Are employee social media rants the next wave of reputation worries?

If you’ve ever woken up to a social media firestorm, you know how much it hurts. An angry customer posts a titillating Tweet, a few friends share it and add their thoughts. The thread catches the eye of a reporter and suddenly you’re defending your business on the nightly news.

Now imagine that same scenario, but instead of a customer, it’s one of your own employees that lit the match! That’s what happened to both Radio Shack and Starbucks this week; with very different results.

We’ll start with Radio Shack. The beleaguered retail chain has been on a downward spiral since the iPhone replaced the beeper and CB radio. They started closing stores a few years ago and it looks like someone is angry about losing their job. That person left a rather nasty farewell on the Facebook page for a Radio Shack that was shuttered in Ohio. Several news outlets picked up the story, forcing Radio Shack Corporate to step in and do something – sort of. They posted a note on their corporate page, saying they believe the Ohio store page is bogus and they’re looking in to it. They also posted the image you see at the top of this post.

That’s an “official response”? A grainy, sarcastic attempt at humor that’s actually somewhat degrading and most assuredly lame? It’s almost as if Radio Shack is mocking their own inability to move into the 21st century.

With the company so close to closing forever, they’re obviously not too worried about protecting their reputation but they should be. Radio Shack was a groundbreaking company when it began, and they owe it to all of the loyal customers and workers not to let it go down as a joke.

On the other side of the social media fence, we have the Starbuck’s barista who doesn’t want you to buy a new Unicorn Frappuccino. Braden posted a video rant on Twitter begging customers to stop buying the ridiculous pink drink.

“I have unicorn crap all in my hair and on my nose. I have never been so stressed out in my entire life.”

His video went viral and now other baristas are joining in with social media posts about how the new drink has made their job a sparkly, living hell. Starbucks has refrained from replying and maybe that’s because the baristas aren’t the only ones singing the pink blues. Customers aren’t so happy either:

Even with all the complaining, people are still lining up to catch a unicorn while they can. It is – thankfully – available only for a limited time. In the future, Starbucks can avoid this kind of issue by having actual workers test the product to see if it can be prepared in a reasonable amount of time before releasing it to the public.

As for Braden the barista, he has since deleted his video – no word on whether or not he still has a job.

Flying the not so friendly skies: How United’s CEO made a bad situation worse

It’s hard to image how things could have gotten so out of hand on that now infamous United Airlines flight; but once it happened it was time for the CEO to face the angry mob and that’s where things went from bad to worse.

Let’s back up to the beginning and see how this whole thing came about.

United Airlines needed to get a few crew members from here to there in order to get another flight into the air. To do this, they had to bump several paying customers off of a flight. No big deal, this is done all the time. Usually, they offer a financial incentive and people offer to give up their seats. In this case, (I don’t know why) they chose the people who had to leave. David Dao was one of them and he didn’t want to go. The situation escalated to the point where the airport security officers were invited to board the plane and they forcibly dragged Mr. Dao off the flight. Yes, dragged. He bumped his head on an armrest which led to blood and bruises and a lot of crazy commotion while the rest of the passengers filmed it all for later posting on social media.

Understandably, United was then faced with the ugly truth which they could not dispute. The video went viral. Parody hashtags were created. Late night hosts turned the incident into monologue fodder and even competing airlines used the moment to toot their own horns. In other words, that single moment in time turned into this week’s (possibly this month’s) biggest PR nightmare.

As students of the #PRFail, we turned our attention to United’s CEO Oscar Munoz, who just last month was named PRWeek’s “Communicator of the Year for 2017”. If anyone could extradite his company from the quagmire, surely he could!

Mr. Munoz stood up in front of the press and world and said, “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.” Then he said there would be an investigation and that the company would be reaching out to Mr. Dao to “further address and resolve this situation.”

Can you guess which word in that speech was the one that hurt?


Not only does it sound like something you do to a machine that’s on the fritz, but it completely misses the point of the outrage. The world wasn’t upset over a passenger being bumped. They were upset over a passenger being bruised. . . battered. . . and restrained for no apparent reason.

