US Airways, AT&T and Self-Inflicted Crisis Social Media

Ask any public relations practitioner  what is the toughest part of their job and they will probably tell you crisis communication. Crisis communication means you’re on defense, handling a situation with little to no warning and straying from both your message and your regular job. It’s no picnic.

The annoying gnat of crisis communication is the self-inflicted crisis — and no where do brands, companies and organizations run into self-made trouble than on social media. During the last week, we got to see two big brands deal with two different crises online — and both failed pretty miserably.

Let’s start with the fun one. We’re still piecing together the story, but a poster at Buzzfeed discovered enough of a trail to paint the following scenario. A Twitter user sent a very not-safe-for-work (or most homes, for that matter) at @USAirways. What most likely happened next is that a social media manager for the airline copied the address of the picture, perhaps to send to a friend or colleague. The manager then replied to a customer with a complaint about their travel, and attempted to include a link to the company’s online feedback form. Instead, they pasted a link to the photo. Hilarity ensued. US Airways quickly, but not quickly enough, saw the problem, deleted the Tweet and sent this apology:

Too late. Then too little. The Twitter account that has send more than 88,000 Tweets went dark. The airline primarily uses Twitter to reply to customers, and before the offending Tweet was sent more than 100 replies today, and had sent a Tweet every hour of the day since midnight. Then nothing. Granted, weeding out the legitimate customers issues was suddenly more difficult with jokes and retweets bouncing around Twitter at supersonic speed. And yes, they may have been down a person to managed the account. But going dark makes no sense. If one of their agents at the desk in Kennedy International makes a mistake and offends a customer, do they pull the gates and shut it down? This is customer service — what stop providing customer service. Nearly eight hours after the incident, the account is still dark.

AT&T had a bit of a different issue, but a similar response. Last week, a power failure resulted in nationwide outage affecting the company’s U-Verse for TV, Internet and phone service. Much like US Airways, AT&T was busy replying to customers when disaster struck. Then, nothing.

The @Uverse account sent five replies between 10 a.m. CDT and 10:04 a.m. The outage began about 15 minutes later. The outage also crippled the company’s customer support lines, which mean the only way most customers could get information from the company was through social media on mobile phones. The account posted replies to a couple of non-outage questions approximately an hour later, but it was nearly two hours before the company began posting replies to customers explaining the outage. It was nearly three hours after the outage began that the account posted direct information about the outage to all customers, not just replies.

To their credit, both the @Uverse and @ATTCustomerCare were aggressive replying to customers later in the day and after the problem was solved. But if your Internet, phone and TV are out, you want to know now what is wrong and when it will be fixed.

Why do brands go dark in a crisis? Mostly fear. Granted, when a crisis strikes I want my team to take a depth breath and not overreact. But I do want them to act. Silence is a vacuum. PR pros are more comfortable acting with time on their side. Everyone knows the key to damage control is to get your message out first and on your own terms. But in a crisis, too often companies and brands forget this and crawl into a shell.

What should you do when (not if) you have a self-made crisis due to a mistake on social media or failing your customers? Be your self. Tell your customers want they need to know as soon as possible. Apologize if necessary. And as quickly as you can, get up, dust yourself off, and get back to work.

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