July 10, 2013

Don’t lick my taco: dealing with the knuckleheads of social media

It can take you years to build a good reputation, but just one knuckleheaded social media post to destroy it.

It can take you years to build a good reputation, but just one knuckleheaded social media post to destroy it.

Those of us in PR know that social media is a force to be reckoned with. We use it for the good of mankind, quickly (and inexpensively) getting important messages out there to millions of people and creating a sense of community.

Other folks, not so much.

Cyberspace is being polluted more and more with images of fast-food workers shoving food up their noses or licking a stack of taco shells “behind closed doors.” Luckily, companies can fight this reputation-damaging lunacy by harnessing the power of the very source of this chaos — social media. Here are a couple of recent examples.

Taco Bell’s slimy situation

A California Taco Bell was slammed by waves of controversy when a photo of an employee licking a stack of tacos surfaced on Facebook back in March. Though it was reportedly taken for a company photo contest, it quickly went viral. According to the article, Taco Bell released “multiple statements, the first of which explained that the shells in the photograph were never meant for public consumption and used only for employee training before being discarded.” Sure, that might be true, but do you think customers believe that? Thought so.

Taco Bell eventually canned the guy for violating “social media” and “food-handling policies,” but a swift, sincere apology and even swifter termination would have gone over much better with the public.

“If someone breaks the rules, the policy should make the consequences clear,” Ramon Robinson, president of Denver PR firm Ground Floor Media, said. “This provides companies with an easy answer and a clear reason to terminate when employees post things on social media — just in case those acts alone don’t violate company policy.”

A mouthful for Wendy’s

An employee at Wendy’s thought it would be a good idea to put his mouth on the ice cream dispenser machine. The photo, which made its way onto Reddit, generated controversy similar to Taco Bell’s. Two days after the traumatizing post, Wendy’s was still looking into the incident, saying, “The incident was totally inappropriate, and we’re taking it very seriously.” Sure thing, Wendy’s. But what are you doing to correct it?

Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich in Chicago, looks to Domino’s Pizza for a good example of how to respond to any crisis within the restaurant business.

“Employees posted a video on YouTube of them sneezing onto and doing other disgusting things to food and then serving it to customers. Domino’s president Patrick Doyle recorded a video apologizing and posted it in the same spot you’d find the employees’ video,” she said. “Then the franchisee did the same thing. The video was then circulated through their social networks and posted on their website. The apologies were genuine and transparent.”

Spearheading the knuckleheads

So what have we learned about responding to a crisis? Taco Bell and Wendy’s should have fought back with swift, genuine and affirmative messages. But there’s more. Here’s a concise step-by-step program from Virgil Scudder, president of Virgil Scudder & Associates in New York, a communications training firm:

  • Don’t wait until you’ve been caught to start telling the truth.
  • Be contrite — and show it.
  • Personally apologize to all you have hurt.
  • Be willing to face tough interrogators.
  • Explain why you took the wrong actions and what you are doing to rectify the damage.
  • Pledge to do better and then back up that pledge with action.

“A crisis can serve as a stage to show the world that your company is either unorganized and uncaring or responsible and human,” says C. Edward Brice, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Lumension.

So next time one of your employees gets caught posting something they shouldn’t on social media, remember that every minute counts in determining how your company will be remembered in the long run. It can take you years to build a good reputation, but just one knuckleheaded social media post to destroy it. Be swift and honest with your response, and you’re on your way to recovery.

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