Right now it’s around 2:30pm pacific time and about 45 minutes ago I caught wind of an escalating crises the apparel brand Urban Outfitters is now facing. Updated comments now appear at the end of the post.
As I understand it, 5 hours ago a tweet & blog post was made by independent artist / designer / seller @amberkarnes stating that Urban Outfitters had stolen the style of several of her designed pieces. Amber’s network is just over 1,200 followers at this point and was presumably less when things started but that’s all it took to kick off enough fire that has gotten NY Mag, AllTop and enough other blogs and users talking that Urban Outfitters is now on the twitter trends list across the US — and not in a good way.
Urban Outfitters seems to have caught wind of this quickly, they maintain a fairly active social account so monitoring was probably not an issue, and their first reply went out about 2 hours after the incident flared up. Since then they’ve made other, unrelated tweets but have been dark on the issue while at the same time it’s growing. It’s crises communication time.
As interesting as it is, I’m going to put this incident aside and talk broader: How do you address a social “crises”
Given the real time nature of this story, I thought I’d take a similar approach to talking about crises management by putting myself under the same gun a company is under when facing an issue like this. Like I said in the opening, I caught wind of this post less than 45 minutes ago, and in crises mode that’s about how long it will take you to get the facts, make the right calls and startdown the management path if you’ve planned in advance, so I’m holding to the same standard.
1. It starts with awareness
If you’re lucky it’s not a monitoring tool or software that catches the issue but rather a great social manager who’s on the clock, logged in and sees something before it becomes a trend — that’s catching it early. Unfortunately issues don’t limit themselves to office hours and those monitoring tools as well as just having a well empowered and socially connected call center and employee base are critical to jumping on top of things. More of my “alerts” have been random twitter checks or a call from a colleague than anything else. When that phone rings you have to answer it.
2. Hopefully you’ve planned for a firedrill. I of course did not plan to firedrill a blog post about firedrilling.
This all works much better if you have a system in place that’s agreed on about who owns the issue, how they’re measured, escalated and handled. No template does it all but it’s about having the process to figure out the right plan rather than the plan to figure out the process. If you don’t have one handy, build it today – then come back next week for my post on tips about that.
3. Next you have to gather facts at lightning speed.
How big the issue? Where did it start? Why did it happen? How is it growing? Who has the authority to make a change? Should you make a change? What’s the blog buzz? How many tweets again? Did hit our Facebook page? Are we sure it’s a real issue?
There are a lot of questions and you won’t answer them all in 15 minutes, that’s not the goal. This is triage and your job is to figure out enough about the nature of the issue, the validity [real problem versus really big misunderstanding], the size and the spread so you can prioritize it according to an existing crises management plan. Know what’s important on the size, the scope and the impact to the company. That’s what’s needed to move along.
4. It’s judgment call time – prioritize the issue, ring the bell
Hopefully this is well documented in your crises communication plans but if not, you need to figure out how big of an issue this is and how that requires involving, alerting or getting input from.
Issues that trend on Twitter are by default going to be a full scale riot since you can about guarantee major PR coverage that week but from there it gets murky. Look at those facts on size, scope and validity – the more true an issue, the faster it’s growing, the worse the impact potential is. That said, something that’s big but misinformed can be very serious but also really benefits from having your ducks in a row as a strong with the support of your advocates will hit it hard. Most issues are more in the middle so it’s looking at the growth, where the conversation is coming from [widespread versus one site, known detractors versus every day users, new issue versus repeating].
5. Gather the right team and decide on the response strategy
From this point it’s very easy to slow down. Marketing l knows about the issue, has an idea for a response but others aren’t so sure, they want to see where it goes, or if it’s really a “big deal” [after all "it’s just on Twitter!"]. This is the most dangerous part of the process where you have to drive hard – no matter what the decision the goal is to reach it and quickly. You can move later, turn but whatever you do will be seen by the world so be ready to stand behind it… and the longer you wait the more you put yourself in a box… took too long to respond, didn’t admit a problem, admitted to something than recanted.
Now that’s not to say responding outright is always the right call. Sometimes an issue isn’t growing, sometimes it’s a flare up of an old problem by detractors that replying too will just flame, sometimes it’s something your advocates have already done a better job on than you could. Deciding to respond is a big step but in this world of open communication, it’s increasingly becoming the only. People want to know that you take an issue seriously and what you’re doing on it.
