I could scarcely believe my eyes. There it was, on Facebook for all to see: a brightly burning and smoldering VW New Beetle. In an instant, comments started exploding and people starting weighing in with sad stories about how Volkswagen did them wrong. There’s simply nothing quite like a car fire to attract attention, and this one got mine — along with 600,000 friends and customers.
At the time, I was the manager responsible for making sure things like burning cars didn’t happen on a Volkswagen of America social media property. I was to make sure that conversation and sentiment remained perfectly pleasant and positive about the brand and its products. So this — this horror — was a shock. This had never happened before. Ever.
What to do?
I quelled my first instinct — take it down! And took a step back. And breathed. Somebody out in social land was clearly unhappy, and they were throwing what amounted to a digital tantrum. I knew to my core that our first step in responding would be the single most important moment in the entire affair; it would determine whether this budding crisis flowered into something serious or if it would – eventually – go away.
I also knew that I was not the guy to make the call.
This was where all the meetings and conversations, all the steering committee stuff paid off: On a quiet Friday afternoon, when I called, the right people answered.
Cool, Calm and Collected
The result was a cool reach-out in public and encouragement to talk to customer service in person. Partially as a result of this approach, a funny thing happened: fans came to the rescue. As comments poured in, so did the outrage — this time directed toward the person who had posted the image. Ultimately, the New Beetle fire became a great story told over drinks because the right people were engaged at the right time, and they made the right decisions. But it could have been much, much worse.
Indeed, a burning VW Beetle is a great metaphor to describe the love-hate dance between brands and people on social media. One minute they cherish your existence, and the next, eh, not so much. The sunshine land of tweets and likes can turn cloudy fast and get nasty even faster. That’s when things start burning, and is the essence of the conundrum that is social media: a communication channel not really intended for companies is, by the way, a great way to market all sorts of things. As a consequence, things go wrong in two very fundamental ways: Something happens that makes a consumer go to social media and vent, or an employee makes a mistake. Both can leave a lasting mark on the participants and the companies involved.
The Power of Consumers
â€œYou have to realize that people are using social media as a form of expression, and one of the main feelings is anger,â€ said Scott Stratten, president of Un-Marketing and expert in social media marketing. â€œItâ€™s the fIrst time in history when an individualâ€™s voice can be as loud as a brandâ€™s.â€
â€œYou canâ€™t tweet louder than me.â€
Arguably, the power has swung the other direction. While a companyâ€™s expression is muted by the assumption of self-interest and marketing intent, an individualâ€™s rant carries far more power. One need only look at the weight automotive organizations are placing on consumer reviews — good, bad or otherwise — to see that on social media, the consumerâ€™s voice impacts buying decisions as much or greater than what a company could ever hope to achieve.
Thatâ€™s especially true when it comes to younger consumers. According to eMarketer.com and Bazaarvoice, millenials are using and creating online content to sound off about brands, products and services. Their reliance on consumer-generated input (49 percent) was almost equal to content from company websites. The study defined content as â€œany on-site content created by internet users, including reviews, comments, stories and questions.â€ It revealed that millennials were likely to share their own purchasing experiences. Forty-two percent of millennial Internet users preferred to post comments on social networking sites about product, brand or service experiences.
While the preference to use social networks to spread the word is by now widely accepted, the key finding from Bazaarvoice is one of trust: Millenials were 51 percent more likely to trust user-generated content, and, according to About.comâ€™s â€œTrust Factor,â€ 41 percent of respondents said that brands build trust by allowing them to see more consumer reviews from people in their social networks, and 71 percent trusted companies who interacted with consumers as partners – not just customers. The Trust Factor study was conducted in conjunction with Latitude using a national sample of more than 1,500 Americans over the age of 18.
So — more reviews equals more trust — but it also means more complaints, and thus, more chance for a popup crisis. Thatâ€™s rough sledding for an industry that the Consumer Federation of America claims is the most griped-after in America.
From Strattenâ€™s view, â€œTrust is the key. To me, car sales are one part about the car and one part, a big part, about trust. As a consumer, I need to trust the dealership,â€ said Stratten. â€œThe way dealerships handle social crisis actually builds trust.â€
Trust is the Key
Strattenâ€™s point makes sense: being public and responding in the correct way sends a message to consumers that you care. Opportunities like that — to build that trust — can come at strange times. For Laurie Halter, president of Charisma! Communications, a PR agency focused on the automotive industry, the best time may be when companies think they should not. â€œFor instance, after a particularly scathing review or when a customer is slamming the dealership via Twitter,â€ said Halter. â€œWhile the person spreading the bad press is more than likely not coming back to your store, hundreds of their friends and associates will see the way you respond to their criticism. If it is positive and forthright, it will make a good impression.â€
Another key, says Jeff Cryder Jr. â€œIs to use the same channel they used to complain. It shows that youâ€™re active and participating and will make them feel comfortable.â€ Cryder Jr. is the Marketing & Communications Director at Lebanon Ford in Ohio.
