what to do in a social media crisisThe recent outcry about California Baby and H&M, and the companies’ handling of the outcry on social media has had me thinking. Every brand faces the possibility (however remote) of a product recall or drastic consumer complaints. Hindsight is always more insightful, but it’s clear from these two examples that social media amplifies the consumer response. I believe that most companies see the possibility for sales and good things but spend very little time drafting actionable responses in the case of bad press.

Worse, the fear of a situation like these keeps many good brands away from social media, or away from true engagement. And that’s a waste.

Especially when you are selling products to green moms, your brand is under scrutiny every day. Good brands with toxin-free products are constantly working on consumer education, and that’s vital to convincing a mom that your product is worth the extra price tag. But, what happens when that perceived value turns the other way? Your actions decide what consumers think of your brand evermore.

Remember, this isn’t the olden days when you had days to figure something out and hope it went away. There’s no trickle down effect that buys you a month or more to decide if you even have to say anything at all. Today, moms spread the word about a situation like this in minutes, probably before you even know they are aware of it. Fear that they are using a product that could injure their child spurs these situations like a wildfire with a stiff wind. Never underestimate the mother instinct to protect her child, and if your brand makes a product that is supposed to be safer or better or protect their child more, and the possibility exists that you’ve actually done harm — you’re going to feel the heat. Big time.

Be Prepared

First and foremost, you should have a plan for something off-the-charts-bad, like a product recall. Running around trying to rally the troops wastes precious time, allowing the rumors and consumer-generated press to spread. Start step by step, from how your customer service people handle that initial phone call that your product has injured someone — be prepared. What do they say? Who do they transfer the phone to? What information do you need? Is someone available to take that phone call day or night? I like to practice this often, and use the results for company-wide training.

What’s your next step? Charting some of the possibilities out in advance gives you a document to refer to and lets you get orders out to your public relations team so a press release can be generated in minutes instead of days.

In almost all the crisis communications I do, the lack of a plan has played a huge part in the current level of angst. Because there is no plan, people take actions that are reactionary — and that’s not usually the smart action. When I ask what the plan was versus what’s happening there’s usually silence on the phone. Then comes rationalization for what’s been done, and finally we start talking about what has to happen now.

Be Transparent

Second, the cardinal rule in social media is transparency. Repeat that a few times. I believe that had California Baby been transparent about their formulation change right from the beginning, and I mean fully transparent, the outcome would have been night and day from what’s happening now. Green moms want to know the details. Reformulations happen all the time, and explaining the reasons and the details of a new formulation gives your side of the story the top billing. Your customers buy your organic products because they believe in you as a company. They aren’t there for the manufacturing process or to source ingredients. They have to believe that you are doing what you say you’re doing. This starts with transparency from day one. If you’re not being transparent today, fix it.

Respond to Complaints Effectively

Third, every company gets complaints. No matter how brutal or how much truth there is, when moms see a complaint, there’s research that shows they judge the complaint’s validity by how you handle the response. Disavowing all knowledge of the situation (like H&M did) doesn’t work. Most people believe that for a consumer to take the time to complain publicly to you, there’s some truth to the complaint. Trying to sweep the situation under the Facebook rug by deleting comments is probably the single worst thing you can do. Hopefully you have a competent and social media-savvy PR team and together you can respond to complaints honestly and fairly. True, there are some people who are just trying to start trouble, but most consumers see that. Their belief in you as a company is directly tied to how you treat those people. Openly.

I want to say this again because it’s so mind boggling that companies do this — do not, under any circumstances, start deleting stuff from your Facebook page. The only exception to this is when someone is being abusive or violating your policies. Having those policies clearly spelled out from the beginning is crucial. Spend the time to do it. And stick to them. It’s fine to ask the complainer to email you and take the nitty gritty off the wall. But hitting the delete button shows you are defensive, and that spells deception.

Explain What You’re Doing Now

Fourth, spell out clearly, in the case of a massive consumer outcry, what you are doing about the problem. It might not be pleasant to admit that you didn’t quality check an ingredient and now someone has gotten sick (or whatever your drama happens to be). But, being clear about your responsibility and how you will fix the problem in the future is the only way to keep your moms’ trust and your brand’s reputation. If you think your brand is above what green moms will say about it, read Beth Terry’s story and how she persuaded Clorox to provide recycling for Brita filters. If a company the size of Clorox is forced to change by one mom and her efforts, your company can and take a major hit too.

Educate Now — Before a Crisis

Last, show your consumers now, every day, what you do to protect them, to provide the products they believe they are buying, and how much you do to keep those products safe. Before you have a public relations problem. Spending the money and effort to show why your company cares about the products it makes, why those products are better than your competitors and how much work goes into the manufacturing of those products will help your current sales. Then, if something goes awry, you can point to those steps and clearly spell out what happened. In most cases, moms will understand and respect your accountability and transparency.

Keep these things in mind:

  • Everyone makes mistakes.
  • We should learn early in life that taking responsibility is not optional.
  • Greenwashing is bad karma.
  • Green moms can either be your best ally or worst public relations problem.
  • It’s all up to you.

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