This is where I. . . the voice of reason. . .jumps in for just a second. I’m not looking to blame the victim, but was a seat on a plane really worth a physical battle? This wasn’t a civil rights protest. This wasn’t a matter of life and death. And would it surprise you to learn that the passenger in question is a medical doctor? From out here, the entire scenario is surreal, to say the least.

But let’s back to United Airlines and their idea of crisis communication. Legal departments being what they are, I’m sure they advised Mr. Munoz not to make any comment that could make United culpable in court. Probably a wise move in the long run, but it left him high and dry in the court of public opinion. United needed to express their remorse for Dr. Dao’s suffering, not to mention the distress the situation caused for everyone on board the plane.

Remember, during a crisis, it’s not about whether or not you’re right. It’s about whether or not the public believes you’re sorry. What if, a day from now, we find out that the passenger threatened crew members and was deemed an actual danger to the people on board. (Not saying that happened, just saying what if). Would that story go viral just as fast? Would it put out the fires that are still raging all over social media? Would United’s stock go back up along with ticket sales? Call me cynical, but I say not. Once we’re in crisis mode, no amount of reason and truth is going to get us back to square one. The only thing that helps a company reclaim their rep is a sincere apology, a believable promise to bring those who participated to justice, and a plan to prevent it from happening again.

United almost got it right the third time with their follow up, follow up apology. In that statement, Munoz called the incident “truly horrific” and added “I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.” Now why didn’t he say that in first place?

This case, like many others, has the company taking the fall for an angry or overly aggressive agent. In this case, the security guard, who wasn’t even a United employee. But before you let them off the hook, someone needs to ask why the flight crew stood aside and let this happen. Seems like there’s plenty of culpability to go around.

Now that the world is walking around with video cameras in their pockets, incidents like these are going to keep popping up on social media. In some ways, it’s good to know that companies can no longer hide their big mistakes. On the other hand, what we see in a 30 second clip is never the whole story.

The takeaway today is this: if you ever find yourself on the receiving end of a social media take-down, remember that the time for telling your side of the story is after the people with the pitchforks have gone home. Until then, stay apologetic. Stay sincere and avoid placing blame on anyone else, even if someone else is responsible. That’s how you get through the first 24 hours of a PR nightmare.

Andy’s Thoughts: Tune in to this week’s podcast to hear my thoughts on how United can prevent this from ever happening again. 

It’s not just hackers, now your ISP could jeopardize your reputation!

You can learn a lot about a person from their browser history. You easily discern a person’s hobbies and special interests. You can figure out if they’re married or single, kid-parents or pet-parents, where they live and often what they do for a living. These data points are gold for a marketer, so anyone sitting on piles of this kind of data could be as rich as Midas himself – if only that person was allowed to sell the information.

Oh wait, they sort of can!

Earlier this week, Congress voted to repeal the FCC’s broadband privacy rules now President Trump has made it official. Sounds scary – privacy and government in the same sentence – but don’t panic. . . yet.

The people behind the repeal said they did it to even the playing field between your internet provider and the big boys of the web like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. In case you didn’t know it, Google and Facebook are already using your internet wanderings to better “enhance” your user experience. Technically, they got your permission when you checked the box on the Terms of Service that you didn’t read, so you only have yourself to blame if they start showing you ads for products you’d rather keep private. (Honey? Have you been searching for divorce lawyers?)

Once the FCC’s privacy rules are repealed, your internet provider will also have the right to collect, use and sell your private information without asking your permission every time.

What that means is, you could end up on a divorce lawyer’s mailing list even if you’ve been careful to stay off Google and Facebook. (Really honey, I can explain!)

To be clear, there are still plenty of legal safeguards in place such as wiretapping laws and fraud laws. Even with the repeal, your provider can’t just sell your social security number to some guy with an off-shore bank account. They have a reputation to protect, same as you, so they’re not likely to go crazy once the bill is signed. Still, you’d be wise to take precautions.

