Your Seven-Step Online Reputation Crisis Plan

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When you first discover an attack on your online reputation, it can be an unnerving event. If you’ve previously been oblivious to the online discussions about your brand, it can feel like a kick to the ribs to see someone wage an attack on your good name. When it happens, it’s important not to hit the panic button. If great companies such as Target and JetBlue can come under fire, then it can happen to anyone.

What’s important is how you react. For an example of how not to react, you need look no further than Target, which was recently criticized by a blogger about one of its ad campaigns. When approached by this new media journalist, Target had no plan in place for responding, so instead provided the following canned response:

“Unfortunately we are unable to respond to your inquiry because Target does not participate with nontraditional media outlets.”

That attitude backfired for Target—with the blogosphere reacting so negatively that The New York Times ended up writing about the incident. So much for deciding not to “participate.”

Instead, you should ensure that you have a plan in place—an online crisis communication plan—that you can quickly follow when the inevitable reputation attack occurs.

Here are seven constructive steps you can take to identify, respond to and repair your reputation from an online attack.

  1. Check the facts
    Quite often there are two sides to any story. Before you start responding to accusations made online, take the time—but no more than an hour or so—to assess the situation, gather the facts and evaluate the appropriate response.
  2. Determine the impact
    Decide if the attack on your reputation warrants a response from you. Is the attack coming from someone influential? Is the attack spreading quickly? Are many new voices joining the attack? Answer “yes” to any of these questions, and you’ll likely need to respond.
  3. Bring together trusted counsel
    Any response to an attack on reputation should not be left to your attorney or public relations team. It needs to come from someone authoritative and accountable within your company. That said, you should absolutely seek the advice of those around you. Your legal and PR teams will help you to avoid making the issue worse and can help you avoid further problems. Listen to them—just don’t send them out to do your work.
  4. Understand your detractors
    Not everyone who complains about your company falls into the same camp. Your detractors may range from a first-time customer who perhaps didn’t follow your product’s instruction manual correctly to an ex-employee who’s determined to make your life miserable by spreading malicious rumors. Or your detractor might be a respected blogger who has a legitimate reason to question your integrity. What’s important is to identify your detractor so that you know who you’re dealing with and what their motivation is.
  5. Decide on the appropriate response
    If you find yourself the victim of a false report or defamatory blog post, you have every right to approach the detractor and request a retraction. When you’re being unfairly attacked, you need to act swiftly to point out the inaccuracies and have the offending content removed.

    However, what if you’ve screwed up? If, like JetBlue, you left your customers on the runway for hours, or like Apple, you reduced the price of your latest phone by US$200, just weeks after your loyal customers stood in line to buy one, then you need to remember just three words: sincerity, transparency and consistency.

    Be sincere in your response. Don’t just apologize, but show your detractors that you have learned your lesson and are making changes. Be transparent in your dealings with them. Spell out what went wrong and how you screwed up, but also how you plan to fix it. Be consistent in your future actions. Prove that you’ve learned the error of your ways and don’t let it happen again.

  6. Host the conversation
    When Apple angered its customers by rapidly dropping the price of the iPhone, it quickly felt that anger in the form of hundreds of e-mails and dozens of blog posts. There was no way the company could respond to each e-mail or blog post. Instead, Apple did the smart thing. It hosted the conversation by publishing an open letter from Steve Jobs on the Apple.com web site. While there will be many incidents that warrant you leaving a comment on a blog post, or responding to a forum thread, you should always look for a way to host the conversation. By inviting customers to call your toll-free number, publishing a post to your company blog or broadcasting your own YouTube apology, you’ll ensure that your sincerity, transparency and consistency are not lost in the noise of someone else’s publishing platform.
  7. After the dust has settled
    No doubt Target has learned its lesson from its recent blog-relations fiasco. Hopefully the company is working to ensure that bloggers, forums and other social media are now an integral part of its PR efforts. The company should continue to monitor the fallout from the crisis by looking at who else is discussing the story, whether it has spread to TV or radio, and whether Target’s side of the debate is being fairly presented.

In this radically transparent age of the Internet-empowered citizen-journalist, your online reputation is just as important as any other component of your marketing efforts. You can spend many years and millions of dollars building your good name. Without care, attention and the appropriate response, a single blogger can bring it crashing down. Make plans now and you won’t feel the need to hit the panic button when it happens to you.

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