â€œThen take a step back,â€ said Cryder Jr. â€œItâ€™s very easy to get caught up in the firestorm, so you want to go through a process of discovery. Thereâ€™s definitely a speed trap here — you have to be efficient and not just quick to engage. Take the time to learn all the facts.â€
Itâ€™s a Consumer World – You are Only Visiting
Just because the facts may be on the companyâ€™s side doesnâ€™t mean that the issue will go away. Not even close. Consumers who take to social media in an attempt to get free goods and services do so in attempt to leverage their newfound power. For dealerships, trying to decide a legitimate claim from a grab is tricky and requires a case-by-case approach.
â€œWe had a mommy blogger with about 6,000 followers who purchased a car and then got into an accident,â€ said Cryder Jr. â€œShe took the car at a different dealership, but it wasnâ€™t fixed, and two months later the car didnâ€™t start. So she called us and we found out that the battery casing had been cracked in the accident, and acid had leaked out.â€
Cryder Jr. says that the blogger went online and began a campaign claiming that the dealership was attempting to â€œrapeâ€ her and ruin her Christmas, and that the dealership had sold her lemon. His approach was to gather all the relevant information, reach out to her publicly and do the best they could to make her happy — with one request: remove the offending word.
The answer was no. Only if the dealership covered the complete cost. â€œI asked her to take down the tweet about us â€œrapingâ€ her,â€ said Cryder Jr. â€œSheâ€™d only take down the tweet if we paid it in full. We got 75 percent of the bill paid, so she didnâ€™t take it down.â€
As with the example of the VW Beetle, oftentimes the crowd will come to your rescue. â€œPeople will often stand up for you, and say things you really canâ€™t,â€ said Stratten. â€œJust remember, you arenâ€™t going to please everybody. But you should show everybody that youâ€™re listening.â€ Stratten counsels dealerships to stick to their story. â€œYou have to stick to the facts, and be consistentâ€ he said. â€œTreat it on a case by case basis, and donâ€™t play their game.â€
The Power of Mistakes
â€œWe have to understand: Itâ€™s not a social media problem,â€ said Cryder Jr. â€œItâ€™s a people problem. We allow employees to exercise the right to use social media at work, as long as theyâ€™re transparent, honest and fun. If you make mistakes, people are human. They make mistakes too.â€ Cryder points to the hiring process, and the culture of the dealership. â€œItâ€™s very important. If our people reflect the right qualities – if they focus on being remarkable, that will be the story on social media.â€
But when the story is a cruel firing, or an inadvertent tweet, the damage is costly to the individuals involved and the companies attempting to weather the storm. Think about it for a moment: you just made a tough decision and terminated someoneâ€™s employment when, right out of the blue, ESPN calls for a comment. Or, worse, a lawyer. So you check your Facebook page, Twitter, and see them awash with angry people. Spurred on by social media, issues and decisions made can be amplified to the point of no return.
In his post about Clay Nissan, Timothy Martell describes the crisis at Clay Nissan as a classic battle between David and Goliath â€œWhen a person fights a business, the roles are already cast. Despite any efforts to the contrary, despite who is truly right or wrong, the faceless corporation will be viewed as the villain. It is the innate characteristic of consumers to band together against a business who is being accused of a wrongdoing.â€
In the Clay incident, two brothers began a boycott against Clay Nissan of Norwood after the questionable firing of their sister, Jill Colter, who has brain cancer. The issue went viral; the Colterâ€™s â€œBoycott Clay Nissanâ€ page gained 15,000 likes in five weeks.
The Clay answer: â€œWith regard to the campaign against Clay Nissan of Norwood, we understand this is an emotional topic further fueled by misinformation and efforts to block communication from the Clay family. We encourage you to visit ClayFamilyCares.com to learn the truth about our actions. In short, we were aware of the employeeâ€™s illness prior to hiring her, and after learning of her firing we invited her back to work at our dealerships.â€
The lesson here is integrity. And kindness. Mistakes happen, and reacting poorly when they do only serves to fan the flames. And thatâ€™s it: when it comes to a moment of social mistakes by employees, we all make them now and then. Apologize, and move on. Eventually, the crowd will stop looking at you and start looking at someone else.
â€œThe worst thing you can do is try to silence it,â€ said Stratten. â€œShow remorse, be immediate and be authentic.â€ Halter agrees. â€œIâ€™m a big believer in honesty, especially when it comes to social media. Social media fans can see through the bull and want a company to give them an authentic response,â€ said Halter. â€œIf you screwed up, admit it (even better, have it come from the head of the dealership or company), give specific steps on how youâ€™re solving the problem and move on â€“ quickly. The blogosphere will find a new item to get excited about within a few days.â€
The Social Rule
Be prepared. No matter if the crisis is an ill-advised tweet, a bad customer experience or an unjust firing, be prepared with a plan. For Halter, three things are most important: choose your spokesperson, build a crisis script and never, ever, pay someone to post positive things during a crisis. â€œDoing that is almost always a recipe for disaster,â€ said Halter. â€œIt discredits the company.â€
Whatâ€™s the social rule to live by? Perhaps it really is like a cocktail party. And as annoyingly cliche as that phrase is, like a party, if you drink too much and make a fool of yourself the consequences will be damaging to your career, your relationships and your credibility. How you handle that determines the extent of damage, the time it takes to move on, and, really, the strength of your character.
Sources: About.com, Bazaarvoice, Consumer Federation of America, eMarketer
By Brian Chee