How To Implement Effective PR When Facing A Social Media Crisis

September 30, 2012
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PR Firestorm

While all eyes were focused on the Gulf of Mexico and the path of Tropical Storm (soon to be Hurricane?) Isaac this past weekend, a Public Relations storm blew through the Chattanooga area for one local company.  Lake Winnepesaukah, affectionately known as Lake Winnie, experienced a violent barrage of opinionated detractors on Facebook.

It all started on Saturday when a woman posted an account of her family’s visit to Lake Winnie that day. She was upset upon arriving at the park to be told general admission tickets for non-riders were no longer available. Everyone, regardless of whether or not they planned to ride any of the rides, had to purchase a ride ticket. She tried reasoning with the Lake Winnie employee at the gate that her husband (who earlier this year had his leg amputated) and her mother (who was not in good health) would not be able to ride any rides.

The employee was apparently not empathetic and kept referring back to the policy that all adults had to pay full admission whether they were planning to ride rides or not. According to the woman’s post when she asked about an exception for a handicapped person the employee suggested that person stay at home and not come to the park if they didn’t want to pay full admission. The family left without entering the park and there’s little doubt that her six-year old daughter was not happy.

What happened next is something that is becoming more commonplace. Rather than just complain to a few friends, she took to social media to voice her frustration. She referenced Lake Winnie in a Facebook post early Saturday afternoon that generated hundreds of comments and thousands of “Likes” by the next morning.

Unfortunately, Lake Winnie didn’t respond that evening. Their first response to the post wasn’t until around 1pm on Sunday which provided an ample amount of time for detractors to run amok with unchecked comments.  To make matters a little worse, their response was a  little too “corporate”. It was more of defense of their policy with less emphasis on the person who felt “wronged” and more on what the policy was.

This sparked hundreds of additional comments, most of which were not favorable towards Lake Winnie. At this point in time, the PR department/person retreated back into silent mode.

They followed up a couple of hours later with a more softened statement that seemed to go over a little better than the previous. The comments were now mixed. Detractors still posted comments, but now a noticeable number of people came to the aid of Lake Winnie to defend their policy. Debate was in full swing.

Lake Winnie’s next action was to erase their two posts along with the post of the woman thus removing the hundreds of commments. They have since disabled their wall so fans can only comment on their posts.

PR stands for “People Reacting”

If there’s anything to learn, it’s that PR needs to revolve around three key components: timing, accountability and appropriate personality. Scott Stratten addresses this in detail in his latest book – “The Book of Business Awesome.”

 Timing: in the 21st Century things move pretty fast. What are acceptable response times for companies? How many days / hours / minutes should pass before responding to a commenter?

Accountability: Do you own up to your mistakes? Whether it was a single employee, company policy or defective product/service do you (will you) admit it publicly and offer to make it right?

Appropriate personality: Companies have personalities to some extent. Does your response reflect it? An effective response from an amusement park would likely have a different tone than a B2B manufacturer.

By taking quick action, admitting mistakes and responding in character companies can help diffuse a toxic social media crisis. Ignoring it, or reacting inappropriately can make a bad situation worse. Being swift, smart and supple can go a long way.

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