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3 case studies in social media crisis management

Tony Hoskins
3 case studies in social media crisis management Tony Hoskins

Social media tools have already proven their value to big business, not only to promote the brand, products, or services of some the world's biggest corporations, but also as a powerful tool in your toolbox when dealing with a crisis.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), Domino's Pizza, and most recently Toyota, have all undergone massive challenges in the last year and have all used social media tools as key components in their crisis management strategy.

We're all watching social media evolve, and while it's come a long way and we read success stories every day, social media as an effective marketing channel is still in its adolescence. Most large corporations are just taking their first steps and starting to broaden their communication strategy to include social media efforts, while other companies are faced with an urgency to get out there and get out there quickly.

Faced with a crisis, many large corporations, and even the government, have found social media tools to be the perfect way to connect with their audience and communicate quickly and regularly.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
In April 2009, a new strain of the H1N1 influenza virus was detected in Veracruz, Mexico. The "Swine Flu" pandemic quickly became top of everyone's mind as buzz built and concern spread in the media, social networks, and blogosphere. Unlike a specific brand scenario, say that of a soft drink or brand of aspirin, this crisis involved everyone. The CDC responded with a full arsenal of social media communications strategies and tactics. 

It was critical that the CDC moved quickly and led the conversation. While its response was quick, the public had been quicker. In time zones across the globe, concerned communities had already started to talk. The CDC began by giving the public the information they needed to make sense of all the noise. By equipping the public with clear and consistent information, it started an approach that remained consistent throughout -- engage, empower, and equip every concerned individual with the tools necessary to share the right message, speak on behalf of the CDC, and help calm the masses. 

By giving the public the tools and information to get their facts straight, everyone could be on the same page, and useful education and prevention measures could be communicated.

The next step was truly masterful. The CDC wielded social media tools like a maestro waves his baton, and instead of musicians being conducted, it was Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, blogs, YouTube, mobile, email updates, e-cards, e-games, podcasts, widgets, and even a dedicated online channel called CDC TV -- all playing together to harmoniously convey the CDC's message to the public.

The CDC raised the bar for how to incorporate social media tools into corporate crisis management plans. But there was one thing it did particularly well: It quickly recognized the target was global and that it literally had to target everyone. 

Recognizing the difficulty in reaching everyone individually, the CDC focused on taking the right message to the masses and then giving them the tools they would need to easily take the right message to their individual communities. It correctly leveraged the very nature of social media for the good of all people.

Lessons Learned: The CDC
Don't be afraid to break out the arsenal. Utilize the breadth of social media options to increase touch points. The CDC pulled out all the stops and activated an army of social media tools to educate, comfort, and direct the masses. Much of the content worked seamlessly across various communication vehicles, while some pieces worked better through specific delivery methods. The breadth and depth of the CDC social media response shows it was well informed, engaged, and knew what to do.

Empower your community to work on your behalf. Empowering a community requires you to equip them as well. Give them more than the message; give them the tools to allow them to share that message easily. The CDC designed and built tools and delivered them with instructions on how to embed certain widgets onto a website. Bloggers and/or partner organizations covering the cause could easily acquire content and post accurate information. By doing this, the CDC leveraged the promise of social media and a global network of communities.

Next page >>

Domino's Pizza
Also in April 2009, Domino's Pizza received a crash course in how quickly isolated incidents can become a marketing crisis because of the speed and reach of social media. Videos of two Domino's employees in Conover, N.C. were posted to YouTube of them doing unsanitary things to food being prepared for delivery to customers.

Within just two days, the videos had been viewed more than a million times on YouTube, and discussions regarding the videos represented top search results for "Domino's."

Domino's was alerted to the situation on Monday evening, and by Tuesday it had dismissed the two employees in question and called in the health department. The company initially hoped the situation would quiet down on its own, but quickly saw comments and viewings increase and, to its credit, kept a close eye on the situation. By Wednesday afternoon, Domino's had created a Twitter account to address the comments and posted a video of its own on YouTube with a personal message from the company CEO.

It took Domino's 50 years to build a trusted brand, and within the span of a few days, because the crisis was broadcast to the masses via social media, consumer trust was jeopardized, and the brand was quickly tarnished. 

The Domino's you see today is not the same Domino's you saw a year ago. It matured quickly in the social media space because of last year's events and now uses social media tools to aggressively define and defend the brand. That more aggressive approach has also found its way into TV spots and traditional advertising. Thrown into the deep end of the social media pool, it came out with confidence and a powerful new stroke.

Lessons Learned: Domino's Pizza
Never underestimate the speed of social media. Domino's responded quickly by any standard, but it's also worth noting how much damage took place in the few days prior to its response. Word travels quickly and globally. Put your social media emergency response plan in place now so you're ready when it's needed. "In case of emergency, just tweet."

