[This article was originally published at PRNewsOnline.com.]
Online Crisis Communications: Your First Statement Is Crucial
by Shabbir Imber Safdar and Jason Alcorn, Virilion Inc.
July 21, 2008
To navigate a crisis effectively, you need to do at least two things:
1. Recognize you’re having a crisis, and
2. Communicate (as opposed to failing to communicate).
How, when and why you communicate may be strategically planned, but first you must recognize you’re in the midst of a crisis and communicate accordingly. If you don’t, you’ve ceded the control over the issue to the denizens of the news cycle, as well as the bloggers and online pundits that drive and perpetuate ongoing coverage.
Below, we examine two examples today of high profile companies that found themselves in crisis. How and when they responded, and what they said when they first spoke, determined how each crisis unfolded and was finally resolved. How you use the time before your first statement, and what that statement is, is an important lesson for your own communications crisis.
1. Ford and the Black Mustang Club Calendar
In late 2007, a Ford Mustang auto enthusiast club, the Black Mustang Club, took photos of their cars and submitted them for selection in a 2008 calendar. The best thirteen were selected, and the club president uploaded them to the popular “make your own promotional material” Web site CafePress for creation and ordering.
CafePress rejected their photos, claiming that Ford had previously informed them that anything users submitted with photos of their cars infringed on Ford’s trademark, and they wouldn’t allow CafePress to produce these materials. CafePress declined to print the club’s calendar, a fact that club president Lisa Barrett Wall informed the membership about on January 5th, 2008. Club members were shocked to find out that they couldn’t print photos of their own cars. A further unsatisfying explanation was posted to the membership on the club’s message forums on January 9th. Stories like this are not unusual—a quick Google search will uncover many people with stories about trademark infringement claims on behalf of car companies.
Here’s the unusual part of the story: On January 13th, seven days after the original message, the story was posted to BoingBoing.net, a site that easily gets a million people visiting it each month. On January 14th, it was posted to Slashdot, another highly visible Internet site. On January 15th, it was posted to Digg.com, a site that sends so much traffic to pages, that they often crash under the traffic load.
This higher profile and the audacity of the story most certainly alerted Ford communications. Around the same time that the story hit Digg.com, Ford had resolved the crisis through an agreement with the Black Mustang Club and was busily posting their response to blogs that had commented on the issue all across the Internet.
2. Violet Blue’s Unpublishing on Boing Boing
Completely coincidentally, our other example involves Boing Boing as well. In May 2007, one of BoingBoing’s editors, Xeni Jardin, developed a personal conflict with sex columnist Violet Blue. Jardin had previously written several pieces and had linked to Violet Blue, but she began deleting them from the Boing Boing archives without publicly announcing it. (We can pin the date of the deletion by checking when the material disappeared from the Internet Archive’s copy of the BoingBoing.net Web site.)
For months nobody noticed, or if they did they said nothing. Finally, on June 23rd, 2008, Violet Blue noticed that EVERYTHING published that referenced her on the BoingBoing.net site had disappeared, and she mentioned it on her blog. Requests for clarification to the Boing Boing editors elicited no response. Boing Boing visitors began posting off-topic comments on Boing Boing blog postings, which were deleted, also without response.
On July 1st, a week later, Boing Boing finally posted something on it’s blog about the incident, acknowledging that they’d deleted all the Violet Blue entries and claiming it was their right. Within days, over 900 comments were left, many of them negative. To make matters worse, Boing Boing dispatched a representative, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, to represent the publication in the forums. She found herself arguing with several of the participants. At one point, she began using the amusing tactic (available to her as an editor) of removing all the vowels from comments she disagreed with, to make them nearly unreadable.
On the same day that Boing Boing admitted their role, the LA Times blogged about the story. Over the next few days ,the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune did as well. It finally made the New York Times print edition on July 7th. Copycat Web sites sprung up that contained lists and copies of all posts that were deleted. One enterprising developer released a “choose your own adventure” style video game based upon the conflict.
The conflict appeared to have ended when the newsworthiness waned, not due to any actual resolution. The Boing Boing editorsdug in, the public had their say, and there was nothing new to write about. On July 17th, Boing Boing Jardin posted a “Lessons Learned” piece, which included an apology to defuse whatever tension remains over the issue.
1. Crisis Recognition Phase
Recognizing you have a crisis quickly is crucial to keeping it from mushrooming out of control. It also gives you the most amount of time to act before your first statement
Ford Communications: First Statement On Day 4 of the Crisis
The Black Mustang Club crisis became a problem with Ford’s name attached to it on January 9th, and it became a high-profile story on January 13th. Ford must have immediately sprung into action, because they had a resolution two days after that, on January 15th. It is reasonable to assume that Ford Communications was or should be monitoring the message boards of their fan clubs, so the six-day evaluation is a good baseline for recognizing that a crisis exists.
