9 social media crisis questions Dole failed to answer

Dole Food’s inaction following its recall of bagged salads is a case study of what not to do.

Driving to work on Monday, April 16, I was flipping through the radio dial and caught a story on NPR about a recall by Dole Food Co.

Apparently, it was a fairly small matter involving about 750 cases of a particular Dole bagged salad product that could pose a salmonella threat.

At the office I went online to see what Dole was doing. Surely, I thought, it would handle this with confidence.

After all, it is the world’s largest producer and marketer of fruit and fresh vegetables, does business in more than 90 countries, and employs some 36,000 full-time, regular employees worldwide—not to mention 23,000 full-time seasonal or temporary employees (according to its LinkedIn page).

Boy, was I wrong.

After spending some time dissecting just how poorly Dole was handling this, I came away with lessons to share.

(By the way, this post is not meant to be overtly negative toward Dole. I’m a customer of the company; I like its products and will continue to support it. However, this particular “crisis” demonstrates that even a monolithic enterprise like Dole can fall short in addressing a crisis effectively using social media.)

An example of similar inaction occurred when Sony experienced a Playstation Network outage in 2011. Instead of the physical health of its customers being at risk, it was dealing with its financial health—as 77 million Playstation customers had had credit card information stolen. Sony finally confirmed this to customers a full 14 days after the incident.

This resulted in weeks of bad press for Sony, as well as the questioning of the company by U.S. and British officials.

One would think that among 36,000 employees, in this Dole example, there would be at least one person willing and able to use social media responsibly to inform the public about this recall.

The risk of inaction

During a crisis, it is essential for organizations to act quickly and proactively. Sitting silently on the sidelines says four things to people:

1. You’re clueless (or your marketing/PR/social media people are not empowered to act with authority).

2. You don’t care.

3. You got caught with your pants down.

4. You have something to hide.

Let’s review the nine questions your company needs to ask before a crisis like this occurs.

1. What day is it?

I found out about the Dole crisis early Monday, April 16. I discovered Dole knew about this over the weekend, and perhaps even late the previous week.

A press release about the Dole recall was posted on the FDA’s website Saturday, April 14. Dole posted a press release on its own site that same day, but it’s buried.

As you will see below, the recall news did not appear on any of Dole’s social media channels (that I could find) until about 1 p.m. EST Monday, two full days after its press release was issued.

Lessons learned:

  • If you find yourself in a crisis, you should be among the first to post the news- first on your own site then on every single social media channel you have. It’s called taking responsibility and showing you care.
  • The day of the week that crisis strikes is irrelevant. Most will happen at the worst times, such as in the middle of the night during a holiday. You need to be prepared to respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Posting 36-48 hours later is unacceptable.
  • Companies have long drilled in worst-case, “what if” scenarios. These now extend to what will happen when word hits social media sites. You need to be fully prepared, with all roles and responsibilities defined and rehearsed until they are second nature. A handful of people cannot be the only keepers of the flame during a social media crisis. Get your team ready in advance, and have ample backup strategies.

2. What’s on your home page?

Let’s say your company or organization gets hit with a crisis. It could be a product recall, a natural disaster, a tragedy in one of your locations—you name it. One of the first places people will go is your home page.

In the case of the recall, on Dole’s home page there are no news items, nor any prominent navigation buttons to news.

You might think you could find something about the recall in the footer link called Nutrition News, but that just pulls up this page:

Instead, to find news releases you first have to click Company Information, then either News Center or Press Releases. That’s a minimum of two clicks from the home page.

Lessons learned:

  • Make it easy for the general public and the media to read news on your home page. Don’t make them click two or more times to find releases.
  • You might also embed recent news on the home page itself. Even better, work with your webmaster to create a “crisis news” mode that you can toggle on and off as needed. This might be a prominent banner or area that occupies an eye-catching portion of your home page during a crisis.

3. Where is your social media presence?

After visiting your website (or increasingly for many people, before they go to your actual site), they will seek you out on social media sites. When crisis strikes, it’s too late to register and set up social profiles.

Lessons learned:

  • First, have you secured your name and set up presences on all major channels for use in a crisis? One of the easiest tools for signing up on multiple sites is KnowEm.
  • Second, are you actively monitoring and responding to people through primary social media sites? People were talking about this crisis, but it didn’t appear that Dole was listening.

4. Where is your company blog?

Do you have a blog? A global company with 36,000 full-time employees certainly has a blog, right? Based on a Google search, Dole does not.

Lesson learned:

  • A blog is a must-have presence for every company of any size that (1) takes itself seriously and (2) expects anyone to seek out information about the company for any reason. It is inexcusable for global brands to avoid having an active blog or multiple blogs.

5. What industry blogs will customers turn to?

What are others saying about your company during a crisis?

