Your cold, sterile corporate statement doesn’t work in social networks

Posted on October 25, 2012 11:25 am by | Crisis Communication | Social Media

Barnes & Noble Facebook repliesAmong the givens in a crisis, none are more important for organizations to keep in mind than the fact that people react to a crisis emotionally, not rationally. Emotions are a complicated stew of feelings, but risk-aversion is almost always one of the most prominent. What risk do the circumstances that caused the crisis present to them and the people they care about?

Consider Barnes & Noble, the book retailer that was victimized by hackers who compromised the pin pad devices that read credit and debit cards in 63 of its 700 U.S. stores. As word got out that the account numbers from credit cards swiped at those stores could be at risk, customers took to Barnes & Noble’s Facebook page to ask for information. “What states have compromised cards?” one user asked. Another asked what the company was doing about the situation.

Every single query from worried customers was meet with the same cut-and-pasted reply, written in the cold, sterile style PR departments have been distributing for decades.

At one time, these callous-sounding responses to upsetting and even tragic events made some kind of sense from the corporate perspective. They were released to the media when the media was the company’s only means of conveying its key message. Since the same statement would appear in print potentially in hundreds of newspapers, it would become the company’s authoritative statement of record. How that statement could affect the outcome of litigation was the most important consideration.

Repeatedly posting those same statements in response to individual queries on Facebook produces an entirely different outcome. On a platform designed for engagement and conversation, it demonstrates that your organization remains impersonal and icy—in other words, nobody we’d want to do business with.

Faced with a reputation crisis, Barnes & Noble should have assigned the resources necessary to provide a personal response to each query. The answers were already prepared, so it wouldn’t have required that much expertise or effort. To the customer who asked which states the stores were in, it would have taken mere seconds to list the eight states:

Hi, Joann. The stores were in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. We’re standing by to answer any other questions you may have.

As for the query about the steps the company is taking to address the situation, a quick recap of the language in the press release—presented with just a hint of humanity—would be fine.

I don’t mean to pick on Barnes & Noble. After all, I still love spending an hour or two roaming the shelves in one of their brick-and-mortar stores. And the bookseller isn’t the only company to have employed this traditional corporate approach. When faced with blowback from a post claiming it had sent a lawyer to defend the killer of one of its customers, Progressive Insurance copied-and-pasted an equally tone-deaf response:

“This is a tragic case, and our sympathies go out to Mr. Fisher and his family for the pain they’ve had to endure. We fully investigated this claim and relevant background, and feel we properly handled the claim within our contractual obligations. Again, this is a tragic situation, and we’re sorry for everything Mr. Fisher and his family have gone through.”

The risk-aversion factor for Progressive is customers who wonder if the company will litigate against them if one of their loved ones, insured by the company, becomes an accident victim. (The actual circumstances of the case were far more complex, but when clicking to Progressive’s Facebook page in an emotional response to the original story, the customer’s perception is most defnitely reality.)

Don’t think for a minute that anybody is fooled by the expression of sympathy. The royal “we” carries no weight with outraged, nervous, suspicious, grieving or fearful consumers. Who’s “we?” The lawyers who reviewed the statement?

The same tactic was used just recently by Monster, the energy drink company facing a crisis over the death of a 14-year-old girl after drinking two cans of the product. Although Monster’s Facebook page doesn’t accommodate customer posts, the official statement from the company is making the rounds through other social channels:

“Monster is saddened by the untimely passing of Anais Fournier, and its sympathies go out to her family. Monster does not believe that its products are in any way responsible for the death of Ms. Fournier and intends to vigorously defend the lawsuit.”

As the sample tweet below shows, nobody’s much discussing how saddened Monster is. It’s the tin-eared corporatese that follows that’s getting the attention.

Is talking up your planned vigorous defense a good strategy when the last thing you want to do is appear defensive? The risk-aversion factor in this case: Will drinking Monster products kill me or any of the people I care about?

Both Monster and Barnes & Noble should have anticipated the prospects of the crises they’re facing. For the bookseller, just looking at other instances of stolen credit card information is enough to motivate the company to develop a plan should it happen to them. Monster must know that a highly caffeinated product could cause an adverse reaction in people with certain health conditions. In developing such plans, knowing how you will engage with risk-averse individuals in social channels is a priority.

The obdurate responses of a bygone era won’t cut it.

Note: I discussed this issue yesterday as a guest on The Crisis Show. You can watch the hour-long conversation here.

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