It’s a scenario that every business owner fears: some employee commits a faux-pas which goes viral and provokes the ire of the world.
They form a digital mob, telling everyone about how much you suck and bombarding your company’s social media page with tons of negative reviews, effectively scaring away any customers and leaving you destitute.
These days, this happens more often than you think.
It’s easier than ever for consumers to monitor businesses before deciding where to spend their money. And with so many companies vying for their attention, a public relations scandal can effectively spell the beginning of the end of your business.
There are countless examples, from the Townsville restaurant in Australia which closed down after a spat over a critical review, to the Elmwood Cafe which refused to properly address a racist incident and shut down in response to the backlash.
These tirades typically start on social media, with a disgruntled customer making a public comment which goes viral, either overnight or over a period of time. Outraged “netizens” will inevitably pick up the story, comment on it, then share it and inform their own networks. With the internet allowing the easy broadcasting of news, it’s only a matter of time before everyone in your corner of the world knows the awful thing you or your young employee did to a customer.
Usually, the next area disgruntled customers and outraged netizens will hit is your online ratings. Perhaps a few decades ago, ratings weren’t a big deal. They are now.
Previously thought of as a way for happy customers to express their satisfaction or give helpful criticism, online ratings have been turned into a weapon which can be brandished against a business at will.
And there’s no better time to use this weapon than in the midst of emotional outrage over an negative experience with your company.
This isn’t to say that businesses are innocent. On the contrary, most viral PR scandals are completely the fault of the business. But sometimes, this might be the result of a mistake from a ignorant employee or an unfortunate series of events that couldn’t be prevented.
For a small business, recovering from a PR fail is certainly harder than for large corporations. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Growing your business means accepting that something like this will happen. The best thing you can do is be prepared for when it does.
Own Up To It
This might be the most obvious course of action, but it’s surprising how many businesses ignore their PR scandal, hoping it will just go away. Sometimes it does. But in most cases, it doesn’t.
Owning up to it is the best way to show customers that your business is run by mature adults. It’s also a good way to get the negative attacks to stop because netizens will certainly ramp up their efforts if they think no one is listening.
In 2014, the 17-year-old daughter of a Singaporean actor wrote a Tumblr blog post slamming Forever 21 for the sexist and sexually explicit music she heard playing in one of their stores. This was likely the fault of a young employee who added the song to the playlist.
Although the post did not achieve the intense popularity of other viral posts (just a little over 400 reblogs), Forever 21 quickly reached out to her and apologised for the offensive music.
Making the decision to apologize to a 17-year-old girl shows that the business cared about the experience of every customer, while preventing outrage over the incident from spreading further.
Address It With Humour
Whole Foods, already notorious for its high prices and pretentious displays incurred the wrath of shoppers and environmentalists when photos were snapped of peeled oranges in plastic packaging.
A tweet about the oranges quickly went viral with the hashtag #OrangeGate. The issue was a source of ridicule and anger, and news sites wrote about the photo, connecting Whole Foods’ seeming unconcern about the plastic waste to the greater issue of global pollution.
Whole Foods knew they messed up. So they stepped up.
A swift mea culpa followed with Whole Foods saying:
Definitely our mistake. These have been pulled. We hear you and we will leave them in their natural packaging: the peel.
But then they went a step further, by poking fun at themselves with a humorous tweet.
Whether this endeared people to Whole Foods is a topic of debate. But after their joining in the fun, the issue was largely forgotten.
Get in Touch and Make Amends
Sometimes things don’t have to get so bad.
Sometimes, all you need to do is reach out to the disgruntled customer, make amends and actually follow through with your promises.
Not making improvements might not necessarily affect you immediately. But a customer who has been treated badly is like an elephant. They will likely remember and publicize matters until you’ve fixed things. And the longer you ignore it, the more likely it is that more people will hear about your mistake.
The Elmwood Cafe did not do this. In 2015, the cafe’s owner promised to hold a public conversation about race after the black comedian, Kamau Bell was discriminated against by an employee.
But nothing happened and the cafe went back to business as usual, probably thinking the issue had been forgotten.
Three years later, after a racist incident at a Starbucks cafe went viral, Elmwood was once again under the public spotlight. This time, the outrage was more intense and shortly after, the cafe closed its doors for good.
Don’t be like the Elmwood cafe.
Use It To Your Advantage
A study by the Stanford Business School showed that in some cases, all publicity, whether good or bad, can help to boost a business’ sales. Of course, this depends on the type of business.
For instance, bad PR about products that can adversely affect a person’s life, like cars driving out of control or food poisoning tend to decrease sales.
In 2015, Coke’s new milk brand was the subject of outrage when it released its first campaign. It featured naked women in revealing photoshopped dresses made out of milk and posing like Marilyn Monroe.
In some cases, the women were standing on scales as well with the saying “Drink what she’s wearing” superimposed over their heads.
After the campaign drew wide condemnation, Coca Cola announced it was being withdrawn. But marketers speculate it was all a big plan to get their otherwise bland product some global attention.
It’s still hard to tell if this was true. But Coca Cola’s example shows that sometimes you can use the negative attention as free publicity.
Of course, this won’t work out if your company never owns up to its mistakes or sets out to make amends. But in some cases highlighting the event and your apology will soon have curious netizens trooping over to your website.
The bigger your business grows, the harder it becomes to avoid mistakes that can lead to public outrage. Before this happens, you’d be better off creating a detailed plan of what to do when the proverbial shit hits the fan.
The best thing you can do though, is to expect it and see it as a sign of success that you must prepare for. It’s tough. But like Biggie says, mo’ money certainly brings mo’ problems.
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