When a brand makes a PR fumble, regardless of the faux pas’s size, the brand’s response and the action it takes afterward—nowadays, largely in the arena of social media—can often be more influential and telling than the blunder itself. The poor handling of an error can altogether overshadow the original mishap. And that makes sense. We want the brands we love to display good character. We want them to share our views, and when they upset us, we want them to apologize and promise never to do it again. It doesn’t matter that we expect them to be infinitely more responsible and morally upstanding than we may be; they’re the ones that have to prove themselves worthy of our business. In modern business, social media has made transparency a necessity. An isolated incident that might have gone largely unnoticed by most consumers a decade ago is now front-page news, a water-cooler talking point the world over and a serious, unavoidable problem for the brand in question.
Summer ’12 has been full of such incidents. The ways brands have responded to controversy and handled themselves in times of disaster are telling case studies in a changing brand-and-consumer landscape in which social media facilitates justice, empowers the understandably outraged and forces issues of concern to the forefront of the public discussion. Come along as we dissect the ways in which four companies responded to backlash, with varying degrees of success, this season: Burger King, the NRA, Celeb Boutique and Chick-fil-A.
Little did you know that when Burger King says, “Have it your way,” it really means “Have it our way.” At least that’s the message that was sent when an employee posted a photo of himself standing in tubs of lettuce while wearing dirty sneakers. The employee posted the photo to 4Chan, an online image forum for anonymous users, on July 16. Though the hacker-oriented community usually engages in similar forms of pranks and debauchery, fellow 4Chan users were less than thrilled by the disgusting implications for the national fast-food chain. Fortunately, several of the tech-savvy users, using geo-tagging, were able to identify the culprit within 15 minutes and wish him a “happy unemployment.”
Burger King, for its part, took swift and appropriate action on hearing the news that employees at the fast-food chain were yet again up to unsanitary pranks. Director of global communications Bryson Thornton responded to the incident: “Burger King Corp. has recently been made aware of a photo that shows a Burger King restaurant employee violating the company’s stringent food handling procedures.” He followed this by saying that the specific restaurant in question was an independently owned franchise that, with the help of 4Chan, had identified and dismissed the three employees involved.
Most people’s immediate reaction is to wonder why any employee would think that pulling this stunt was even vaguely a good idea. But the more important, looming question is whether Burger King’s response to the situation will be enough to reassure customers and persuade them to continue patronizing the chain. I highly doubt that Burger King is the only restaurant where this kind of behavior occurs. But I know that Burger King is one of only a few that are continually getting caught. (Who can forget Domino’s?) From offensive advertising to this type of unsanitary prank, Burger King’s not exactly keeping itself in the good graces of its customers. So while the decision to fire the employees in question was obviously the right one, how about announcing a large-scale employee-training program? Give the public a concrete reason that this will never happen again. And honestly, even if something similar does happen (and it probably will), how about more-stringent video camera surveillance and rule enforcement in each chain to make sure it doesn’t make it to the public?
Sadly—and especially because this kind of thing’s happened before—this incident will go down as another Burger King fail. Regardless of how good the company’s apology was and how promptly it responded to the situation, it cannot control the response that comes over social media. Not to mention that the BK Facebook account is void of any recognition that the event ever occurred. Thornton’s statement alone, without backup by some response across Burger King’s Facebook, is not enough to combat faux advertisements that mock the brand.
When it comes to public health and putting sanitary food into the mouths of their children, parents are not likely to continue to choose Burger King over other fast-food chains that haven’t experienced the bad press. Our advice to Burger King: Accept responsibility, make amends and take visible steps to change the behavior—even if it was, in fact, isolated. Do it publicly, via social media.
One of the most important responsibilities a community manager has is to be familiar with current events. Messaging simply cannot exist in a bubble and focus solely on the brand. Brand marketing on social media isn’t about selling; community managers are not salesmen. A healthy mix of promotional messaging, community-building interaction and personal-response work is required for success. Building a community means interacting with consumers, covering subject matter that is relevant and responding to national events, and doing it all in a consistent tone. Consequently, the failure to respond to national events can seem not only careless and ignorant but, in the case of the NRA, insensitive and offensive.
Hours after the midnight shooting took place in Aurora, Colorado, the NRA published the following tweet: “Good morning, shooters. Weekend plans? Happy Friday!” Not surprisingly, the Twitter community went wild with outrage over the organization’s insensitivity and ignorance of current events. Around 3 p.m. that day, the @NRA_Rifleman account, which previously had around 16,000 followers, was deleted from Twitter.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam publicly apologized for the incident and told CNN that “a single individual, unaware of events in Colorado, tweeted a comment that is being completely taken out of context.” It was later revealed that the tweet was published through HootSuite, a program that allows users to schedule tweets in advance. Community managers: Don’t set it and forget it. We’re not denouncing automation in certain cases, but if so, keep your publish dates in mind and your eye on the news. Use the efficiency gained by scheduling in advance to keep your finger on the pulse regarding current events and the industries in which you have discussions.
While admission of guilt is the standard first step in PR damage control, I would have liked to see the NRA (regardless of its views on gun control) sound a bit more genuine by expressing sympathy for lost lives and apologies for its offensive, albeit unintentionally so, comment. But deleting the Rifleman account should never have been an option. Given screen shots and the overall amount of sharing that occurs across social-media platforms, brands have an inherent need to be transparent lest they look irresponsible and cowardly. The NRA would not intentionally and soullessly make a joke about the murder of American citizens, but deleting the account after a supposedly innocent remark does not make a strong case for the claim that it was an accident. A brand that regularly and actively makes use of social media has to be equally up-front when something goes wrong as when everything is going well.