Boing Boing Editors: First Statement On Day 8 of the Crisis
In the case of Boing Boing and Violet Blue, one can assume that at least some of the Boing Boing editors knew about the potential for a crisis in 2007 when the posts were originally deleted. If they didn’t then, it would have become painfully obvious on June 23rd, when Violet Blue posted a note on her blog pointing it out to her readers, who began immediately asking Boing Boing what happened. Boing Boing did not acknowledge anything until eight days later, by which time mainstream media had already become involved.
2. Crisis Resolution
Ford Communications: Day Six of the Crisis
Ford granted the Black Mustang Club permission to print its calendar six days after the tie to Ford became clear, gave clear instructions to CafePress about handling future car enthusiasts’ products, and subsequently posted the resolution on every Web site across the Internet that mentioned the controversy, often in the comments area. The issue was over so quickly that it never even made it into Ford’s Wikipedia entry, one of the first places you’d expect to find an important (or, for that matter, Internet famous) footnote.
Boing Boing Editors: No longer newsworthy
The conflict was never truly unresolved, a sign of which is that it now has a notable place in the Boing Boing Wikipedia entry memorializing the controversy. The Boing Boing editors never modified their position, or acknowledged the community’s concerns until relatively long after the fact. The act of creating a policy that justified their actions in their terms of service, both for deleting content and removing the vowels from participants’ comments only increased the gulf between the editors and the community. A capitulation comment, written over two and a half weeks later, will soothe any remaining anger but the story of the conflict has already been written.
CONCLUSION AND LESSONS LEARNED
It’s clear you can take three important lessons from how Ford and Boing Boing handled their individual crisis events.
1. You have a little bit of time to handle the issue.
Even if you don’t acknowledge a crisis, it still exists. You can buy yourself some amount of time online by keeping silent, but you don’t have forever. If you’re lucky, you’ll get several days before people figure out you’re hiding from them and continue talking without you, ascribing motivations to your silence. If you are working with a cooperative party, you can ask them to help tamp down the discussion.
Ford did this with Club president Lisa Barrett Wall, and she posted a note on the club’s forums asking everyone to stop commenting on the issue in other forums while she worked it out with Ford. Presumably, Ford used the time this bought internally to come to a new understanding about their intellectual property.
The Boing Boing editors had lots of time. While agitation may have been high on their Web site, it didn’t seem to be breaking out elsewhere yet. The crisis seemed localized to their comment forum and the forums of only a few other blogs.
2. Your first statement will define the tone of the crisis and generate significant comment.
The wisdom of this statement says a lot about why Ford tried to get a resolution first so that their first statement could end the conflict. An initial statement restating their difficult-to-defend trademark policy would have made the problem worse and generated significant criticism, regardless of whatever resolution they could have come to with the club. Once they had defined a position, the global conversation would have given the public the green light to debate the topic endlessly. Having Ford subsequently alter its policy two days later would have done nothing to stem the tide as that conversation took on a life of its own.
In Ford’s case, a resolution came just in time. With the story hitting three major Internet sites (BoingBoing, Slashdot, and Digg), it exploded on January 15th. Another few days and it would have certainly ended up on the wires, in papers and on TV stations across the country. Having a resolution just in time was crucial in making the story cease to be newsworthy; it was gone in a week.
The editors at BoingBoing also benefited from the doubt created by their silence. Complaints were mostly limited to BoingBoing’s forums until they spoke out publicly on July 1st. Speculation often included the possibility that this entire problem was due to an erroneous software upgrade. However, when they did finally speak, they were not able to announce a resolution to the satisfaction of the public. In fact, their answers about their motivations confirmed people’s worst fears and fed the ensuing conversation.
Much of the initial indignation toward Boing Boing’s editors came from the perceived hypocrisy between their censorship of Violet Blue and their longstanding campaign for openness and transparency online. Once the editors spoke on the issue and stated their intentions, the online and mainstream media really began to pick up. Unlike the Ford controversy, it has continued after the announcement because of the ongoing conflict between the parties, additionally inflamed by the treatment of their critics.
3. Avoid needless confrontations.
Ford did not make any statements about their trademark policy until they resolved it internally and with the Black Mustang Club. They did not attempt to defend their policy until they knew how the Club’s discussions were going to play out. To do so would have invited an argument on intellectual property that was going to be moot soon anyway. In doing so, they avoided a needless confrontation.
In contrast, Boing Boing’s editors dug in their heels, despite overwhelming evidence that many in the community felt they had failed their expectations for transparency. Their real issue was with Violet Blue, not the community. Posting a note acknowledging what they had done to their blog was necessary, at least from a credibility standpoint. But they probably should have apologized, modified their policies, and moved on with a healthy thick skin. Instead they waded into their forums and defended themselves and attacked their critics. By attacking their critics, both through arguing as well as by using their administrative powers to re-edit their critics’ comments, they gave another audience a reason to perpetuate the conflict.