For Dole, many people used it as an opportunity to vent their frustration on sites including The Huffington Post. The company was noticeably absent in responding.

Lessons learned:

  • Set up blog monitoring, and be prepared to swiftly post in the comments sections of others’ blogs.
  • Claim company posting profiles on Disqus and Gravatar.

6. Are you prepared to respond on Facebook?

Dole really dropped the ball regarding Facebook. Two days after the recall was announced in its press release, its main post was about the Dole Real Fruit Bites’ 3 Steps to Bliss sweepstakes. Seriously, that was the focus even though people’s lives might be at stake with bags of its salads sitting in the fridge or in store display cases?

Several people were posting about the crisis, with no response from Dole. I posted a message there (and on Google+) and never got a reply.

It took Dole until early afternoon on April 16 to finally post about the recall.

Lessons learned:

  • Facebook should be one of the first places you post when crisis strikes. Even if you “don’t have your act together,” you need to acknowledge that you are looking into the situation and preparing to fix the problem.
  • You also need to monitor Facebook and respond quickly to customers. Use either enterprise software that allows multiple administrators to receive notifications of all posts or a service that will alert the proper people when certain posts are made. For those on a budget, set up free email alerts for your Facebook page(s) using HyperAlerts. Worst case, put several administrators on rotating duty to monitor Facebook and respond within eight hours.
  • With the new Facebook Pages layout, you can “pin” sticky posts to the top of the page. Do this as soon as possible during a crisis, and keep relevant information updated and pinned. Explain where people can get more information and help.
  • You can now choose to accept private messages to the page as well. These are disabled by default. However, it may be advantageous to turn these on, particularly during a crisis. Just make sure you are equipped to handle an influx of messages and to reply promptly.

7. Are you prepared to respond on Twitter?

Sadly, Dole missed out on securing Twitter.com/dole. So the only way to find the company’s feed is to do a search for “Dole Twitter” and see what comes up.

It turns out Dole has two Twitter accounts, @DoleFoods and @DoleNutrition. Neither was updated to mention the crisis, and neither had anything of substance in its bio.

The only recent conversation was between Dole and someone asking about a mango-flavored smoothie. This is hardly life-or-death material compared with a salmonella threat.

Lessons learned:

  • First, make sure you link to your primary Twitter account(s) from your website.
  • Second, if your brand is large enough—and Dole is—you should reach out to Twitter for a verified account so that customers know your account is official. You do not want to have a @BPglobalPR fake account telling the story for you.
  • Third, update your bio to reflect the crisis, or provide a link to your company crisis/news site. Also, consider temporarily changing your background branding image on Twitter during a crisis, with information and links to your crisis site or blog, hotline number, and other main channels.
  • Above all, tweet frequently about any crisis-as soon as you catch wind of it and as it unfolds.
  • Pay close attention to anyone mentioning your brand. Twitter is a major source of breaking news,so it is one of the first and best places to learn what people are saying about your company.

8. Are you prepared to respond on Google+?

The good news for Dole is at least it has a Google+ page (although it is debatable whether this is its official page or just one that a squatter set up).

The bad news: There is nothing on it and certainly nothing about the salad recall.

Lessons learned:

  • Companies that are slow to embrace Google+ at this point do so at their peril. It is a fast-growing, influential network that affects organic search rankings.
  • Google+ should be a primary outlet for companies to use during a crisis. Updates here will quickly pop up in Google search results, making it easier for customers to get answers.
  • Google+ is also a great place for companies to engage highly active and tech-savvy customers who can help spread their side of the story. For example, Dole could hold Hangouts to share information about the situation and its response.

9. Are you prepared to respond on Pinterest?

Companies—particularly big consumer brands like Dole—are flocking to Pinterest, and with good reason. Though new, Pinterest is already one of the most popular social networks in the United States. It’s a great place for brands to enhance their following and stay top of mind.

So again, good news: Dole is on Pinterest (under Dole Nutrition, not Dole Food Co.). It has about 20 boards, ranging from kitchen gadgets to the requisite gorgeous food shots. But what it doesn’t have is any way to post newsworthy items.

Lessons learned:

  • Think beyond using Pinterest merely to post pretty pictures.
  • Use Pinterest to quickly spread newsworthy messages in a visual fashion (ideally by pinning images from your blog).

Answer these questions and take action now

Dole slipped on the digital banana peel in this instance. With luck, someone at Dole headquarters will read this and take these lessons to heart before it again finds itself facing negative public opinion.

Other companies need to heed lessons like this and act now to ensure they are not caught flatfooted when a crisis strikes.

Brandon Uttley is CEO of Command Partners, which specializes in driving online visibility and lead generation through social media, SEO, online PR, and integrated digital marketing services. A version of this article first appeared on Social Fresh.


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