What should a small business do when a former client kills one of the most beloved animals in the world and the social media backlash turns into a tidal wave?
My marketing firm, Page 1 Solutions, recently found itself in that situation when a former client, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer, admitted to killing internationally revered lion Cecil during a hunting expedition in Zimbabwe. The story exploded on social media, and Page 1 began receiving negative attention from people under the mistaken impression that our company managed Palmer’s dental website.
As our president explained in a post, Page 1 Solutions hasn’t worked with Palmer since 2013. Nevertheless, our company was swept up in the online outrage. When news about Cecil’s death broke Tuesday, we started receiving angry calls, emails and social media posts accusing us of hiding our relationship with Palmer and continuing to market his dental practice.
Several members of our team have been in crisis management mode since this situation arose, devoting substantial energy responding to the myriad of online comments we’ve received, answering client concerns and talking to local reporters to get the facts out. In doing so, we’ve pulled together as a team, strengthened our skills and emerged stronger than ever.
In responding to this crisis, we have identified several key takeaways that other small businesses can use when they get caught in the middle of controversy.
1. Get in front of the issue.
When we realized the connection people were (incorrectly) making between Palmer and our agency, we took action.
Our senior IT specialist discovered that Palmer failed to transfer his practice’s domain name when he moved to a new marketing company, which meant people could still find an association between Page 1 Solutions and Palmer’s dental practice, River Bluff Dental. Meanwhile, one of our social media specialists immediately began responding individually to the harsh, sometimes frightening sentiments people were expressing on our Facebook page and Twitter feed. These individual responses resolved many people’s concerns.
We also released a series of statements on our blog: an initial response followed by our president’s more detailed post. An account manager also began positioning our story with local news outlets about the impact that the online outrage against Palmer had on us.
By the next day, the website registration information was updated, the tide of negative social comments was turning and our president had already been interviewed four times by Denver TV, radio and print outlets.
2. Don’t be afraid to take a stance.
At Page 1, we too were genuinely outraged. The challenge was showing the people who shared our feelings that their anger at Palmer was being misdirected at us.
Our message was based in fact: The business relationship between Page 1 Solutions and Palmer’s practice had been nonexistent for years. With each response, each interview and even conversations between team members around the office, our anger at Cecil’s death came through.
This crisis was an opportunity to clear our company’s name and reaffirm our commitment to the community by discussing a love of nature that not only underlies many employees’ leisure activities but is a frequent source of our charitable contributions and volunteering activities.
3. Internal communication is critical.
Though no emergency situation is ever easy to weather, it’s not uncommon for large companies to have a crisis management plan in place and even employees with designated duties in the event of a crisis. As a small business with little experience with crises (and certainly not one so big and well-publicized), we did not have procedures in place to respond.
In light of these events, we are creating a crisis plan. Even though we had no blueprint when this crisis took place, the Page 1 team endured and even rose above the challenges this situation threw at us. Your organization can, too.
One of the biggest benefits of a small company is the flexibility of roles. By hiring talented people passionate about protecting your brand, you can harness their diverse skill sets and fluidly deal with the public-facing and behind-the-scenes issues attending any crisis.
The key component is division of labor. Keeping the lines of communication open makes it possible for employees involved in resolving the crisis to figure out who is doing what and keep each other abreast of relevant updates. Here at Page 1, we first communicated via a series of emails, followed by a company meeting. Team members then began communicating with our clients by email and phone.
A team member took responsibility for monitoring each of our social channels for spiteful comments or unfair reviews. These employees were then able to communicate what was happening to the director of account services and determine the appropriate response. Later, when the news media began covering our story, management and employees from different departments maintained active correspondence about requests for interviews, where reports and mentions of Page 1 were being published and where further opportunities might lie for distributing our message.
4. Take an active approach.
Once your business is in crisis, start taking active steps to extricate yourself from the situation. It can be a daunting task to start responding to criticism and tough questions when you aren’t prepared, but diving in makes it possible for you to start controlling the message.
Even if your organization is small, you have means at your disposal to elucidate the truth and be heard. Always lead with the facts. Social media is likely your first line of defense, followed by traditional media.
In Page 1’s case, we sought not only to clear our company’s name but also make an effort to right the situation. Using a portion of profits, our subsidiary Altrumedia adopted a lion at the Colorado Wild Animal Sanctuary. His name is Orion, and we hope our support for him will be a fitting memoriam for the loss of Cecil.
Every crisis is a crucible. You and your employees will feel the heat, but you can emerge from the situation stronger with an immediate, truthful response executed by dedicated team members. Since this situation arose, Page 1 Solutions has received overwhelmingly support both internally and externally from clients, friends and even people we have never met.
Adam Rowan is a content specialist at Page 1 Solutions in Golden, Colorado.