So in an age of social media, when the few can inflame the many (or not), how does a marketer know when to react -- and when to sit tight?
Brand crises are as old as marketing itself and practitioners have long used tools to manage them. But the immediacy and contagion of social media has changed the game. Today, there's a tougher challenge than ever to pinpoint when the crisis hits a flash point and when it's time to craft a response strategy without doing more harm than good.
"The traditional PR approach is to issue a statement, apologize and cross your fingers that it goes away. With social media, you need to reach out to who is talking and swaying opinions," said Shift Communications President Todd Defren.
McDonald's, which often finds itself on the defense of the powerful nutrition debate, has a well-oiled PR and social-media machine. But even the fast-food giant recognizes that there's no quantitative measure that can define a crisis or inform a specific response.
When people started posting nasty comments about the look of the company's limited-edition McLobster product and it started trending on Twitter, "it was the volume and ferocity of the tweets and chatter," as well as the fact that "it was so pervasive so quickly that made it a crisis," said Rick Wion, director of social media at the company.
Though the team knew the posts wouldn't affect sales, he said, especially since the item wasn't on the menu nationally, the McDonald's brand was "taking licks" on a national scale. When a corporate statement with facts about the sandwich couldn't quiet the online mobs, the company used humor to defuse the situation. In a nod to the Charlie Sheen fiasco that was raging in social media at the same time, McDonald's tweeted that it was working on a sandwich called the McWinning. The conversation changed within an hour, said Mr. Wion.
On the other hand, McDonald's misjudged another social-media flash fire. It started when the chain saw an online image of a doctored note on a McDonald's door that read: "Due to string of robberies in the area, we've been forced by an insurance company to charge a $1.50 surcharge to all African-American customers. "
"We never got any traction," said Mr. Wion of the early posts, adding that the team didn't want to attract more eyeballs by responding. "The initial read was, "That's so preposterous; no one would believe that .'"
It was wrong. Months later, a few influential people with around 15,000 Twitter followers posted it as a fact, expressing disappointment in the brand. It became a trending topic the next morning, and the McDonald's team realized that "if enough people believe and think you have a preposterous policy like that , it can start to affect sales," Mr. Wion said. The company responded with a "very corporate message" disputing any ties to the note or its contents, and the conversation eventually slowed.
"Monitoring gives you metrics in terms of how many people are talking about your brand ... but it's also important not to forget your classic crisis/issues management training," he noted. "Through that you develop a gut feel for "This is trending this way, so this is how it will play out.'"
Most PR pros agree that deciding when and how to respond is a case-by -case situation. For example, not all issues start with a vocal minority online, as seen in a recent Applebee's incident.
When one restaurant in the Midwest accidentally served a toddler a margarita instead of juice, which sat next to the alcoholic mix in the kitchen, the mother went straight to a newspaper. The company struggled with whether or not it was dealing with a communications crisis or an unfortunate error that would fade away after it changed its policy about how it stored drinks. It wasn't until the incident became the topic of conversation on Twitter that the company hired Shift Communications to manage what it considered a "crisis" at that point, said Mr. Defren.
On Twitter, from where most of the noise was coming, his team sent a link and statement to individuals with more than 50 followers or those whose tweets had been retweeted. In less than two weeks, the team reduced the negative brand mentions online that had reached 76% to 22 %, which is average for any brand.
Sometimes, however, the best move is to hunker down and ride it out. When Marriott decided to eliminate smoking in its North American hotels four years ago, John Wolf, senior director of PR at Marriott International, said that the first comments on Bill Marriott's blog announcing the news were overwhelmingly negative. The PR team didn't police the blog, he said, because the brand had worked hard over the years to create a positive consumer following, and he knew that it would police itself.
For some crises, the significance and the amount of resources that the team needs to devote to a response comes down to brand sentiment. It's what often will determine the level of pending damage to a brand, PR executives said.
Despite all of the marketers who reference the case of "United Breaks Guitars" -- the song a guy wrote a song about United Airlines breaking his guitar that went viral -- as a top social-media crisis, one communications executive close to the situation argues that it wasn't that big of a deal. The reason: Most airlines have a difficult time gaining consumer trust, so a crisis that highlights bad customer service doesn't have the effect that it might have on a more positively perceived brand.
There are times when swift reaction is called for. Take the now-infamous Kenneth Cole tweet—"Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo." The surprise factor can hurt the brand if not dealt with right away, and the negative reaction can linger in Google search for a long time.
"If you see an influencer [pick it up], that 's when you hit panic button," said Mr. Defren. Like many PR practitioners, he acknowledges that while most of these social-media debacles don't tend to affect sales, especially those related to these "stupid tweets," they do affect long-term brand health.
Andrew Worob, manager for digital communications at Ruder Finn, said that in this type of misguided tweet situation, the team will develop a contest or enlist more brand ambassadors to seed positive online content and activity "to filter the negative." Looking at 2012 planning, he added, there are more discussions around additional budgets for these types of fan-interaction programs, especially to bolster brands that have already weathered a crisis.
"Something that might seem small and trivial can have a long-term damaging impact. All that 's archived in search," said Kevin King, global practice chair for Edelman Digital.