Citizen Thinks November 5, 2015

Getting Out of Hot Water – Recent Issues Management Cases Prove Little Has Changed

Getting Out of Hot Water – Recent Issues Management Cases Prove Little Has Changed

In today’s social media world, it seems that no brand is immune to social backlash when an issue arises. Brands, even some of which appear to have amassed a world of social capital – via their well managed voice, humanity, content and channel management – are proving to be subject to the same slings and arrows over the Internet as lesser positioned brands.

Some of the public’s behavior may be justified, when a brand doesn’t take action with transparency swiftly or accurately enough. However, in other instances, humans on social media and the Internet can be just plain mean. It’s no surprise that people share their POV and criticisms freely and openly, today, but when these opinions are lobbed directly to the company or brand in real-time, they sometimes get serious attention of others. In short, one call for a recall or action may seem isolated, but 100 re-Tweets of that call to action could spark a movement.

Chipotle recently shuttered restaurants in Washington and Oregon over a food-borne illness outbreak. The chain didn’t immediately know the cause or source, but took swift action to cordon off the regional system while it examined the situation and fixed the issues. While most who are familiar with these types of issues would complement the brand for its swift and aggressive action – “in an abundance of caution” (their words) – others on social and traditional media have been less kind to the brand.

To their credit, the social media team at Chipotle apparently has been monitoring closely and responding directly to criticisms, complaints or requests. The broader communications team, however, has received criticism for not speaking as openly or frequently. In fact, several days into the outbreak and Chipotle had yet to name the actual problem on the company website or social channel feeds.

One story of a sick mother or injured child is painful, but dozens of stories become even more poignant and disheartening for the public.  And it is these negative sentiments shared for this same Chipotle that is a poster-child for trying to do the right thing for its public, including leading in the areas of organic, anti-biotic free, well-managed supply chain operations. Chipotle found itself with a higher-order level of scrutiny, perhaps because it had set such a high expectation. These problems could happen anywhere, but at one of our most sacred modern brands? As one saying goes, the higher they rise the harder they fall.

Meanwhile, recently another Mexican chain was abruptly thrust into the public eye because of the bad behavior of one employee. In this case, the employee was a drunken and disorderly marketing manager who assaulted an innocent Uber driver, all of which was caught on dash-cam and promptly went viral. Within 24-48 hours, it became public information that this violent man was a marketing manager, and Twitter lit up with calls directly to Taco Bell to fire the employee, which they did shortly after, but only after a turbulent cycle of news that certainly took the Taco Bell PR team by surprise.

What can we learn about these two recent cases? It’s become clear that brands today need more than a bank of equity to call upon in a crisis. They need a crisis plan that includes swift, empowered and empathetic action. Brands need a social media team that listens and understands not just what public sentiment is, but where that sentiment is heading. And this cannot happen over weeks anymore, it must happen in real-time.

It’s easy for us to get caught up in the shiny objects of the Internet, now generation – but advancements haven’t made old, foundational necessities of issues management less relevant. In addition to the fundamental change in need for new found speed and accuracy, there is also less ability to contain an issue regionally. By Chipotle communicators’ reluctance to even accurately label and openly name this issue early on, it only fueled more spread by speculation and innuendo, well beyond the region at risk.

Though much has changed, nothing really has.  Weren’t we telling clients decades ago about the need for a rapid response plan? We have always stressed the importance of transparency, honesty and candid follow-up. And of course, we communications leaders have led the charge on the importance of message and media training executives, and the critical components of simulation and scenario planning. An issue is always an opportunity to reinforce a company’s mission, values or purpose; and the entire organization (from leadership to rank-and-file employees) needs to be held to consistent standards in good times and bad.

Brands also must not think of their audiences as consumers or even customers. These people are humans, who are connected with other humans. Human connections today can be made in an instance by a shared value, POV or experience; those connections made during a crisis are bonds of shared experience.  They represent the modernized definition of citizens – connected at a core, striving to make communities stronger, more equal and just.

Written by Daryl McCullough, Chief Executive Officer & Global Chairman, Citizen Relations

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