Be ready to learn through trial and error. Domino's demonstrated the way most are learning the power of social media in crisis management situations -- the hard way. They tackled it and have come out the other end stronger. The key is not to be afraid to jump in and learn.

In January 2010, Toyota recalled millions of vehicles following hundreds of reported cases of accelerator problems. This marked the largest recall in the company's history, and with the popularity of Toyota vehicles, this crisis probably affected us personally, or one of our friends directly.

Toyota scrambled to utilize the appropriate communication channels to address the situation and the concerns of existing customers and potential buyers.

Toyota is an auto company that has been the model for popularity and safety for years. The Camry and Corolla have become best in their classes -- huge sellers and staples in the model family garage. But all of a sudden, it had cars that were speeding off uncontrollably, and the primary and initial message from Toyota was: "Don't drive that car, bring it back to us."

Toyota had a major crisis on its hands, and managing that crisis was well-served via social media tools. Some have said it was too little too late, but I say Toyota still has a fantastic opportunity to capitalize on an existing consumer audience that's eager for resolution, as well as a potential new buyer community that wants to believe in Toyota again. Those who want to believe listen carefully. 

Many companies don't put a disaster preparedness plan in place until after the hurricane hits. It appears that Toyota wasn't ready with a social media crisis management strategy when the recalls happened. The delay may have cost it some loyalty initially, but now it has caught up and gained an understanding of the power of social media and the reach of ready communities.

There are two aspects of Toyota's response to the public that warrant special mention, and both demonstrate the company's understanding of what to do and how to do it, even if the timing was off. On Feb. 8, Jim Lentz, Toyota's COO, appeared on Digg.com ready to address the public and take questions. This was a powerful exercise that demonstrated Toyota's willingness to be authentic and address consumer comments and concerns head on.

Toyota also deployed a powerful Twitter campaign, tweeting with consistency and an energy that showed it was paying attention, that it had dedicated the resources, and that it cared about the dialogue. This has won some praise and should be seen as an example of how to use Twitter in crisis situations.

Toyota is the most recent of the three examples and still has a mountain to climb.  Keep in mind, the summit is not the goal -- the summit is only half way. You still have to get down and get down well. How will Toyota be perceived when it gets off the mountain, back to the parking lot, and can rest its legs? Only time will tell, and there is still much opportunity and many tactics to employ.

"Building an airplane while it's flying" comes to mind, and I think we've yet to see the true brilliance of Toyota's brand re-building machine. The opportunity before them is gigantic. Even those of us who have never owned a Toyota knew about the reliability and safety of the brand. We're ready to be convinced.

Lessons Learned: Toyota
Build your social media efforts now, before you NEED them.  Be ready. Build your audience now, get them invested and engaging with your brand. Interact with them regularly with meaningful conversations and content. Toyota's social media universe was too small to be effectively leveraged at the time of crisis. 

Be authentic. Meet your criticism head on. While the Digg.com event was authentic, the Toyota twitter campaign seemed to communicate through legal-colored glasses. Understandable perhaps, but the power is in getting out there, being yourself, and letting the consumer truly see you. When regaining trust, the power is in the process and the dialogue. Too much marketing spin or legal speak will cause the social network to work against you.

More than a marketing tool
The web is a social instrument. It always has been. Now, more than ever, there are clearly defined tools -- mechanisms that enable you and me to share, post, respond, comment, and connect to our community or other people's communities in a meaningful way. Meaningful is relative. For me personally, it might be sharing pictures with friends and family, reconnecting with people from high school, and sending out the occasional random thought. Meaningful? Maybe not.

For countless large corporations, the social network represents an opportunity to promote, inform, sell, inspire, entertain, and most importantly, connect -- connect to a ready audience of individuals who are just looking for the next brand to endorse online. They want the connection. 

Once connected, social media tools become a powerful channel by which to communicate, especially in a time of crisis. In the last year, the CDC, Domino's Pizza, and Toyota have all had the unfortunate challenge of dealing with a crisis. They each chose to leverage the power of social media to battle damaged perceptions, and to engage in a digital conversation already underway. While facing different challenges, different audiences, and different tactics, they each demonstrate the power of social media tools, and when used correctly and at the right time, how effective they can be at restoring consumer trust.

Tony Hoskins is principal of POP.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Jhinuk Chowdhury

2010, April 06

Nice article

Commenter: Steve Lubetkin

2010, April 02

For another perspective on social media and crisis management, visit www.professionalpodcasts.com for a podcast, newspaper column, and radio news wrapper short report on the recent NetTuesday presentation in Philadelphia, where researchers described the ways social media tools aided first responders in the Haiti and Chile earthquakes.

Steve "@PodcastSteve" Lubetkin
Managing Partner, Professional Podcasts LLC
@PodcastSteve on Twitter
[email protected]