The NRA already regularly receives heat from the American public, so how can the organization recover from this incident when deleting the account makes it look as if it had gone into hiding? Well, since it defends the right to keep and bear arms, wouldn’t this have been the perfect opportunity to clarify what types of arms it defends? Would it not have been the right time to condemn what took place and take a stand against gun violence? Social media doesn’t wait for anyone. Don’t delete the account that started it all; use it as a way to quell unrest, clarify positions and conduct a productive discussion.
Just as the NRA did, Celeb Boutique published an insensitive and oblivious tweet on the day of the Aurora shooting. At 1:35 p.m., @celebboutique tweeted, “#Aurora is trending, clearly about our Kim K inspired #Aurora dress Shop: celebboutique.com/aurora-white-pleated-v-neck-strong-shoulder-dress-en.html.”
This tweet is infinitely worse than the NRA’s because it makes specific reference to the fact that “Aurora” is trending on Twitter (thereby also showcasing the brand’s social-media savviness), so the brand cannot use the HootSuite excuse. How sad is it that a company would assume that all its followers on Twitter suddenly, in one morning, became obsessed with a dress called the Aurora inspired by Kim Kardashian? The tweet could be perceived as tongue-in-cheek, but there’s something incredibly important that Celeb Boutique failed to do: Know what you’re tweeting about. Never assume anything about a trending topic; do research and uncover what all the fuss is about first.
Celeb Boutique initially dealt with its mistake with a string of tweets blaming its foreign PR company. Not the classiest response.
Though deleting a tweet usually seems dishonest, in this case it was appropriate. Ultimately, Celeb Boutique did not try to claim that the mess never happened or run in fear, like the NRA. It eventually owned up to it in its apology, which remains published on the @celebboutique account page and brand site. That being said, blaming your PR agency is not the way to go about it. You are who you hire. Regardless of whether your PR company is in-house or across the pond, the protocol must remain the same: Research the situation and stay up-to-date on current events.
Anyone with a basic knowledge of Chick-fil-A knows that the fast-food chain is closed on Sunday to allow employees to attend church services. It’s no big mystery that the company has a religious background, and, with a little more digging, it’s not difficult to uncover the types of organizations supported by Chick-fil-A.
So why have media outlets, both social and traditional, covered the current Chick-fil-a controversy and president Dan Cathy’s anti-gay statements so closely?
Equality, including gay rights and marriage, is an incredibly hot issue at the moment. Most people already knew the company’s stance on equality; the problem was Cathy’s public admission of “guilt” concerning such a polarizing subject, which has had detrimental consequences for the chain, including the mayor of Boston publicly lashing the company as well as the Jim Henson Company recalling its Muppet partnership.
Chick-fil-A can, of course, voice its beliefs and is by all means entitled to them, but denouncing gay marriage—an increasingly unpopular stance—in the age of social media (the voice of the people) means that you had better prepare for backlash.
Back in the day, anyone who felt strongly enough about a particular topic would grab their pitchfork and poster and protest in the street. It took serious time and effort to support the position you believed in. But the Internet and social media create seemingly limitless platforms on which even the mildly opinionated can share and comment by exerting hardly any effort, all the while hiding behind a username. And that is what Chick-fil-A cannot control—although some started to think that it tried to when the suspicious “Abby Farle” Facebook account defended the fast-food chain:
Social media enables people to make inflammatory statements about whatever they please without repercussions, while Chick-fil-A, in the spotlight, must step very lightly. From the homoerotic Chick-fil-A reviews on Yelp to petitions against homosexual chickens and even a hilarious John Goodman KFC parody on Funny or Die, the public has been vigorous in its attacks on the fast-food chain. Chick-fil-A has no defense except to stand by its beliefs, offer a detailed explanation of its actions and hope for the best. So far, it seems, it has mostly remained silent. More so than any of the aforementioned brands in the aftermath of their blunders, Chick-fil-A is going to have a difficult time recovering from all the negative press it’s receiving—especially since the subject has gained traction daily for several weeks now and has yet to begin to fade.
But even if the media continues to pummel Chick-fil-A, will people really stop purchasing their beloved chicken and biscuits because of political controversy? The public regularly complains and makes accusations on social media, but will it actually change mass consumer behavior by taking its dollars elsewhere? Of course, there may be angry mobs and kiss-ins, but what is the future of Chick-fil-A? Our advice to the chain? Make amends. Speak out on Facebook, make your case known, and start taking pains to separate your company’s products from its higher-ups’ politics. Otherwise, as has been proven over the past several weeks, you risk your business’s becoming terminally unpopular by association.
What can we learn?
The explosive and unlimited force of social media show us that we must be aware of social events and prepared to react to controversy. There is no hiding, and people today are able to use social media to constantly force brands to be transparent, honest and aware. But there is a huge difference between a brand like the NRA or Celeb Boutique’s fumbling and reacting, versus a brand like Chick-fil-A’s making political statements and launching itself into mayhem. What happens when people don’t like what their favorite brands have to say? They speak up. Are there actual lasting consequences? Absolutely.
Brand marketers, be prepared for similar situations. Agree on your brand’s core beliefs, and consider carefully which should be emphasized in public. Take preventive measures when possible to ensure that your brand ambassadors behave appropriately. Participating in social media means accepting the risks inherent in an open-discussion platform: Make sure that the employees at the controls are alert and aware, and check first before participating in discussions.