Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Social Media Crisis Management: Responding in Kind

Although Social Media is still in its infancy, we've already seen quite a few occurrences when brands have been challenged by the explosive dissemination of adverse information through Social Media channels. There are few if any examples of best practices for Social Media Crisis Management, and some brands have appeared to stumble by relying on traditional channels to combat negative content spreading via Social Media.

One of the more famous examples of how far bad news can travel is Comcast's sleeping technician; two years ago, Brian Finkelstein uploaded video he captured of a Comcast employee who had fallen asleep in Brian's home while waiting on hold for Comcast home office support. Since then, the video of this embarrassing incident has been viewed 1.3 million times on YouTube, has become an inseparable part of Comcast's history on Wikipedia, and will live forever in tens of thousands of links on Google.

Here's another example that highlights the incredible speed of Social Media: On August 13th, a video posted by MySpace's Mr. Unstable started spreading like wildfire; the video showed the (now former) Burger King employee taking a bath in the kitchen sink of the Xenia, OH restaurant. Within a few days, the video had been viewed around 750,000 times on and YouTube, and news appeared on all major online news outlets including,, and the Drudge Report. The number of negative impressions generated by Mr. Unstable within a couple days was equal to many months of traffic to

Companies have long understood the need and value of crisis management, but the interconnectedness of consumers and speed at which gossip and complaints can spread give Public Relations Crisis Management renewed importance. Burger King's actions in this situation provide a good case study to consider the best and most appropriate way to respond when a Social Media disaster demands action. In this case, Burger King responded through traditional channels, talking to reporters and sending an email to news outlets that said:
"Burger King Corp. was just notified of this incident and is cooperating fully with the health department. We have sanitized the sink and have disposed of all other kitchen tools and utensils that were used during the incident. We have also taken appropriate corrective action on the employees that were involved in the video. Additionally, the remaining staff at this restaurant is being retrained in health and sanitation procedures."
Was this a sufficient response? I think it's reasonable to suggest that Burger King might have delivered their positive response to a much wider audience had they explored Social Media and not just traditional media.

Consider that those disgusting videos continue to appear and be viewed on YouTube. Consumers who see the videos won't seek out news reports, and as a result will not learn that Burger King took assertive and prompt actions to discipline employees, retrain the staff, dispose of tainted utensils and sanitize the sink. With no company-created video response on YouTube, consumers in search of information about the incident get nothing but the stomach-turning video of Mr. Unstable.

What might Burger King have done to better inform consumers who are exposed to the negative information in Social Media and not the company's positive response in traditional media? Respond in kind! With adverse and threatening content spreading via video, the best and most lasting response would have been in video.

An assertive video response strategy would have been to acknowledge the specific incident and address what was done to rectify the problems. A Social Media Video News Release might have given consumers a tour of the sparkling clean Xenia kitchen, demonstrated how the sink was sanitized multiple times, and shown the utensils that were discarded. This approach would've permitted Burger King to address the specific concerns of customers in Xenia, and in doing so would've conveyed to consumers across the country the company's commitment to safe and healthy food preparation.

Brands often have concerns about addressing problems so directly out of fear any acknowledgment will only cause the adverse information to spread even further. In this case, a less straightforward video strategy might have been executed. Instead of directly addressing the Xenia situation, Burger King might have produced a video showing all of the steps that are taken at every restaurant to ensure cleanliness and compliance with health codes. They might have included brief interviews with actual employees or franchisees who conveyed how seriously they take their responsibility for maintaining sanitary kitchen conditions.

Of course, no one believes a positive, company-sponsored video will be viewed as many times as a scandalous video that embarrasses a national brand, but by responding to a video with a video, Burger King could have increased the possibility of reaching consumers where it really mattered. By launching an informative and favorable video on YouTube with the appropriate title and tags, people searching for "Burger King sink" or "Burger King Xenia" could have come across and viewed the company's own video.

If even a fraction of the people who watched Mr. Unstable's YouTube performance also saw Burger King's response, that could have had a more lasting and meaningful impression than an email to reporters; after all, traditional news outlets were far more interesting in playing up the salacious story to grab viewers' attention than they were in conveying Burger King's spin. In this news report from WDTN, the reporter calls Mr. Unstable's video "disturbing" and "shocking" and dedicates twice as much time to interviewing an appalled consumer as to sharing the company's response and actions.

In the age of Social Media, the best response when YouTube or the blogosphere is on fire is to fight fire with fire. Press releases and emails to TV and print outlets are still necessary, but they really don't permit the company to reach consumers where they are or to combat negative PR with the speed of Social Media.

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