Brands can’t afford to #fail when it comes to social media crisis comms

Lara O'Reilly

There were three perfect social media case studies to look back on last week from O2, McDonald’s and LA Fitness; shining examples of how to handle a crisis and how to create one of your own in a mere 140 characters.

Let’s start on a positive note (we need a bit of positivity in this incredibly long January) with O2’s strategy to quell the concern about a data leak that saw its customers’ phone numbers handed over to seemingly every website they visited via their mobiles.

Rather than “sit quietly in its shell”, to borrow a phrase from O2’s PR and social media campaigns manager James Paterson, O2 immediately deployed its communications troops across Twitter and the wider social web to inform consumers that it was investigating the matter.

Paterson said as soon as news started circling online that O2 customers had suffered a data breach, he and his colleagues gathered around their action stations, which includes a large screen displaying its Twitter @ replies and the Sky News TV channel.

He added that O2 amassed the same amount of Twitter mentions on 25 January, the day the social media storm erupted about reports of the data leak, as it usually does in an entire week.

O2’s actions to inform individual consumers that it was investigating the matter even led to it exceeding the daily amount of tweets Twitter allows it to send – which is typically 1,000.

The telecoms company asked Twitter for an extension, given the extraordinary circumstances it was under, but the social network refused (which could inspire a whole debate of its own).

O2 also posted a blog, attempting to answer the most frequently asked questions about the debacle that afternoon, which was subsequently updated on 26 January with further clarification and – most importantly – an apology.

Paterson said that in the past, O2 might have just forwarded that apology and explanation on to media outlets to tell the story for it, but the team understood that if it responded on social media straight away the problem was likely to be resolved more quickly.

O2 ticked almost every box when it comes to crisis management in this digital age. It took ownership of the issue and admitted its failings.

PR experts used to say that the first 48 hours of a crisis were “crunch time”, but in the fast-paced world of social media, brands have just a couple of hours to protect their reputation. O2 ensured it communicated it was dealing with the issue immediately and its efforts to individually contact consumers gave the impression it cared about their concern, rather than pushing out a bland corporate message to the media.

It’s a shame LA Fitness skipped the social media crisis communications masterclass.

Last week it emerged, thanks to a Guardian report, that LA Fitness was refusing to terminate a couple’s gym contract, despite the husband being made redundant and the wife being seven months pregnant.

The report was published on 20 January but gained momentum on the evening of 24 January, so much so that LA Fitness became a trending topic.
Earlier that day @LAFitnessTips allegedly tweeted “We do not comment on individual cases” in response to Twitter users asking directly about the Guardian report.

By 10pm that evening @LAFitnessTips posted a series of tweets explaining it had waived the fees and apologised for any distress the issue had caused. Unfortunately, this was too late for the Twitter lynch mob who had already sharpened their pitchforks earlier that day to ensure almost every mention of LA Fitness was linked to a negative connotation. In fact, a rudimentary Twitter search for @LaFitnessTips just now (27 January) brings up a tirade of “shame”, “unpleasant” and “miserable”.

A search for #McDStories brings up more undesirable associations after its promoted hashtag marketing campaign was hijacked by detractors leaving negative comments.

Half of the battle with a crisis is prevented by preparing for its outcome before its existence. While hindsight is now on every commentator’s side, it seems a tad foolish to open your brand up to such a public mauling.

McDonald’s said it realised “within the hour” that the promotion wasn’t going as planned and canned the campaign prematurely. However, one Marketing Week commentator, Andrea Griffiths, noted that perhaps McDonald’s should have used the “small blip” as an opportunity to show it was assisting unhappy customers rather than changing tack to avert a bigger crisis.

When it comes to protecting your brand reputation it is important to learn from one’s failures and take hints from good crisis communications case studies from other companies. It’s a shame McDonald’s and LA Fitness had to learn the hard way on such a public forum.


Darrell Minards

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