show from Social Media Examiner.

It’s designed to help busy marketers and business owners discover what works with social media marketing.

The show format is on-demand talk radio (also known as podcasting).

In this episode, I interview Gini Dietrich, author of the brand-new book, Spin Sucks: Communication and Reputation Management in the Digital Age, and founder of the blog Spin Sucks. She runs Arment Dietrich, a PR agency.

Gini shares common mistakes businesses make when facing a crisis, and the best ways to deal with these situations when they happen.

You’ll discover the first steps you need to take, how to handle the situation throughout and when to seek legal advice.

Share your feedback, read the show notes and get the links mentioned in this episode below!

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You can also subscribe via iTunes, RSS, Stitcher, SoundCloud or Blackberry.

Here are some of the things you’ll discover in this show:

Crisis Management

What happened with Applebee’s and the challenges they faced

Gini explains how approximately 2 years ago, a waitress at an Applebee’s in St. Louis left a check at a table that included an automatic gratuity of 18%. When she returned to collect the check, the customer had crossed out the 18% and had written, “I give God 10%, why do you get 18%?” The customer left a 10% tip instead.

One of the waitress’ friends took a photo of the receipt, which included the customer’s name, and posted it on Reddit. This led to it going viral and the whole world saw it.

Applebee’s response was that they were going to fire the waitress and her friend, because it was against their policy to show pictures or talk about customers. Especially when a name is included.

What happened next on Applebee’s Facebook page added fuel to the fire.

applebees facebook page

Applebee’s didn’t handle the situation well on their Facebook page.

Applebee’s replied to every person’s comment on Facebook with a canned PR response. You’ll hear what the response included.

applebees facebook feedback

Applebee’s customers were in an uproar.

People didn’t take kindly to the way Applebee’s handled the situation, and started to dig deep on the Internet. Pictures were discovered that had been posted with good customer feedback on their Facebook page. Although these pictures included the customer’s name, nobody got fired for it. A Facebook page was then started to try to get the waitress’ job back.

You’ll hear what Gini’s gut instinct was on the person who was handling the corporate Facebook page for Applebee’s, and why it contributed to the crisis.

Gini advises you never to use a canned PR message on social media, because it’s about being social. You need to engage, be transparent and remain human. This means you need to show sympathy and empathy toward what’s happening.

Always take time to think about the statement before you put it out there.

Listen to the show to find out how the way you handle a social media crisis can affect your sales.

The first thing you should do once you’re aware of an issue

Gini says that the first thing you should do is understand what has happened. This means communicating with both sides to get the bigger picture.

In Applebee’s case, they should have listened to the customer, the waitress and her friend before they did anything else—whether they had a policy in place or not.

listenng

Listen to both sides of the story before you jump in with your emotions. Image source: iStockphoto

You have to remember that we live in a world of instant gratification, where people tend to react before they think the situation through. This is when trouble starts and the problem spirals out of control.

As a company, you need to step back and figure out your plan of action and your strategy before you can move forward.

You’ll hear why it’s important to acknowledge that you are aware of the situation, and the type of message you need to convey.

Listen to the show to find out what happens with communication when an attorney is involved.

A reasonable response time to acknowledge a crisis

Gini always advises businesses to respond within 24 hours when a crisis happens. Don’t ever let it go all day.

When it happens outside of work hours, make sure you respond within the next work day. Let people know that you are aware of the situation and you’ll get back to them once you have investigated the matter.

On weekends, you need to have someone monitoring your social media channels, and they need to be aware of whom to contact when a crisis arises.

social media

Always have someone monitoring your social media channels over the weekend. Image source: iStockphoto

If it’s a case of one blogger who has written something bad, but other people aren’t aware of it, then you need to approach the blogger privately. You’ll hear what you need to look out for in this situation and how to handle it.

When you do have a crisis on your hands, you should always remain honest throughout the communication and make the effort to keep people up to date with what’s happening. People are pretty understanding when you continue to keep them in the loop.

Buffer is a great example of how to deal with a crisis. You’ll hear how they kept the situation under control and the ways they communicated with their customers.

buffer facebook message

Buffer did an exceptional job of keeping their customers informed.

Whichever platform the crisis erupts on should be the channel where keep up your communication.

When two of Domino’s employees released a controversial video on YouTube, the company CEO released an apology video on the same platform.

You’ll find out the types of statements you should make to take ownership of the situation.

Listen to the show to hear an example of a statement that was made by a CEO of a blog when scraping content was involved.

Common mistakes businesses make when dealing with a crisis

One of the biggest mistakes Gini sees is that people get defensive immediately, and this is when it can get out of control.