First of all, think long and hard about the kind of information you’re sharing and where you’re sharing it. You can use a phony name on your blog about your struggle with addiction, but your ISP knows it’s you. Is it likely that they’ll out you? Not intentionally, but the more you have to lose, the more people there are trying to dig up the dirt. We’ve seen this happen over and over with celebrities and high-profile CEOs; private emails go public, racy photos turn up on Twitter, dual identities are brought to light. People have gone to jail based on their browser history, so yes, this is a serious subject.

If you are worried, you can take even more precautions by visiting secure websites (https vs http) and using an encrypted browser like Tor. If you deal with a lot of sensitive material from your home computer, consider using a Virtual Private Network or VPN.

Also, reconsider the number of smart and connected devices in your home, car and in your pocket. The more data you generate, the more your ISP will have to collect and sell. And let’s not forget about those not-so-friendly neighborhood hackers. Every connected device you use is a potential gateway for identity thieves.

Think it won’t happen to you. It happened to Andy last month and it happened to me yesterday. Luckily, neither of us suffered much beyond the initial embarrassment and annoyance. You might not be so lucky.

The point of this article is not to panic you or make you freak out about upcoming changes. Repeal or no repeal, we all need to be more careful about the amount and kind of information we’re not only posting on the internet but generating with browser histories, shopping histories and AI units like Alexa and Siri.

Even if you have nothing to hide (really?), a security slip can easily become a sharp blow to your reputation.

Advertising on YouTube? The huge issue that could damage your reputation

When you place an ad for your company on television, you get to choose when it airs — or more importantly – what kind of content airs on either side of it. If you’re a company that specializes in family friendly movies, you’re going to schedule it to run during an animated feature, not the latest, bombs blasting episode of 24: Legacy.

When you advertise on YouTube, you don’t get to choose where your ad lands. YouTube’s behavioral bots take care of that and they’re alarmingly imperfect. I’ve seen ads for gruesome, R-rated horror movies show up in front of Disney content and loud, ads for extreme sports showing up in front of a relaxing, meditation video.

In my case, these mismatches are nothing more than annoying. But there have been times when the match-up was far worse.

About a week ago, The Times of London published an expose that blasted YouTube for allowing content producers to upload videos in support of terrorist groups. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they also discovered that all kinds of offensive videos were earning ad dollars from many of the world’s most well-known brands. For example, you might see a sweet ad for Walmart’s line of Easter treats in front of a video advocating racial violence.  (Quick Note: YouTube advertisers do have access to a certain level of targeting tools but clearly it’s not enough given the issues that have come to light this week.)

If you were to see such a thing, would you assume that Walmart was in favor of the content? While many people understand that brands don’t control the ad placement on YouTube, others instantly jump to the wrong conclusion. How many others? Adweek ran a quick poll to find out.

Keep in mind that only 502 people responded to their poll but I think that the results are probably typical of a larger sampling. It starts off with 48.8% of respondents saying they have seen offensive content on YouTube. It doesn’t pop up very often but often enough for them to remember. Most said they had been exposed to racist content (30%) while almost an equal number didn’t want to say what they saw that upset them.

Here’s where it gets rough; 71% say they remember seeing advertising content on an offensive video. 40.6% said that after seeing this content, they felt worse about the advertised brand. 55% said it didn’t change their opinion and a cheeky 4.3% said that seeing an ad on offensive content made them feel better about a brand. Yikes!

Even though nearly half of those surveyed said these ads had a negative impact, only 36.2% said the ad meant the brand was endorsing the offensive content. To sum it up: if your ad does show up in bad place, most viewers won’t assume it was your choice, but they’ll still thinking badly of your brand. That’s rough but understandable. You can’t unsee something and it’s hard to get that association out of your head, especially if the video that follows is particularly horrendous.

In order to protect their brand names, dozens of high-profile companies, such as AT&T, Verizon and Johnson & Johnson, have pulled all of their advertising from YouTube. This move could cost the venue $750 million in ad revenue. That’s going to have a trickledown effect, hurting the small content producers who count on their share of that revenue to pay the bills.

