If you type the term “social media crisis” into Google, you’ll receive about 1.7 million results. Remove the quotation marks, and you’ll get almost 700 million results.
Social media consultants will point to the likes of Motrin, Chick-Fil-A, Applebee’s, Kenneth Cole, United Airlines and others like them as examples of a social media crisis, where a business has come under heavy fire online on their own social channels, as well as blog posts and social updates elsewhere.
While it’s true that social media amplifies a crisis when it happens, it doesn’t actually create the crisis – the company does.
Social Media Crisis or a Crisis on Social Media?
Over the last few days, two more companies have found themselves the target of online unrest and extremely vocal criticism of their business practices.
The Royal Bank of Canada – RBC – is currently facing a firestorm of vitriol surrounding media reports that they’re laying off full-time employed Canadian workers and replacing them with temporary workers from abroad.
This is counter to a Canadian government Temporary Foreign Worker Program that only allows such workers to be used if there are no suitable Canadians. As someone who kind of went through this process when I moved to Canada, I understand why they have it in place.
According to the media reports, RBC is bypassing this program by using an outsourced company based in the U.S. to hire temporary workers, and then have the current full-time workers train the temporary staff to replace them.
The response on social media has been swift and forceful.
On Facebook, a “Boycott Royal Bank of Canada” page went up and has (at the time of writing) garnered more than 6,000 likes in less than 24 hours.
The page shares links to articles on how this situation arose, other related content in the provincial government’s part, and stories from current customers looking to close their accounts.
RBC, for their part, issued a statement on their Facebook page, but unfortunately that fuelled the flames even more (click to expand).
It’s not just RBC that’s under fire today. Fellow Canadian company Hootsuite, developers of one of the leading social dashboard’s, is facing criticism for using unpaid interns.
In a recent “job listing” on their careers page, Hootsuite offered the following:
Note this position is a three month internship at present with a commitment of Monday to Friday with core hours of 9 a.m. -5 p.m. and that the role is unpaid.
The word “internship” divides a lot of business owners, as well as potential interns. In the past, internships were mostly unpaid – the applicant would normally be a college student looking for work experience, and for that experience they would provide free labour to the business that “employed” them.
However, in recent years, unpaid internships have become a hot topic of debate, with calls for them to be abolished and students paid accordingly.
In Hootsuite’s case, where the main outcry has gained even more steam is that it’s illegal in the Canadian province where Hootsuite are based to not pay for the work the interns would be doing.
The British Columbia Employment Standards Act states:
…employees must be paid at least the minimum wage (currently $10.25 per hour), and an intern performing duties and responsibilities that would normally be assigned to an employee must be paid the same wages and benefits that an employee would collect.
The key point from that statement is “…performing duties and responsibilities that would normally be assigned to an employee…”.
Since the original internship ad was for positions covering “affiliate marketing”, “strategic accounts analyst” and “social media coach”, it’s a pretty safe bet to assume these would normally be handled by full-time employees.
While Hootsuite has since removed the ad, and their CEO responded to the criticism that the process is “under review”, their social channels are pretty quiet, particularly Facebook where questions are being asked.
It’s not that these questions have simply been missed – Hootsuite is still answering questions on Facebook, but they’re just skewed towards non-negative ones.
The two examples above, and the ones from the introduction of this post, are core reasons why it’s not social media that causes a crisis, but the actions of a business.
Business Practices Are What Cause Outrage
While social media is the perfect channel for amplification of criticism and the kind of outcry we’re seeing here, it’s not the instigating channel.
Instead, that lay with the executive decision at RBC and the hiring policy of Hootsuite. Both of these decisions are made offline.
The fact they’ve now made their way online and are evoking such vocal condemnation – more so with RBC – is a perfect example of how social communications may have changed the way we do business, but the underlying business practice is the one that still defines a company’s perception.
My friend, and super smart communications professional, Ann Marie van den Hurk offers some insightful thoughts. Ann Marie is Principal of Mind the Gap Public Relations, as well as author of upcoming book Social Media Crisis Communications: Preparing for, Preventing, and Surviving a Public Relations #FAIL.
Business practices are what cause outrage against companies. Outrage is outrage, regardless of where it starts. It could start online or offline and then move to social media and spread. It doesn’t matter. It is real either way. It is the business practices and then their response to customers’ concerns and anger. Or, in this case, lack of response to the outrage.
As shown by the lack of response (so far) on both RBC and Hootsuite’s Facebook pages, silence from a brand can do more damage than interaction. The ease of social media in enabling people to vent their frustrations – and vent even more if/when these frustrations are unanswered – can make life pretty uncomfortable for brands caught in this kind of crossfire.
Social media is a perfect tool for outrage exasperation. It is a better tool than any other channels for spreading outrage. People are more linked. The cost of access is very low. People who were angry at an organization or a situation before social media had limited options. Instead of shrugging it off and throwing up their hands, the outraged can now use those same hands to take to social media, expressing themselves and organize with like-minded individuals.
This is the new battlefield brands continue to find themselves in today. Some are better prepared for it; others, less so.
While both RBC and Hootsuite have posted official “responses” on either their own Facebook pages or to specific media channels, the bigger bulk of the questions being asked – from individuals – are being left unanswered.
In Hootsuite’s case, answering “positive” questions while bypassing critical ones during the same time phase could be seen as avoiding the issue, despite the communication from Hootsuite elsewhere.
Organizations are slowly getting more sensitive to outrage and are putting a higher priority on dealing with it; however organizations aren’t moving that the same speed as those outraged. The open, interactive attitudes of social media and the traditional business culture aren’t exactly well matched. Most organization’s management teams have not been able to keep pace with the explosion of social media usage and are ill equipped to manage community outrage.
As Ann Marie points out so eloquently in all three quotes above, social media is a challenging space when it comes to crisis communications.
It can be a very fine line to tread – when do we respond, who do we respond to, and should we respond or will be be flaming the fire even more?
In some cases, there really is no victory to be had by the brand, regardless of how well they respond, which doesn’t help matters.
One thing we can learn, though, is social media will continue to be the torch bearer to hold companies to task. Perhaps the lesson is to look internally first and improve the business practice (perceived or real), before the external voices react to the internal actions.
Time will tell.
Note – my sincere thanks to Ann Marie for her time and sharing her expertise.