’Tis the season for Starbucks gingerbread lattes and some controversial holiday cups. On November 1, the coffeehouse released a plain red version of their seasonal cups, which traditionally have featured images like snowflakes and reindeer. Social media celebrity Joshua Feuerstein promptly created a video asking his followers, “Do you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand new cups? That’s why they’re just plain red.” His video went viral, initiating a firestorm of social media criticism against Starbucks.
The immediacy and public nature of social media create unique challenges for crisis communicators. Opinionated “everyday” people have the power to spark huge online conversations. Recently, Washington Women in Public Relations (WWPR) hosted a panel on social media crisis management.
Below are five major takeaways from the expert panel:
- Practice cultural competence. Lauren deLisa Coleman, a “digi-cultural trend analyst,” emphasized how research around public sentiment can help us prevent crises. She warned that issues of race and gender will continue to be particularly sensitive “hot topics.” For example, a little more research and cultural competence easily could have prevented Krispy Kreme’s racially charged alliteration debacle.
- Be prepared. No company is safe from public criticism, so it is crucial to have a social media crisis communications plan in place. Constantly monitor and listen for social media conversations that could cause reputational damage if escalated. If you become aware of a potential problem, do not wait for it to become public to plan and test messages. Prepare pre-approved messages before a crisis ever hits.
- Do not underestimate the “little guys.” YouTube celebrities, bloggers and Instagram stars may not be household names, but many still have an enormous reach. According to panelist Anthony Shop, YouTube personality Tyler Oakley has an even larger reach than Stephen Colbert. Digital media allows social media celebrities as well as “everyday” people to amplify their voice. Listen and respond.
- Respond with authenticity. While it is important to prepare content, canned language can feel insincere. Social media is about human engagement. You can keep your messaging consistent, while avoiding generic auto-replies. Consumers are not fooled by reposts of the same apology tweet over and over.
- Choose your spokesperson wisely. Though a CEO may be the face of the company, they are not necessarily the most impactful spokesperson. DeLisa Coleman shared that the public often values third-party endorsements or peer-to-peer commentary more than an organization’s direct messaging. Identify whom your online audience trusts and recruit them as brand ambassadors.
When Starbucks faced criticism, they explained their rationale for the cup design and asserted their commitment to promoting inclusion and diversity during the holidays. Some social media crises are much more damaging than online fodder about red cups, but the controversy reminds us how quickly online conversations about our brands can spread.
Thanks to WWPR and the panelists:
Lauren deLisa Coleman – Digi-Cultural Trend Analyst, Author and Producer
Minni Gupta – Senior Account Executive, Fleishman-Hillard
Anthony LaFauce – Vice President, Digital Communications Group, Porter Novelli
Rob Philips – Executive Director, Digital, Golin
Anthony Shop – Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder, Social Driver