Lessons learned from a crisis of transposition

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Crisis communications teaches that bad news can come from the unlikeliest of places, a lesson that b-to-b insurance provider FM Global learned in spades in December when it was briefly caught up in a global feeding frenzy triggered by, of all things, a transposition error. Johnston, R.I.-based FM Global is a 176-year-old company that provides commercial property insurance and loss prevention services for more than one-third of the Fortune 1,000. It is not related to MF Global, the similarly named financial derivatives broker that failed spectacularly last fall amid accusations of financial mismanagement. Following MF Global's filing for bankruptcy protection in October, public relations staffers at the insurer began to notice that a few media outlets and social media commenters sometimes inadvertently transposed the first two letters of the companies' names, tarring FM Global with the MF Global brush. Even an Albanian news website displayed the insurer's logo in an article about MF Global's bankruptcy. What the public relations team didn't expect was to have future mistakes go on to create national headlines. That happened early in December when the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture held hearings into the problems at MF Global. Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) mistakenly referred to the target of the hearings as “FM Global” no fewer than four times. The error was amplified by other news media during live broadcasts of the congressional hearing. “On the morning of the hearing, my email box began flooding with alerts,” said Jamie Pachomski, senior public relations consultant at FM Global. “As we started seeing incorrect references in the media, people on Twitter picked up on the mistakes.” With the allegations in the hearing room stoking public upset, some of the conversation on Twitter took on an angry tone. One user even snapped a photo of an airport ad showcasing FM Global's Research Campus that read, “We play with fire so our clients don't get burned.” Ironically, the user commented, “Bad symbolism”—not knowing the photo in the ad was of the insurer's fire-technology laboratory. “Will now be spending the rest of my day tweeting nasty things about @FMGlobal,” tweeted another. FM Global's PR team took to Twitter and other online sources to defuse the crisis. “I began pulling out the Twitter handles of people we needed to reach out to and drafted a very basic message pointing out that they might have unintentionally misreferenced us,” Pachomski said. With FM Global becoming one of the top trending topics on Twitter—a company first—staffers also targeted journalists at key media such as The Wall Street Journal. Staffers benefited from the fact that they were able to respond immediately. “We knew what needed to be done and just did it,” said Steve Zenofsky, manager of public relations. The PR team also decided at the outset to respond with a human touch and humor instead of displaying frustration. “We didn't want to come across as a stodgy insurance company,” Zenofsky said. Pachomski's relaxed but urgent Twitter banter called the transposition error “not cool” and, during an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Zenofsky was quoted as joking that the company's only regret about trending on Twitter was, “We didn't bump Alec Baldwin,” the actor who was at the time experiencing a minor PR crisis of his own. The conversation quickly began to turn as people corrected their Twitter mistakes. Media figures like Dow Jones' Erik Holm later documented the mix-up on The Journal's website and in a video interview. Fortune's Dan Primack also wrote about the goof. In the end, the experience helped strengthen some key media relationships and reinforced FM Global's message of industry leadership and financial stability. It also tested the public relations staff's crisis readiness. “Just because you know what you should do in a crisis doesn't mean you'll be ready when it comes,” Zenofsky said. “Will you execute and get the outcomes you desire?” While this particular crisis has dissipated, the issue continues to be managed. “The good news is each error becomes an opportunity for FM Global to become better known for the right reasons,” Zenofsky said. Paul Gillin is an Internet marketing consultant and the author of three books about social media. He also writes the New Channels column in BtoB.
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