6. Writing your reply
This part is tricky. You need to be fast, get another group sign off but really think through the issue too. Are you ready to make a statement? If not, it’s only been an hour, you can state who is on it, what you’re working on, it’s ok. The decision to reply is a decision to either correct an inaccuracy, start a dialogue or to show you’re on top of figuring things out. Any of them are ok. And before you hit the post button, grab someone uninvolved to take a look — a last sanity check so fast doesn’t turn into poorly executed.
7. Make sure the response is unified.
It’s easy to jump in to a Twitter/ Facebook / blog strategy and totally forget about the rest of the world. If the issue is big enough to get to step 5 it’s big enough that you’ll get calls, people walking into stores, talking to their friend who works for you, etc.
Determine the spread and scope and issue the right response. Never stop conversation – that looks like you’re covering up, instead explain the issue, your response too it and why it’s important that your support / employee team speaks too it. Allow enough wiggle room that answers are real but be sure you’re not leaving your phone or store reps out to dry when they get a call they know nothing about.
8. Monitor. Follow up. Monitor. Follow up. Monitor. Follow up
On the business end: Whether you respond or not if the issue is big it should become your focus, your hour, your day. This morning Urban Outfitters ay have replied to a small string of tweets, now it’s a trending topic – that’s night and day difference [not saying it’s the case, just an example]. Bringing your whole social team plus representatives from all impacted areas either into a room or an email string and issue updates based on the severity from every half hour to every few hours. These should continue until the issue is gone decreasing as it fades away.
On the user end: If you replied, which is likely, you need to keep that dialogue going. The more your company is willing to open up, explain and respond, the more you can take back the issue even if you are in the wrong. Companies who made the call to keep talking through site shut downs, lawsuits, broken products get people to let them [the company] drive the understanding of the issue. People retweet, share, even defend when a company is explaining while not providing information is an invitation for just about anyone to become the voice of reason, no matter how unreasonable.
9. You have the ball. Hold on to it.
I can recall an issue where I was boarding a plane several years ago and walked off – that raised a lot of eyebrows but it was the right call to make and it got people at a very senior level to pay attention too. I made the call because I had the ball. It was mine to run with and flying, even for 90 minutes, was just going to get in the way. Of course I’ve also gotten on the plane too [yup, more than one issue in an airport] — sometimes the right response isn’t to respond yet and sometimes you need to insure the process works without you since you won’t always be there for things to go wrong.
So there you have it, 45 minutes from issue to pushing back a few things, to posting. Not the best post, not the most comprehensive but that’s how it works… you pick up what you can see, you decide on the course, get a quick consensus and move. Next week I’ll post up some template examples of crises communication strategies to show how I approach them – but that’s not something one does during the issue, that comes after it.
If you’re looking for more on how Urban Outfitters handles this, while it’s already being judged, the next few days will be extremely telling with many great articles certain to cover the details. I may post on it myself but suggest you head to Twitter for a lot of commentary and insight – marketers and consumers alike.
Update 5/26/2011 @ 10pm (pst):
It’s been around 13 hours since this issue broke on Twitter and while Urban Outfitters has still only issued one tweet on the topic, they’ve pulled the products in question off their site. IMO this poses two problems: First silence is a killer for an issue of this size. No matter how much is being done on the backend if it’s not seen up front the fuel keeps burning and in this case that’s tweets, facebook shares and blog posts by the second and to a target demographic that lives and buys by what’s trending. Second the decision to pull the products; while this may very well be the right call, the silence around it makes it deadly — acting without explaining is interrupted as being wrong and unable to explain why.
Having been in the shoes of their marketing team before I know how painful the process can be and being second guessed only makes it worse. Still, if there’s one upside to events like this it is the chance to learn whether you’re in the company or on the sidelines. Hopefully the decision to get more visible is made soon to give their brand’s response a chance to be seen but either way when the dust settles it’s time to evaluate what went wrong not just with the issue but with handling it. For those watching the story unfold, the question you should be asking is are you ready if the logo was changed to yours right now?
It took a few days but Urban Outfitters did issue a response on this late last week. Interestingly, despite the products coming down, they took an offensive, counter stance [just the article title is powerful: Urban Outfitters Responds to False Allegations by Necklace Designer]. This is the hard road but it’s often the right one — just because something comes out against you doesn’t mean it was so. However time remains a critical factor and by the time their comments made it online, visibility around the issue had decreased significantly meaning that many who read about the issue won’t see their comments.