First you need to take a step back and look at the overall picture. It’s always helpful to have a communications professional on hand who can advise you on how to communicate going forward.

In the United Breaks Guitars story, the airline didn’t handle the situation effectively. In July 2009, the first United Breaks Guitar song was released on YouTube and immediately the media went crazy.

Before you know it, people can get hold of the story, add their two cents and amplify the impact. You’ll hear why it’s important to tell the full story, and also when you’re unable to even comment.

Listen to the show to discover how Chrysler handled a crisis when someone from an agency tweeted out profanity on their corporate account.

The type of plan businesses should have in place prior to a crisis

Gini says that you don’t really need to have a plan in place. However, you do have to practice humility and not be defensive.

“I’m sorry” works extremely well if you say it and mean it. You’ll find out what words you should never follow if you want to keep people on your side.

i am sorry message

The words “I’m sorry” go a long way. Image source: iStockphoto

It’s less about a plan to follow, and more about being human. Know how to apologize and mean it.

When it turns nasty, it is tempting to call in the cavalry. When we received all of the negative reviews for our Let’s Get Social video, I resisted the urge to contact my friends because I knew in this particular circumstance, it was the right thing to do.

You’ll discover when it helps to call in your friends, and when you need to get legal advice.

Gini advises that if you need to get it off your chest, then write it down but don’t ever publish it.

gini dietrich podcast

Check out the full podcast episode with Gini Dietrich.

Listen to the show hear why in today’s world, it’s easy for any business to have a crisis on their hands.

Discovery of the Week

One of the challenges I face on a day-to-day basis is with my calendar. I use an iPhone and an iMac and have found it hard to synchronize all of my calendars.

So I started to research some options that were available, and came across a really awesome calendar called Sunrise. It’s a free app, which works on iPhone, iPad and I believe it’s available for Android.

sunrise calendar iphone app

The Sunrise calendar app has many capabilities.

What’s really cool is that it integrates with your social media and all of your other networks. It integrates with Google Calendar, Exchange and Facebook.

It also shows you what the weather is going to be. In addition, it synchronizes with iCloud, LinkedIn and Twitter.

I’ve just started to explore all of the capabilities of this app and I’m blown away with how well it works.

I strongly recommend that you check it out.

Listen to the show to learn more and let us know how this works for you.

Key takeaways mentioned in this episode:

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What do you think? What are your thoughts on crisis management? Please leave your comments below.

Images from iStockPhoto.

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About the Author, Michael Stelzner

Michael Stelzner is the founder and CEO of Social Media Examiner, founder of My Kids' Adventures and author of the books Launch and Writing White Papers. He's also the host of the Social Media Marketing podcast. Other posts by »




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  • http://spinsucks.com Gini Dietrich

    Woo hoo! Can’t wait to listen!

  • http://WOoArts.com/ Kal Elsehsah

    I’ve just listened to this awesome interview. Thanks Gini :) , you are genuine speaker who inspired me with many ideas. I have already faced situation like in my culture (Fine Art in Middle East) and it was viral in all media channels. Almost did few mistakes that you talked about but as Gini Said “be Strategic not angry”.
    Bookmarked it to search it later. http://spinsucks.com/

    Michael: Thanks for your ongoing great work.
    You may’ve seen my comments or retweets on your podcasts and articles from time to time. I am not looking for to get attention as “guest comment” which is not working in SEO anymore since 2012 :) but because you have great guests and do not repeat and re-digest topics. Plus your respect to others no matter their opinions.

    Thanks :)

  • http://blog.technicalsupporttoday.com/ Karan Rawat

    I like the way you represent your blog and thinking! WELL DONE!

  • http://www.viralinnature.com/ Shawn Alain

    “Gini always advises businesses to respond within 24 hours when a crisis happens ”

    24 hours? Try 24 mins and it doesn’t matter if it’s 2am on Saturday morning, wake your staff up, this is a crisis. Man, you wait 24 hours and your ship could be at the bottom of the ocean with you and your staff swimming in life jackets. Your first response should always be something like “Yes, we realize something has happened” even if you have ZERO answers. This will stem the tide of “hey company, did you know?” messages. Remember, time is the enemy during a social media crisis. Even small delays can result in viral spirals. Ideally this response will be in less than 15 minutes of the original post. The ostrich approach isn’t an option on social media. The public knows there’s a problem so just own it.

  • http://www.viralinnature.com/ Shawn Alain

    I remember the Buffer App crisis. You’re right that was the perfect way to handle a crisis, bravo to them.

  • http://www.it-sales-leads.com/ Barbara Mckinney

    Thanks for sharing these very useful tips Michael. For me the best thing to do is to accept that you made a mistake and say sorry. Sometimes replying to every comment will just cause you more trouble, it’s better to keep silent after your apology using the Publisher box.

