Word of mouth marketing in a crisis

Planning for the worst doesn’t tend to land at the top of many companies’ communications priorities – let’s face it, people want to focus on the good stuff, we get that. That said, in today’s connected world where word travels incredibly fast (and can get skewed and misinterpreted in the process), knowing how to manage a crisis becomes even more important.

Remember the Tylenol poisoning crisis of 1982? At the time, Johnson & Johnson couldn’t have fathomed the possibility of their products being deliberately tampered with and therefore had no set plan to follow when the unthinkable actually happened. But Johnson & Johnson’s CEO, James Burke, reacted immediately using the media to alert consumers about the danger; set up a 1-800 number to answer the public’s questions; gave non-stop press updates and most importantly, withdrew all products from the shelves at a cost of over $100 million. Within five months, Tylenol became the first product to use tamper-resistant packaging. Even though Johnson & Johnson was absolved of all responsibility, the public’s faith in the brand was still affected. It was because of how they handled the crisis and kept the lines of communication open (and honest) with their stakeholders, that market share was able to rebound with the company regaining 70% within six months.

Now that happened back in the ‘80s before the 24-hour news cycle and social media. A more recent example shows how things can go from bad to worse because of negative word of mouth from the public and no words at all from the affected company.

When the Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground in 2012 causing the deaths of 32 people, crisis management by parent company Carnival left much to be desired. One of the first things they should have done was suspend all advertising. They didn’t, and as the news reports of more and more missing people were hitting the airwaves, so too were Carnival ads.

It soon became clear that Carnival had no plan for dealing with social media. Its main Facebook page continued to offer the usual updates on trips and deals. CEO Arison, an avid Tweeter, went virtually silent. Six full days after the accident, a post appeared on the Carnival Facebook page saying that out of respect, they were going to, “Take a bit of a break from posting on our social channels.” After virtually no online activity for nearly a week, people started to post negative comments about ship safety and shock over Carnival’s 30% discount offer to the Costa passengers. Advertising Age magazine framed the problem perfectly: “In times of crisis, it’s easy to suspend all advertising, but you can’t suspend social media. A better plan is to face the crisis, provide continual updates of how you are responding and deal with the criticisms head on.”

So how can we apply these examples to our own businesses when a crisis arises?

1. Have a plan. Just like a fire or a theft, crisis communications should be part of your business interruption plan.

2. Have a clear point of contact – one person who deals with all communication – regular media and social media.

3. Detail to all stakeholders the actions that are being taken and the contingency plans being put into action.

4. Take responsibility. People are naturally very forgiving, but when no accountability is there, we also naturally want to lay blame.

Check out Terry O’Reilly’s Under the Influence article “Marketing in a Crisis” for other examples of communication under pressure.

Contact M
Contact M