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PR At The Speed of Twitter February 16, 2010

Posted by Lynn Christiansen Esquer in Marketing and PR.
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How long does it take for your business to go from zero to crisis mode? The answer is: As long as it takes an unhappy someone with a significant social media presence to whip out his or her Blackberry.

What so many companies don’t seem to realize in this age of instant communications is that they need to react — immediately — when negative communications begin swirling around the blogosphere. As I noted last week, in the Google/Twitter/Facebook era of today, crisis communications response is measured in hours, if not minutes.

To demonstrate exactly what impact social media can have: On Saturday, Director Kevin Smith tweeted his 1.6 million followers within minutes of being thrown off a Southwest Airlines plane in Oakland, Calif., allegedly for being too overweight to fit comfortably in the seats. Whether his ejection was justified or not (Smith says it wasn’t), the incident was retweeted, blogged and then noted in mainstream media almost immediately, ultimately prompting Southwest to tweet and blog its own expressions of regret the next day.

In addition to how quickly companies must react to protect corporate reputation, what this story illustrates so well is that you can never know exactly when or how a threat to your company’s reputation will crop up. In this case, a customer relations gaffe — for certainly, whether Smith’s girth was against airline policy or not, his ejection from the plane wasn’t handled as well as it probably could have been — caused Southwest an unpleasant media uproar culminating with Smith relentlessly and quite publicly declaring to his millions of followers that he will never again fly Southwest. And it also nicely illustrates that it’s not enough to have a social media web presence; companies must effectively manage their social identity by sustaining a solid online reputation and addressing potential PR crises immediately.

When companies craft their crisis communications plans, they need to fully realize they have literally minutes to react to any threat to their carefully crafted brands. Be prepared!

A Cautionary PR Tale February 8, 2010

Posted by Lynn Christiansen Esquer in Marketing and PR.
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Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, took decades to build its platinum reputation. It took just two weeks to topple it, in what will go down in the history books as one of the biggest corporate PR debacles ever.

Clearly, Toyota’s handling and response to its sudden-acceleration and breaking-system woes should be a cautionary tale to crisis communicators everywhere.

The slow and inexorable drip, drip, drip of news, recalls and possible solutions has dried up business at Toyota car dealerships, created shortages for rental car agencies, worried and inconvenienced its customers and made the company the global butt of jokes even as its market value has severely plummeted. You know things have gone very wrong for Toyota when suddenly Detroit automakers are looking really good to consumers.

Companies need to realize that crisis is nearly inevitable and be prepared. Design fails, recalls happen, bad press will follow. But Toyota took the Tiger Woods route: Initially ignoring the growing scandal, avoiding public statements as the crisis grew, finally admitting parts of the problem but only after others had made their damning accusations, then — eventually — putting a recall and repair plan into place, albeit with mixed messages and too many unanswered questions.

Toyota is now throwing itself on its sword in mea culpa ads, and company executives are offering themselves up as whipping boys on national TV news magazines. But had the company addressed the problem head-on weeks ago, it would not have needed to atone so spectacularly.

A solid crisis communications plan, carried out competently and courageously — and most of all, immediately — could have saved Toyota. Think Tylenol or David Letterman. In the Google/Twitter/Facebook era of today, crisis execution is measured in hours, if not minutes. That it took weeks for Toyota to formulate a plan speaks to its internal problems and lack of accountability. Its deplorable response will almost certainly translate into heightened paranoia about its end product by consumers.

Toyota finally seems to be finding its course and communicating with the public, although the recalls continue. The question now becomes whether the company will be able to repair its tattered reputation enough to find its way back near the top of the heap; and if so, how long it will take.

All for the lack of a crisis communications plan.

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