NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When 8-year-old Harry Winsor sent his crayon drawing of a plane to Boeing, the company responded with a stern, legal-form letter, complete with a "We regret to inform you that we have disposed of your message and retained no copies."
The gaffe probably would have gone unnoticed were it not for the fact that Harry's father -- John Winsor, a prominent ad exec -- blogged about the incident, making for a potentially disastrous PR situation. But what started as an embarrassing blunder by Boeing was soon overshadowed by the company's swift recovery.
In no time, the brand reached out and took responsibility for its mistake. It called young Harry and invited him to visit Boeing's facilities. On its corporate Twitter site, it wrote things such as, "This is on-the-job social-media training for us" and "We're expert at airplanes but novices in social media. We're learning as we go."
In the social-media era, brands are prone to screw-ups. The new channels present unprecedented public feedback and require them to drop the stodgy legal language for a more personal voice. But sometimes those mistakes wind up giving a human face to a brand, and a just-right apology not only gets it out of a sticky situation, but wins a few friends in the process.
Said Mr. Winsor: "In the end, I don't think [Boeing] screwed up. They took the opportunity to take a negative and turn it into a positive."
Here are a few pointers to effectively apologize to your customers and turn a potential headache into a winning display of customer service, served up social-media style.
One is many
When its comes to social media, all people -- whether it's one, a few or the masses -- are empowered. A couple of years ago, Target tried to ignore a blogger complaining about an ad campaign that showed a woman laying across a giant Target logo with the bull's-eye pointed at her crotch. The blogger's letter to the retailer was met with this response from PR: "Unfortunately we are unable to respond to your inquiry because Target does not participate with nontraditional media outlets." This set off a social-media storm larger than what the initial controversial ad could have. Lesson? Customer service has never been more important, and every customer can influence your brand's reputation.
If you don't have an answer right away, say so, but never stay silent. Amazon learned this lesson a year ago when suddenly, during the second weekend in April, a number of gay- and lesbian-themed books by famous authors such as James Baldwin and Gore Vidal disappeared from Amazon listings and search results. It was the weekend, and it took Amazon until Sunday night to respond. Its silence, meanwhile, spawned the Twitter trending topic spawned the Twitter trending topic #amazonfail.
As internet strategist B.L. Ochman put it at the time, "The episode proved that even a well-liked, household-name company can pay a high price for not monitoring its brand in social media."
And once a problem is realized, a brand should show consumers it's aware of it immediately. "You have to be on all the time," said John Bell, head of Ogilvy PR's global digital group.
Be honest and take responsibility
Once Amazon finally did respond, it made a second gaffe by calling the issue a "glitch," and not explaining it further. For many, that was interpreted as the brand not taking responsibility. If you don't know, say so (and that you're working to find out).
Or, like in Boeing's case, if you're merely abiding by legal rules, be sure to communicate that fact to the public. Said Mr. Winsor: "The big thing in social media is to have a bit of humility and honesty -- and even if there are corporate rules you have to abide by, at least you engage by saying that's the way it is."
Lose the corporate-speak
When reaching out to the offended masses on Twitter and Facebook, try not to impersonate Lumbergh (the robotic-voiced boss in "Office Space"). "Advertising gave brands a voice, but social media gave brands a personality," said Mike Germano, president and creative director of new-media marketing agency Carrot Creative. "So crafting the tone of the message is very important."
Jim Tobin, president of marketing firm Ignite Social Media, offers another analogy when making a rapprochement: "I know it's a bit of a cliché, but you should apologize like you would to someone at a cocktail party. In terms of the Boeing incident, if it happened at a cocktail party, the executive would have simply said, 'I'm really sorry that happened. We have systems in place that aren't working.' That probably would have been enough."
Put a face on it
When dealing with a complaint or crisis, one surefire way to avoid the jargon is to put a face on it -- literally. "We advise our clients that when they're responding on a place like Twitter, instead of using the corporate account with the company logo, have someone from customer service reply with their actual face on there," said Jonathan Bellinger, VP-social media strategy at Ketchum. "It makes the response more heartfelt and sincere, and there's a natural human restraint that comes into place when they see a face."
Let the fans talk
Evangelizing a brand's customer base is a natural extension of the dynamic that drive social sites and in some cases can be an effective tool in dealing with complaints. "Harley Davidson is really good at that," said Jeffrey Grau, senior analyst at eMarketer. "For [their customers] it's like a religion, and they go to events where they meet the executives and tell personal stories. And they're given information about the company's plans, which makes them feel like they're special. People like that that will come to the defense of the company." Fostering this kind of supportive community is a great reason for your brand to proactively and constantly engage with consumers all the time, not just when a crisis arises.
Learn from it
Most importantly, make sure to let consumers know it won't happen again. Consumers will appreciate knowing that brands care enough to learn from their mistakes -- and should engage with the miffed community about how to better service them in the future.