Ten Steps for Managing an Online CrisisIn 2006, Wal-Mart was caught redhanded cheating its way through the Internet to receive attention.

Their PR firm hired actors to pretend they were traveling the country in an RV, visiting Wal-Mart locations as they drove, and blogging about their experience.

This was before anyone really realized how the social web works and many organizations were taking some risk to figure it out.

But in 2013? In 2013, there are many experts out there in the world who know what happens when you give a customer, an employee, or a journalist or a blogger a megaphone.

And yet.

Companies Embroiled in Scandal

Wal-Mart was once again embroiled in a scandal: This time with bribing Mexican authorities to receive permits and to do business in the country. And then again when their PR firm (a different one from 2006) posed as journalists at a news conference to try to persuade union workers to allow them to open a store in Chinatown in Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, it’s not just Wal-Mart that deals with online crisis and scandals that put them on the front page of the New York Times and every mainstream blog on the web.

Other examples abound: Applebee’s, Susan G. Komen, Penn State, Carnival Cruise Lines, and – most recently – Rutgers University.

If it seems like more and more of this is happening, it’s because it is. The web provides a way for stories like this to spread like grassfire. And it’s not good.

It used to be you’d hire a PR firm and have them write a crisis plan that was then put in the drawer and revisited only once a year. An online crisis plan wasn’t even considered.

Now? Now a crisis can erupt in mere seconds if someone has a bad experience with your organization.

Ten Steps for Managing an Online Crisis

So what happens if you end up on the front page of the newspaper?

  1. Act Swiftly. Perhaps you sell capital equipment or professional services or product packaging. Surely your organization doesn’t have any issues. In today’s digital world an employee could say something racist online. A customer could have it out for you and spread lies through their Facebook page. A competitor might engage in whisper campaigns against you. The only way to win at that game is to be prepared, have a communications expert on your team (or have one on speed dial), and act swiftly. Not in a week, not in a month, not in three months. In the same day.
  2. Address the problem. It’s not fun having to come out and say you screwed up or something bad has happened or you made a mistake. In fact, it kind of sucks having to do that. But it’s the only way to prevent a crisis. It’s amazing how two little words in the English language work as well as they do: I’m sorry. Not I’m sorry, but…just, I’m sorry.
  3. Communicate the story. When a story gets out of control is when you haven’t told your side and people begin to speculate. Like with Tiger Woods and the tabloids speculating he was going in and out of a sex addict clinic (he wasn’t), he hadn’t told his side of the story so they began to make things up based on what little information they had.
  4. Communicate where it happens. If an issue or crisis is exploding on YouTube, that is where you take to the waves to tell your story. When employees were caught sneezing and spitting in food on video, the Domino’s CEO recorded a video and his team posted it to YouTube. He apologized in the same spot people were looking for the employee video.
  5. Hire a communications expert. I’m not talking about someone who knows how to use social media. I’m not talking about someone who works for a company that has experienced an issue or crisis. I’m talking about someone who has deep and intense experience in managing an issue or crisis. Typically these people work in PR firms and specialize in crisis communication or reputation management. It’s unlikely a company will go through enough issues or crises in its lifetime to give someone the expertise you’ll need if something happens. If you can’t afford a communications expert, become BFFs with someone who can help you think through issues when they arise. Put them on your advisory board. If you have a paid board, add them to that. Have that person on speed dial.
  6. Think before you act. Yes, things happen in real-time. Yes, we live in a 24/7/365 world. Yes, it’s fast-paced and you have to act quickly. But that does not excuse you from thinking. When we were kids, my dad used to tell us all the time, “Don’t ever put anything in writing you don’t want used against you later.” That’s very sage advice in today’s digital world.
  7. Empower your team. Let your team help. Set the expectations and boundaries, give them the tools and resources they need to be successful, and let them at it!
  8. Say I’m sorry. I know we covered this already, but it’s worth repeating. Of course, you have to mean it and it can’t be accompanied with the word “but.” When you practice saying “I’m sorry” in your every day communications, it becomes easier to say it – and mean it – when an issue develops.
  9. Back down when you’re wrong. If you hold a position on something and someone points out there is a double standard or you’re being hypocritical, reassess your policy.
  10. Have a communications expert on speed dial. Oh I already said this, didn’t I? Whenever I repeat this to friends, colleagues, or peers, someone will text me with some smarty pants remark such as, “How quickly do you respond to communication crises?” Have someone on speed dial who has lots and lots and lots of experience with issues and crisis management. You might think you’ll never need it – and maybe you won’t – but Murphy’s Law dictates the second you don’t, something will happen. It’s like having insurance: If you have it, you won’t need it.

Now it’s your turn. What do you advise a company do when the online fallout is so great it feels like the whole world is writing about it?

A version of this first appeared on Tom Fox’s blog, FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog, in which I had to wear a Texans shirt because I lost a bet. 

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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