One of the side effects of social media’s rise is an understanding of how interconnected corporate behavior is to its public image. Almost any consumer-facing company has had an unhappy customer or two (or more), but the difference between pre-social media and post-social media is the amount of attention any one interaction can have. Small issues—like a squashed burger or fast food that doesn’t quite look like the promotional pictures—might elicit a chuckle or two and receive some level of viral attention, but they are unlikely to rise to a level of even minor crisis. These are the types of issues that we likely would never even have heard about prior to social networks.
Significant issues, like United’s treatment of a passenger who was injured as he was removed from a plane, might have made it into at least local media but probably would not have elicited the level of national outrage that eventually resulted in an official apology from United’s CEO and a major policy change.
The link between front-line employees and PR is customer service
Many “social media crises” are billed as PR failures, but if you examine the details, most of the problems are exacerbated by customer service lapses. The front-line employees—anyone who deals firsthand with a customer—are often hemmed in by tight corporate policies that leave them little room to vary from the corporate script and address a customer’s problem.
In some ways, this makes sense. Providing too much latitude to employees, without some restrictions, could lead to very erratic and inconsistent customer treatment, which could then itself cause problems. There has to be a balance reached between allowing employees no discretion at all to address customer problems, and being inconsistent or overly generous to the point of hurting profitability. Finding that balance is a function of hiring, training, and internal communications.
Hiring and training
HR isn’t often thought of as having a PR function, but with the rise of social sharing platforms, HR and PR are more closely tied than ever. Hiring the right people and having effective training for them is important to a company’s bottom line. How those individuals perform with customers in tense situations is now a PR consideration that every consumer-facing company must take into consideration.
Getting rid of “bad actors” within an organization is also sometimes a PR/HR crossover point. If an employee of a large organization has an ethical lapse or behaves poorly in public, this can become a crisis point for the organization.
So, whether it is employees who face customers every day or those higher up who are subject to greater public scrutiny, HR’s work now has an impact on the public relations work of an organization. Recruitment, hiring, and training should all reflect this new reality.
Finding employees who will be able to best assess a situation and deliver an appropriate response will become increasingly important in the coming years. These are soft skills that may be more difficult to identify on a resume, particularly if an employer’s preferred method of submission is to fill out an online form that simply searches for keyword matches before segmenting an applicant into Pile A (respond) or Pile B (never respond).
These skills, it should be noted, are required of anyone who comes into contact with the public—not just those who are officially tasked with “customer service.” Assuming that an organization can compartmentalize caring for a customer in this manner is thinking in silos.
Nowhere is this more evident and easier to provide an example of than the airline industry. After all of the negative publicity United received after the forcible removal of a passenger, one would expect that empathizing with customers would be in virtually every piece of communication corporate has with every employee. And yet, in mid-June, barely two months after the dragging incident, two honeymooners ended up sleeping on the floor in the airport—after their flight was canceled due to a fuel leak that the couple had brought to the airline’s attention.
This brings us to the role of internal communications, and how it plays an important role in a corporation’s external PR.
It’s easy to critique a company’s handling of any given situation that makes it into the public eye. And, the prescriptions to remedy these types of problems are also fairly apparent, so why do we commonly see multiple missteps from a company? Most likely it is because it takes time for a new service culture to “take.” Repeated, consistent messaging throughout the organization, along with targeted training for employees who interact with customers, will be key to ensuring that any new direction is implemented correctly.
Even with the right training, sometimes the message that employees take away is muddled, and this isn’t because they aren’t good employees or don’t have the company’s best interests at heart. It’s because employees view a crisis and the corporate response through a lens that makes sense to them. In the example above of the honeymooning couple that was left stranded, one employee allegedly said something along the lines of “I hope you’ll go easy on us in social media.” Two things about this: one, the employee was probably reacting to the fact that the couple recorded video, and two, social media probably has been mentioned in corporate messaging that has been circulated since the earlier incident.
If you read through United’s change in policy that was adopted after the April forced removal incident, there aren’t any points that are directly relevant to the June fuel-leak incident, except perhaps “Empower employees to resolve customer service issues in the moment.” It will take time and consistent internal messaging from leadership to the rest of the customer-facing team for real change to begin to take hold, and this will be true for any large organization.
I’m sure many of us are familiar with sayings like “selling is everyone’s job,” or “sales is everyone’s job, no matter the business.” That doesn’t mean that everyone in a company is responsible for making a bunch of cold calls—it means that in a business, everyone in some way supports the selling goals of the company. Perhaps it is time for businesses to begin reciting the mantra that “PR is everyone’s job if you serve the public, no matter the division,” because corporate reputation is threaded through the organization. It’s in every interaction with the public, whether it’s recorded by a camera phone or passes unnoticed.