February 11, 2011

A tale of two crises: experts and humour hurt more than rumour

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On January 22nd 2011, a teenager died from food poisening after a meal in a fast food restaurant in Avignon, France. The restaurant was closed immediately for enquiry and reopened yesterday. And while the tragedy certainly had an impact on the fast food chain’s corporate reputation, that dent seems minor compared to those caused by other crises of much less dramatic scope but far more viral in nature (no pun intended).

Quick Facebook Update

For example, the following video has been viewed almost 10 MILLION times! It was posted by Dave Caroll after he unsuccessfully tried to obtain reimbursement from United Airlines, for one whole year, when his expensive guitar was mishandled and broken by the company’s ground staff.

Contrast this with the fast-food crisis stats:

  • In the period since the incident, fewer than 1000 tweets were exchanged on the subject and the buzz trend followed a very conventional bell shape indicating a rapid (3 days) loss of interest in the subject by Internet users, with no rebound or attempt to revive the story.
  • During that same period, the fast food company’s fan page continued growing at its normal rate, as if nothing had happened. And while there was some rage to be read on the company’s Facebook wall, it was more likely to be flame wars between supporters and detractors than a consistent attack on the brand.
  • In just ten hours following the announcement of the restaurant reopening, 131 people had “liked” the update (see first picture, above) and 57 had left a comment. That’s almost 20% as much as all the tweets in the two weeks the crisis has spanned.

While official enquiries were not able to link the food eaten in that restaurant by the 14-year-old and his death, suspicion was high in initial – well before any official information was released – tweets and Facebook updates on the company’s wall. So why didn’t the situation flare up into a real crisis as in the much less traumatic broken guitar story?

I see three main reasons:

  • First of all, Dave Carroll is a de facto industry expert. “For an Airline company?” you ask! Yes. For any company. Dave’s PR campaign to support the propagation of his story would make many agencies dreamy-eyed. It found immediate support from Taylor Guitars and guitar case makers Calton cases. It earned coverage in the LA Times and the BBC and was well enough orchestrated to appear on marketing thought leader David Meerman Scott’s blog and as the first chapter of his latest book Real-Time Marketing and PR. Because Dave Carroll is the sort of customer that frequently reports baggage handling problems (guitar owners) and proved to be an expert in communication, his story is very reminiscent of Jeff Jarvis’s Dell Hell.
  • The song is pretty good. It’s good music, it’s catchy. It’s exactly the sort of stuff that goes viral. Marketing statistics on all kinds of supports show that positive news gets shared much more than negative news. Dave’s song could have been whiny, it is humorous and likeable instead. A similar attack on Mobistar example can be found here. Compared to this, the tragic loss of a family is not the sort of news that spreads like wildfire.
  • Where it took United Airlines several months to acknowledge responsibility for the incident, Quick’s senior management reacted much faster, posting an official declaration that felt human, sincere and heartfelt. The declaration provided hotline information and openly explained how the company would collaborate with the enquiry. It received many Likes and positive comments.

So, what are the take aways for corporate reputation management?

  • Engagement is key! Many supporters fought Quick’s battle online. And the company’s open collaboration with many industry experts (with reports posted on their wall and in press releases) went a long way towards quieting the critics.
  • Monitor wisely! Influence is not what an algorithm says it is. Monitoring zillions of consumers like big brother doesn’t mean you are monitoring the people who can do you harm. I have written about this on numerous occasions (insights on reputation, learning from the Mona Lisa and mapping stakeholders) and Edelman’s 2010 and 2011 Trust Barometers state it clearly: experts are far more influential than the public.
  • Corporate values are not just on the surface! While United may have plenty of shiny documentation to send to journalists, it seems that their staff wasn’t really supportive of Dave’s problems. In contrast, the number of Facebook updates by Quick employees is impressive – and effective. It is obvious internal communications play an important role in the company. Yet another proof that Joe Public shouldn’t be reputation manager’s exclusive fantasy stakeholder. Reputation management starts from inside.

So, how are you dealing with the world outside? Please share your point of view.

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