Big brands can be inept at defusing blog storms over recalls

By Bernhard Warner
Sunday, March 7, 2010

In the past few days, we've seen product recalls for more than 1.5 million General Motors and Nissan automobiles for, respectively, faulty power steering and defective brakes. Closer to home, 1,000 "climate control" footrests, made by company based in Itasca, Ill., called Fellowes, were taken out of circulation last month for fear they would give their owners the proverbial "hot foot," prone, as they are, to catching fire.

If we survive the roadways or a snooze in the den, then there is our favorite junk food to worry about. Yep, lemon-flavored Girl Scout cookies, T. Marzetti Veggie Dip and Kroger Special Recipe Dill Dip are on the recall list, too, as of last week. (Salmonella-tainted dips, apparently, are the sticky gas pedal of the snack-food industry.)

If three is a trend, then this surely is a sign that carmakers, food suppliers and business-products manufacturers are increasingly cutting dangerous corners. Right? Well, not exactly.

Each day, the Food and Drug Administration's list of recalls, market withdrawals and safety alerts grows with frightening regularity. The difference these days is that bloggers, tweeters and niche consumer forums are policing lists like these, amplifying every "possible health risk" or "risk of fire" to their followers, almost guaranteeing some type of coverage.

What journalist could resist chasing a story where the outraged victims neatly line up before his eyes? And once the mainstream news media pick up on the story, a new wave of bloggers, Twitter users and amateur consumer-watchdogs take notice and repeat the news coverage, alerting still more reporters. The cycle repeats itself again and again, turning a few stray tweets into a potential panic.

To be sure, all companies should fear the #recall hashtag. It has the power to create widespread alarm over familiar and relatively unknown products alike. Toyota has been hammered by the tweeting masses, but so, too, has a company called American Electric Lighting for shock hazards posed by its outdoor light fixtures.

What is most surprising is that, despite the regularity of the hashtag crisis, big brands are still so unprepared at defusing these Twitter tempests and blog storms. The primary reason is they are using old tricks to fight a new type of fire. I'm afraid the handy crisis-communication manual will be of no help in the age of Twitter. Here are a few myths that have been obliterated by the social-media-inspired public relations crisis:

-- But that's old bad news. Surely, the public won't care about that. Think again. Citizen watchdogs don't pay as much heed to the "freshness" of an unsavory news event as a journalist might. And, of course, fresh outrage by the public makes an old PR crisis fair game for a journalist.

-- Responding to bad news will only spread bad news. The wait-and-see strategy is well and truly dead. True, not every gripe will turn into front-page news, but, as Southwest Airlines and the British stationary chain Paperchase can attest, all it takes is a single tweet by a well-connected person and you'll be battling a full-blown public relations fiasco in a matter of hours, even on the weekend.

-- If the mainstream news media tires of the story, so, too, will the bloggers. Wrong. Call it the half-life of bad news. Today, reputation-wrecking issues no longer die the moment an under-resourced news outfit loses interest. The public has abundant time, a short-term memory and ample reserves of indignation. These issues never really blow over with them, particularly as long as the details pop up again and again in search-engine results.

-- Quick! Call the reputation-management public relations specialists. The truth is the hired-gun kings of spin have as much to fear from this new world order as the clients they represent. They built a lucrative business courting sympathetic newsroom contacts and coaching execs on how to speak in calming, "we're-on-it" sound bites. Responding to a people-fueled furor is a completely different kind of skill. Big brands have to be responsive, thorough and, most important, present -- at the very least, hearing out the aggrieved -- in the primary discussion forums where the fracas is raging. A genuine, timely and transparent response is key here, our new-breed consultancy is quick to advise our clients. Try to spin them, and you're toast.

-- But we cannot use the company Twitter feed, YouTube channel or Facebook page to respond to a budding crisis. That's where we post cheery news. Many major brands should be applauded for building vast communities of followers in these social-media channels. But it makes no sense to use these forums only to talk about new brand launches, marketing campaigns or product giveaways. These are your most supportive fans congregating daily. Level with them. They'll appreciate, nay, expect, the candor.

With this in mind, it was truly surprising that GM, despite its talk of undergoing a people-powered renaissance, didn't use its blogs, YouTube or Twitter channels to say anything about what the latest recall would mean -- if anything -- for its customers.

It still hasn't.

Bernhard Warner is editorial director of Social Media Influence.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company