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/ Michael A. Stelzner

    Thanks so much for being my guest Gini

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/ Michael A. Stelzner

    Hey Kal – Sorry to hear you had one of these kind of crisises. And thanks so much for commenting and sharing this podcast.

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/ Michael A. Stelzner

    Thanks Karan.

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/ Michael A. Stelzner

    Shawn – have listen to the show to get the context of my question. Sometimes the biggest mistake is responding immediately without thinking about the consequences.

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/ Michael A. Stelzner

    Thanks Barbara

  • http://www.viralinnature.com/ Shawn Alain

    I respect your opinion, but I find the most common mistake in a situation is crisis paralysis at a senior management level. At 12:09 of the podcast it sounds like Gini says the same thing that I just wrote in my original post. A crisis communications plan should be drafted long before you encounter a problem. With proper training, preparation and running crisis training drills, and then empowering your social media manager to make those decisions with executive approved statements before a crisis happens ensures that you’ll be able to respond in minutes, not hours. The Buffer App crisis is a perfect example of this. I wrote this short guide for the 5 stages of a social media crisis with a
    more detailed guide in a book I’m currently writing.
    http://viralinnature.com/social-media-blog/social-media-crisis-communication/item/275-stages-of-a-social-media-communication-crisis
    Anyways, having said that I’m a big fan of you guys and Gini who is certainly one of the foremost experts on social media crisis communication, I read your blogs regularly. Keep up the great work guys.

  • http://beta21.circussocial.com Avtar Ram Singh

    Very important to ensure that all the responses being given from the different channels are uniform. For massive brands, this sometimes isn’t the case. The PR guys will say one thing, the community manager will say another, a press statement by the CXO will say something else and it just leads to murder. Each time we’re faced with a PR crisis, the first thing we do is call a foundation meeting to lay in the “foundation” of what story we’re going to build on and what statements we’re going to use to make sure that everything is uniform across all channels.

    Everyone says the same thing, no one says any different – and usually, that helps a lot. The company as a whole entity sticks to ONE story around the crisis.

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/ Michael A. Stelzner

    All great points Avtar

  • http://www.callboxinc.com/ Marissa Davidson

    We can’t avoid social media crisis. Just apologize and mean it. It has to be sincere so that everything will be okay.

  • Owen Hemsath

    Really great podcast. I hope my video agency never has an “Applebees” moment but I really appreciated the concept of communication to avoid the telephone game thing. Reminded me of a very funny video that I saw the other day on what can happen if bad communication rules the day:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2f2yJR7Jqus

    Great stuff on not getting defensive too. I think that’s the hardest thing to do.

  • http://socialthreesixty.com/ Chad Egeland

    Finally got around to listening to this episode of the podcast and while I love and mostly agree with what Gini has to say I do think some of the advice she relays could be dangerous.

    To start the show she talks about the crisis Applebee’s had and how it blew up because of an image shared to Reddit, but later she goes on to say that a client of hers was receiving negative attention from a blogger who only had like 300 Twitter followers and 5 blog readers and her advice was to ignore this blogger because they had no voice.

    While I believe that you can’t please everyone and this particular blogger sounds like they had it out for the client, ignoring the blogger based on her Twitter follow count and blog reader size is dangerous.

    What if one of her Twitter followers has 5,000 or even 10,000 followers and they retweet the message? Or what if Reddit picks it up and it goes viral such as with the Applebee’s incident where I’m sure the two waitresses had very little online voice.

    I think in a crisis situation and just as a rule in general you should be treating your audience as equals regardless of perceived online voice and Twitter count.

    Just my 2 cents. Thanks for all the work you put into producing such a fantastic show and bringing in such awesome guests such as Gina every week.

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/ Michael A. Stelzner

    Hey Chad – thanks for listening and your comment. The thing is that a bigger company deals with stuff like this all the time and the context of my question is how to know when to focus your limited energy on something. I think audience does matter. Perhaps in those cases it is worth monitoring to see what happens. Of course you want to try and deal with it privately, the real question is when to respond publicly.

  • Ron Cochran

    This was such a great listen. I am the Communications Director for the City of Malden, MA and I manage the main social media accounts of nearly 5,000 FB and 3,000 TW. I could really identify with the “step back and wait” advice. I have been that guy up at 2AM defending but I have also defused some major stuff by being social as was suggested by your guest. I have so much to share on this topic and just wanted to talk back at you guys through the podcast; especially how these rules change up a bit when you are doing it for a government agency rather than a business.

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/ Michael A. Stelzner

    Thanks Ron and keep up the good work







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