What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School … about crisis management and social media

One of the headline business stories last week was the epic product recall by Maclaren of ALL the buggies (strollers) it had sold in the last ten years in the US –  a gob-smacking 1 million units – following some baby and toddler fingertip amputations caused by the opening/closing hinge mechanism [shudder].maclaren-stroller

Looking at the coverage on the TV and the Web, it struck me that the news stories did not have a strong voice from Maclaren and that got me interested in how the company was managing the crisis and specifically whether they were using social media as part of the campaign.  After all, the decision to undertake a recall of these proportions would not have been taken lightly or quickly by such an established brand and surely the media/PR planning would have been meticulous …

A bit of web searching unearthed a fascinating blog post from Harvard Business Review entitled “Maclaren’s Product Recall: What Would You Do?”  The post discussed the impact of the recall on the company’s brand and business and then put forward some strategies from crisis management experts originally included in an HBR case published in 2001 on an eerily similar theme.  I have summarised HBR’s recommendations below:

Engage a reputable, independent, outside investigator

Hire a crisis management expert charged with setting up and training a permanent, internal crisis-management team comprising people from the operations, marketing, IT, security, and legal departments …

    Call the babies’ families. Offer to meet with them privately and provide whatever assistance possible, including paying the medical bills …
    Announce the recall in paid advertisements as well as issuing the joint press release with the CPSC [U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission] …

All of these recommendations make complete sense of course, but they don’t go far enough.  What jumped out at me was that the proposed strategies completely ignored the role of the Internet and in particular how Maclaren should engage with their customers through social media to get their message out, tell their story, rally their advocates, answer customers’ questions and respond to their concerns and fears.

This omission looks all the more glaring as in this case, Maclaren has not pursued an aggressive, nor systematic online campaign – as Time has noticed.  Just take look at the very tame official twitter account for Maclaren UK, or indeed the slightly more proactive (but still lame) account for Maclaren US.

So to answer HBR’s question, this is what I would do …

1. Hire an experienced community manager fast:  You need a community manager (more likely a small community team) who can take part on Maclaren’s behalf in online conversations across the Web.  This person or team will also be responsible for bringing these conversations into the company and will be a vital interface with senior executives, product management, customer service and PR. Believe me an agency could not perform this role for you as they cannot be an authentic voice for the company in the public domain, and they are external to the org, so cannot help you with internal co-ordination.

2. Make sure you know what people are saying about you and where: if you are to have a responsive campaign around the recall, you need to be listening to the multiple conversations people are having about you.  Use a social media monitoring tool like Radian 6, Scout Labs, or Nielsen Buzz Metrics, to understand how the issue is resonating on the web and the impact your campaign is having.

3. Take part in conversations across the Web:  Once you know what people are talking about and where, don’t sit on the insight, but use it to engage with your customers.  Don’t assume that having social-media powered conversation means putting up a page on Facebook.  For an issue of this type the most active conversations may be across multiple parenting communities and blogs.  Send your Community management team to listen first and then engage where the discussion is happening so they can clarify issues, help customers with information and put your side of the case openly.

4. Use Twitter properly: Don’t fall into the big brand trap of using Twitter simply as a tool to push out press releases or company information.  If you do that, you end up (like today) with a handful of followers.  You need to build up a following and use Twitter as another conversational tool. So look for who is tweeting about Maclaren and the recall, reply to them, follow them so you can DM them, and retweet your advocates.

5. Work with advocates and detractors: There are many people who are still on your side across the globe and of course many who aren’t.  What binds them is both communities are emotionally involved with the issue.  So work creatively with both groups and make it easy for them to share and pass on information about the recall through the digital media they use and the communities they are involved with.  Maclaren splash page

6. Facilitate discussion on your Web site about the recall:  You are really missing a trick with your Web site. It won’t be effective for you, if you simply use it to push out a corporate message. That well-intentioned light box message on the home page won’t change what people think, and is intrusive to people who are trying to find out information and get advice.  So junk it, and instead use your customer service area as a place of conversation with your customers.  At this stage people are more likely to believe what others are saying about you than your official messages, so creating a structured conversation on your site will work to your benefit.  A tool like Get Satisfaction is a good option here.

Making online conversations a core element of the crisis management strategy for Maclaren will also deliver longer term business benefits for the brand as it builds a platform and team who can absorb and act on feedback quickly from customers. This will only reflect well on brand, improve Maclaren’s customer service, and help in new product development, long after the PR storm from the product recall has passed.

And as for Harvard Business Review, well, good effort but need to try harder. Time to update the case methinks …

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