By Geoff Livingston
The human condition brings inherent fallibility. We often focus our social media marketing discussions on going viral, building a good brand, developing earned media, or delivering return on investment. But what do you do when things go wrong?
Let’s be frank. Shit happens.
Businesses experience negative events. That’s life. It is inherently human, and not perfect. Some of these negative events require the company to communicate with its stakeholders. Others simply leak into the public by discovery (think John Mackey’s astroturfing incident as the CEO of Whole Foods).
Most executives and communicators find these conversations to be the most painful ones. They inspire great fear. The company’s brand reputation can fly or be permanently tarnished in moments like these.
Crisis demands superior, thoughtful communications. Though we love to talk social media, in a crisis these principles hold true regardless of medium. Because great communications involve people, one to one, one to many, but always factual with a commitment to resolving problems or simply acknowledging them in a real and authentic way. It’s no wonder the Tylenol cyanide incident is constantly cited as the classic way to handle a crisis.
Some instincts would have you not communicate. But as JetBlue found out in 2007 when it had system wide outages, waiting to communicate with your community in their preferred medium can create major problems. For its social media fans, the airline produced a late and often jeered at YouTube mea culpa from former CEO David Neeleman.
Others want to look good, dress well, and promise great things. Messaging carries the day! But when you can’t deliver, it backfires. Worse, if human lives are at stake, the company can cause irreparable harm and really hurt people. Remember the West Virginia coal miner crisis which took the lives of 12 miners who were proclaimed to be alive?
Or you can deny something went wrong and just whistle in the dark. I don’t think Exxon will make that mistake again after the Valdez. Heck, they’re still paying for that one.
I’ve counseled companies through these types of incidents, but got to live through one first hand when we recently announced that Livingston Communications’ would-be acquisition by the Social Media Group was not going to be completed. It was one of the toughest moments of my professional career. Believe me, the thought about not communicating did cross my mind, oh, about a dozen times.
Both SMG CEO Maggie Fox and I agreed that we needed to own it, and just say what happened. We had so many friends who lauded the original letter of intent it would have been impossible to duck and run. So we stated the actual cause of the dissolution: Cultural and management differences that would have created a very difficult and perhaps disastrous acquisition. Looking good was not an option. We addressed our stakeholders; employees, clients, and colleagues, both privately and publicly.
There were other pitfalls. We entertained communication that the companies would continue working together, but because we did not have hard facts to back that statement up, we elected to go with a simple dissolution statement.
It would have been easy to be caddy and blame the other organization, but instead we simply acknowledged that the two cultures were not simpatico, and that we still hold respect for each other. This is true. When pressed we did not air our dirty laundry. We wanted to protect each other’s dignity. Maggie and I wanted to work together for a reason. Really, the due diligence period is a private time between two organizations, anyway.
Though a bummer for both parties, the actual announcement went well. Folks, though disappointed, seem to see the business sense in our decision. Even the trolls were relatively mild mannered.
Perhaps the greatest criticism I received via the back channel was my video. A few people felt I should have shaved, worn a collar, and made a well-lit video. They said that the video made me look beaten down. Indeed I was strongly warned about these pitfalls BEFORE I released my statement.
Perhaps my instincts were wrong, but it was a moment where authenticity and genuine communication was needed, not polished glitz. That was the real Geoff, the one who goes to work when there is no sales meeting, and yes, I was worn down by a tough time. If I looked polished and handsome, would the video have been as effective, or authentic? The sincerity of the moment, the humanity of it, the genuine acknowledgment of things gone wrong carried the day.
Geoff Livingston is CEO of Livingston Communications. In that capacity, he is in charge of strategy and account planning, and media relations support. Geoff has worked as a public relations strategist in the Washington, D.C. region for 15 years. Dubbed a “local blogging guru” by the Washington Post, Geoff’s award-winning book on new media “Now is Gone” was released in 2007. The book has been cited by the Wall Street Journal as a valuable resource for social media.