Lessons from Office Max’s ‘daughter killed in car crash’ gaffe

The father of a girl killed in a car crash received a mailer from Office Max addressed to “Mike Seay, Daughter Killed in Car Crash.” Its crisis communications response leaves a lot to be desired.

On Tuesday, Googling “Office Max” will return more results than simply an e-commerce site for purchasing office supplies. It will also spotlight a number of news stories detailing a recent incident where a father received a direct mail letter from the company addressed to “Mike Seay, Daughter Killed in Car Crash.”

Unfortunately for Office Max, the mailing label is no coincidence. Seay’s daughter was killed in a car crash in 2013. In a statement released to the LA Times, the retailer described the gaffe as the “result of a mailing list rented through a third-party provider.”

But what happened to Seay mushroomed far beyond a painful mistake for a grieving family and swelled into a full-blown crisis communications disaster. Media quickly learned an Office Max call center rep refused to believe Seay’s story, and a company spokeswoman’s response was only to say the company was gathering information about the incident.

While an Office Max executive logged an apology call to the family and finally posted an update to its Facebook page on Jan. 21, the damage is likely to be long-lasting.

So, what can we learn from Office Max’s direct mail misfire and crisis communications gaffe?

You can’t hide from social media

Office Max did not tweet from Jan. 17-19, and its Jan. 20 Facebook posting was a $10 off $30 coupon. Meanwhile, countless tweets and Facebook posts were directed at the office supply retailer questioning its conduct and lack of public acknowledgement of the issue. Further, social media users openly accused the retailer of greed, attacking its “lack of morals” and management’s “not my fault” mentality.

Crisis aside, brands need to show that they are in tune with their social media communities and what is happening in the world around them. You wouldn’t encourage people to buy a ski parka to stay warm during the summer—and you don’t offer them $10 off when your company is being accused of immoral conduct.

Accountability and transparency reign supreme

Many of the comments shared on Facebook and Twitter pointed at the same egregious oversight—Office Max’s lack of accountability. From the call center representative who refused to believe a customer received such a mailing to the “we’re looking into it” statements shared with media, Office Max forgot the golden rule of retail: The customer is always right.

The “we’re looking into it” statement should have been preceded by an apology to Seay and, regardless of the incident details, Office Max should have taken immediate ownership of the situation.

Never underestimate word of mouth… or word of mouse

People talk. They tweet. They Facebook. You get the idea. You don’t need to be a fan or a follower to know that Office Max missed the mark. For a retail and e-commerce outfit, this can impact sales nationally. It also tarnishes one of a brand’s most valuable assets: their reputation. Which leads me to the next lesson…

Damage control and reputation management

While the media coverage and social media comments will get bumped down as new stories are filed and new comments posted, Office Max’s reputation is far from repaired just because it apologized. The days between Seay’s Friday call to customer service, Sunday night’s phone call apology and Tuesday’s Facebook acknowledgement left consumers with time to discuss, critique and criticize the brand.

The story was seen and heard by thousands of potential Office Max customers and potential brand ambassadors, and will not soon be forgotten. Time spent trying to identify what happened was time spent letting brand equity dwindle and audiences’ ire dominate countless conversations.

Big data = Big problems

In a world where countless bits of personal information are shared across the Web, companies can learn more about their clients and prospects than ever before. While some of this data can be valuable in honing sales pitches and preventing uninterested audiences from being spammed with irrelevant material, it can also yield uncomfortable brand-customer interactions. In the case of Office Max, it also catalyzed a crisis communications debacle.

While Office Max is not the only brand to face the impact of a crisis communications misfire, it’s a prime example of how data, when misused, can become a marketing liability as opposed to a marketing asset. Whether your company is B2B or B2C, this incident is a reminder to maintain an up-to-date crisis communications plan. Leaving a crisis scenario unaddressed can not only damage brand reputation and equity, but also foster perceptions that happy customers are not a brand’s top priority.

A version of this article first appeared on the Co-Communications’ blog.

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