YouTube published a statement warning content creators that they might see a “fluctuation” in their revenue over the next few weeks as YouTube “fine tunes” their ad delivery system.

The big brands say they want more than retargeting; they want YouTube to police and eliminate offensive content, but that’s a slippery slope. There are creators who post on important but sensitive topics, who have had their videos demonetized by the bots that deem them to be offensive. YouTube says creators who experience this issue can ask for a review of their case but that’s going to take time. Ultimately, individual human beings are going to have to decide if a video crosses the line or not and that’s never going to be a perfect process.

If YouTube can show that they’re making an effort to eliminate the worst of the content, brands will likely return to the site because they have to. More and more viewers are abandoning traditional TV and traditional TV commercials in favor of online content. With so many eyeballs on YouTube, it’s hard to imagine any brand staying away forever.

For now, we’re stuck between a cute cat video and hard place. Brands want to be seen, but they can’t afford to be seen if it means consumers will forever associate their name with highly offensive content.

Do you advertise on YouTube? If so, are you worried about your content showing up on inappropriate videos? And do you think that it could negatively impact your brand image?

Are restaurant owners right to say they can’t control actions of employees?

‘I need to make sure you’re from here before I serve you’

When a waiter in a high-end, Southern California restaurant asked for proof of residency, Diana Carrillo handed over her ID without even thinking. A moment later, the true meaning of the request sank in. The American born daughter of Mexican immigrants was being asked to prove that she was living in the US legally!

Understandably upset, Ms Carrillo complained to the management, left the restaurant, then posted about the incident on Facebook. You can guess what happened next; the story went viral. Within a few days, the name of the “offending” restaurant was splashed all over newspapers and websites from the LA Times to the Washington Post. A tale about immigration and discrimination – it was so of the moment, there wasn’t an outlet who could resist repeating the story.

Including our outlet, obviously, but we’re interested in another side of the story. Once the incident hit the wires, the restaurant started taking the hits on Yelp. Predictably, people who had never visited the establishment began posting angry, one-star reviews. People who claimed to have visited, felt the sudden urge to complain about the service, attitude and prices.

The overall consensus: the restaurant should be shut down because one waiter decided to express his political views (or perhaps he thought he was being funny, no one is sure). Is that the way it should be? We all try to hire the best people. We train them and lay down rules with consequences, but when an employee is out to get himself fired, what more can the management do? Should everyone else at the restaurant be punished because one member of the staff crossed the line?

The senior director of operations at the restaurant told The Washington Post;

“[Employee’s actions] are something that you can’t control. The true measure is how you then handle it as a company. I feel very proud of our team and how we tried to take a proactive approach, trying to create a positive out of this situation.”

When they were alerted to the situation, the management of the restaurant offered Ms. Carrillo and her party a VIP meal as an apology. Probably not the best option given her current feelings about the place. When she refused, they offered to make a donation to a charity of her choice. They also fired the waiter. And still people are angry.

At this point, the restaurant has done all they can do to protect their reputation. People want them to give up the name of the waiter, but that’s a bad idea that could lead to a lawsuit. As hard as it is, the restaurant needs to stop giving interviews and get back to business as usual. Any additional attempts to publicly correct the problem will only lead to another round of sniping. It may not seem like it now, but this will pass and the restaurant should emerge unscathed.

Though it’s true that we can’t control the actions of our employees, we need to do all we can to make sure they share our values. Don’t assume that your employees know what’s appropriate and what isn’t. Make it clear that you have a zero tolerance policy for any type of racial or gender comments even if a person is “just joking”.

It’s not an easy conversation to have, but it’s one you must have if you don’t want to see that Yelp cleanup message on your page.

Andy’s Take: While you cannot control your employees minute by minute, you can control who you hire, how you train them, and how you expect them to interact with customers. There was probably a LOT more that could have been done before Ms. Carrillo left the restaurant.

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