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Word of mouth is a powerful force when customers are looking to hire a plumbing company or purchase software or services. If a friend warns you about a business, you’re likely to stay away. But if a friend recommends a business, you’re more likely to consider that advice more than all the marketing you see, no matter how clever or authoritative.
We’re in an age where people don’t believe ads. We’re also in an age where authenticity matters, which is why business owners are going online, answering reviews or sending messages to fans and critics alike. Given the more than 2 billion users on Facebook, it’s hard to find a business owner who isn’t expressing themselves on social media in some way.
Here are a few communication tips to keep in mind:
Importance of Restraint
Unfortunately for owners and customers, it can feel emotionally satisfying to lash out online. Whether it’s a bad review or jumping into a political debate online, most people just want to be heard. We may say things online we would never say face to face. And there’s the danger. Discussions can devolve rapidly with the relative anonymity of online posting. It just feels good for people to vent.
There’s an obvious downside, of course, as this negative spiral goes nowhere. Business reputations can be tarnished not just by random reviewers, but by managers or owners who take to social media to post lengthy politicized rants that polarize customers.
Engaging in online shouting matches — also called flame wars — doesn’t change minds about the topic at hand and can severely damage personal and business brands. A recent example is Elon Musk’s unfortunate sparring with a cave rescuer from England who was key to rescuing 12 teenagers from a flooded cave in Thailand. The Tesla CEO made serious allegations against Vernon Unsworth, one of the rescuers, after the diver had publicly called Musk’s plan to build a submersible to save the boys a PR stunt.
It’s fairly obvious Musk’s ego was injured but why make the accusation? Was the feeling worth it? Musk’s problems persisted, and he continued a bizarre series of activities and public statements that eventually led to a plea deal with the SEC after he tweeted about taking Tesla private.
Flying off the handle isn’t relegated to CEOs — it’s all too easy for an employee to take it upon himself to get into online brawls. Even if the intent is good, such as defending an employer, the result can be disastrous.
Plan Ahead to Prevent Problems
Protecting your brand requires creating a social media and public relations strategy that works and not leaving your company communications to chance.
With thousands of employees, Apple has become a trillion-dollar company. Yet the company is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to new products. Its social media policies were leaked some years ago, detailing extensive guidelines on what to say regarding rumors of new gear and software. Apple employees are similarly expected to be respectful online; however, they are not told to refrain from political speech. Why? The company has determined that it trusts its employees — to a point.
When it posted its social media guidelines, Apple had just fired an employee for an explosive series of Facebook rants. Consider that this happened in the United Kingdom, where even retail employees can appeal termination. Since Apple had spelled out what was permissible in advance, the damage was limited and the UK panel overseeing the appeal ruled in favor of Apple.
That sort of response was possible because Apple planned ahead, spelling out what was permissible up front. In many cases, employees are summarily fired for their social media behavior. This contains the damage.
In the case of executives having arguments online, it can get trickier. Still, as we’ve seen in the case of Papa John’s Pizza, not even founders are immune to a company looking out for its own interests. Again, it pays to plan ahead. Setting expectations is not just a critical HR function, it’s part of a solid public relations strategy. Making vague or conflicting statements will not only further enrage those who rally against a lone wolf’s bad actions but compound the problem over time.
Plan for incidents by developing a crisis management strategy. Marketing can only go so far, after all. In an age of interconnectedness, no message lives in a bubble.
Respond Clearly and with Empathy
When things do go wrong, outrage tends to spread in waves. The worst-case scenario for a business is for a mob of angry would-be customers promising never to do business with the company ever again, even if they would never have to begin with.
It’s worth noting that two of the biggest PR disasters ever were handled in two completely different ways. In the 1980s, Tylenol packages were tampered with and people died as a result of poisoning. The company issued an apology and detailed the steps it was taking to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. Tylenol implemented a massive recall at great cost to itself, but the result was more consumer confidence than before.
Product design for over-the-counter medicine was also forever changed, as tamper-proof packaging became the standard.
In contrast, Perrier didn’t handle bad news as well and became a cautionary tale. Regulators in the United States found bottles contaminated with benzene in 1992. The company did several things wrong. First, it didn’t have a plan of action for such an event. Secondly, it disseminated incorrect information and was called on it.
Perrier’s president wound up shooting the brand in the foot. His thinking: Telling customers too much under the guise of transparency would alleviate their concerns. As a result, the brand was tarnished. It took years for the company to recover.
Situational awareness in a crisis is key and having a plan for incidents is critical to success. Responding with not just an apology but an actual plan of action is crucial to maintaining public trust.
There’s a lesson in all this, of course. In a world of transparency and accessibility, where CEOs can talk to anyone and vice-versa, careful messaging has become key. Whether it’s an unhinged executive or ranting employee, the goal of public relations is to control and contain the damage and put the best foot forward in the future. A loose cannon firing into social media’s channels could derail years of marketing work and brand awareness.
Planning and implementing a strong public relations strategy to protect your company’s online reputation doesn’t have to be hard. Partnering with a home service PR agency can give you access to the knowledge and experience needed to develop a plan to protect and grow your company’s reputation for years to come.
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