5 pitfalls to avoid when responding to rogue employees

With just about everyone carrying a smartphone, the risk of rogue employees creating a reputation crisis is quite high. As technology evolves, it will only get worse.

We’ve seen a growing number of YouTube-based crises created by employees. Domino’s was one of the first high-profile cases, and this month Walmart joined the list.

A few weeks ago, four employees of a Pikeville, Ky., Walmart thought it would be simply hilarious to seek out and destroy boxes of brand new iPads before they hit store shelves. One young man even tells the camera, “This is why you don’t buy an iPad from Walmart. See, we like to throw s***.”

The video came into the public eye via an anonymous submission to a Reddit user, who posted it on the site, where it quickly shot to the front page and drew thousands of comments.

Obviously, this is not a crisis management issue in the sense of the company’s doing something wrong, but there is reputation damage to Walmart, regardless of who’s to blame. If consumers were to latch onto the assumption that they’ll go home from Walmart with a broken iPad or other product, it could drive sales down.

Walmart left no opportunity for that; it immediately fired everyone involved and released this message, containing a nice dose of humanity, to news outlets including NBC:

“We’ve seen the video of several nightshift associates destroying merchandise in the back of one of our stores in August and, as anyone can imagine, it made us wince,” a Walmart spokesperson tells NBC News in response to inquiries about that clip. “We are also embarrassed.” She adds that the “associates involved no longer work for Walmart.”

In another wise move, Walmart chose not to attempt to wipe the video from the Web. It’s very clear to anyone viewing it that the actions of those four employees are not acceptable Walmart practice, and making it easy to find online helps to vindicate the retail giant in the court of public opinion.

With just about everyone carrying a tiny recording device in their pockets these days in the form of a smartphone, the risk of rogue employees’ creating a reputation crisis is high. You want to act, but there are some common pitfalls that you desperately want to avoid:

1. Don’t wait. The more time you give the video to spread, the more damage your reputation takes. A simple holding statement along the lines of, “We’re aware of the situation and are launching a full investigation,” will do temporarily, but to make a real impact you should address the situation on whichever channel it emerged on, and quickly.

The response Dominos President Patrick Doyle posted in reaction to that company’s own video crisis was fairly strong, but that it wasn’t released until some 48 hours after the original had gone viral meant that a huge number of stakeholders’ feelings toward the company had been compromised. Of course, if you watch the video it’s clear that Doyle is reading from cue cards, which leads us to our second no-no…

2. Don’t go corporate. Especially with larger companies, it’s easy for the public to see any conflict with employees as a David vs. Goliath scenario. If you trot out the lawyers or release a stuffy press release filled with corporate jargon, you’re only reinforcing that viewpoint. Grab the president or CEO and get them in front of the camera for a little heart-to-heart with stakeholders.

The problem here is that most people—the rare naturals notwithstanding—need training in order to come off comfortable and personable on camera, and you won’t have the time in a crisis. If you want to maximize your ability to connect with stakeholders, then media training for top brass is a must.

3. Don’t ignore social media. You can bet that your rogue employees’ video is being shared all over Twitter, Facebook, and other social platforms, and you need to counter that. Set up monitoring tools and assign as many people as you can spare to help spot opportunities to move eyeballs off the negative footage and onto your response.

You also need to watch out for the inevitable trolls who take glee in either antagonizing you or spreading misinformation. Remember, you don’t have to respond to troll messages, but if others start taking their word as truth, it’s time to step in and set things straight.

4. Don’t forget about your fans. If you’ve been putting effort into using social media effectively—you’ve been doing that, right?—you’ll have loyal followers who regularly help you to share important information or special announcements. Don’t be shy; ask them for help spreading the word and eliminating misinformation. Most people are more than happy to pitch in if they’re asked to stand up for an organization they believe in. Part brand advocate, part online sleuth, you’d be surprised at just how helpful your fans can be in locating key influencers and defusing crises.

5. Don’t just fix it and forget it. It’s not enough to smooth over one incident and go back to business as usual. As with any type of crisis management, it’s crucial that you find the root of the problem and create ways to prevent it from arising again.

One way is to insist all employees undergo social media training, covering acceptable and unacceptable postings, and consequences for violations. If you make them aware that you’re diligently monitoring for potential problems, then suddenly posting something stupid online will become much less appealing.

As we continue to integrate social media into our lives, incidents involving damaging viral videos are only going to get more common. With hardware like Google Glass on the way, it will take nothing more than a glance to capture an incident on video, and the press of a button for it to be shared with an entire online network. Be prepared, and when such a situation does arise, remember what not to do.

Erik Bernstein is social media manager for Bernstein Crisis Management and is editor of its Crisis Manager newsletter. A version of this article first appeared on the Bernstein Crisis Management Blog.

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