The wrong way to communicate during a crisis is to not communicate at all.
Hootsuite demonstrated this last month. I think it’s an opportunity for all of us professional communicators to learn how to communicate during a crisis — especially when it’s a crisis that most observers will blame on you.
Hootsuite is a service that allows users to manage their Twitter feeds. One of its best features — the reason that I subscribe to it — is the ability to create a spreadsheet to schedule a day (or more) of Tweets in advance. Into the spreadsheet, you put the date and time for the tweet, the message, and any links. Then you save the spreadsheet in .csv format and upload it. Hootsuite will send up to 350 tweets at the time you specify.
I’ve been using it for more than a year. Then, around about mid-November this year, I started to get error messages when I tried updating a day’s worth of tweets.
Any computer user with my level of training and knowledge of computers (very little) is used to error messages. Hootsuite gives you an error message if you try to schedule the same message twice in one day, or if any message is more than 140 characters long (Twitter’s maximum).
In mid-November, however, when I tried to upload a file of daily tweets, I got an error message that had no specific errors. Just the message “No further tweets will be uploaded until the errors are resolved.”
I thought, naturally, that I had done something wrong. I checked my file to make sure no message, including links, was more than 135 characters long (a time-consuming process). I made sure that there were no repeated messages.
Everything seemed to check out. But Hootsuite would still not accept the file.
I tried uploading a smaller file, breaking a day into two, then three, then four smaller files. Eventually, the smaller files would upload, but not consistently. There seemed to be no logic, no consistency to the way that Hootsuite would upload a spreadsheet.
Finally, I Googled the problem. I found a forum for Hootsuite customer questions, and it seemed that a lot of people were having the same problem I was: they could not upload spreadsheets.
Hootsuite technicians, to their credit, were monitoring the blog, and left messages along the lines of “We are aware of the problem and are working on a solution.”
This continued for over a week — to no one’s satisfaction.
This is an excellent example of crisis communications — how an organization communicates with its publics when something is going wrong. It can be very challenging in this kind of situation, because users naturally blame the company, the originators of the technology, for causing the problem in the first place.
There were several messages on the forum about how people were going to take their business to a Hootsuite competitor. “We’re paying for this service!” is how more than one customer put it.
Some of Hootsuite’s competitors started to take advantage of the problem by sending out the message that their services were working fine at the time.
The problem was that, while Hootsuite’s techs were working flat out on resolving the problem, they were not communicating that. Users had no idea what the problem was, how long it would be until it was resolved, or whether there were any workarounds. Doubtlessly, there were alternatives, and some customers probably changed horses.
Eventually, around November 21 or so, they seem to have solved the problem. But they didn’t explain what the problem was, what had caused it or what customers should do the next time something like it happens.
Obviously, this is not good for credibility. Most people who use computers and web services expect there to be technical problems from time to time. We’re all familiar with that little program built into the deepest, most basic level of every operating system that causes random errors to pop up. We get that that’s how programmers ensure they’ll all have jobs, even after they build the perfect computer.
But we still want to know that the company we pay for a service we come to rely on is working on, and making progress with problems we encounter.
After the problem was fixed, Hootsuite announced they had solved the issue. I tried uploading a file of tweets, and it worked, no problem. I then sent Hootsuite’s customer service department an email with some questions about the experience. I explained that, as a journalist and blogger, I wanted to do a story about this issue, and gave them an opportunity to present their side.
I got no answer. Big mistake on Hootsuite’s part.
What Hootsuite should have done
- Admit publicly and prominently that they were aware of the problem — on their Home page, and with an email to all customers who use the bulk uploader service
- Communicate their plans — how long did they anticipate they would take to fix the problem?
- Suggest work-arounds
- Communicate their progress
- what kind of resources (meaning skilled people and their tools) they had dedicated to the problem
- when they had identified the problem
- how long they anticipated taking to solve it.
I know that it can be scary for any organization to admit that it has a problem, but it’s better than the alternative: to let your market know that you can’t handle problems. Even if they took longer to fix the problem than they indicated, they could have announced that the solution was taking longer than they anticipated, and set another honest solution horizon.
The alternative, not communicating, leaves the impression of an uncaring corporation. It leaves users wondering if anything at all is happening behind the scenes, which in turn prompts them to turn to the competition.
Communicating during a crisis is one of the biggest challenges for any communications professional. However, the best strategy is the same as in most situations: keep communicating, be honest and tell your audience as much as you can.
More communication = more information, and today, people LIKE information.
What do you gain by not admitting your shortcomings? In the age of instant, constant and ubiquitous communication, you don’t hide anything.
An organization is much further ahead by keeping the connections with its customers alive and open. Just as in a personal relationship, being honest about your problems builds trust, which helps cement long-term relationships with customers.