Unless you live under a rock that has a poor wi-fi connection, you’ve likely heard of the recent United Airlines crisis. Thanks to online video footage of a passenger, bloodied, and being forcibly removed (“re-accommodated”) from his flight from Chicago to Louisville, United Airlines is dealing with a brand crisis from which it may never fully recover, according to leading communication and public relations experts.

“If the initial reaction on social media and at office water coolers is any indication, United has already lost a significant group of customers,” said Matt Rizzetta, CEO, North 6th Agency.

Tony Keller, SVP of the PR agency, SSPR, elaborates on such a sentiment by saying,

“There will be no immediate bounce-back. This particular situation has been so visual and so virally explosive, it will require a marathon of image-makeover strategies to recover. United will likely try to rebound by voicing thousands of words over the course of days and weeks, but the images and audio of a lifeless passenger, whose only offense was sitting in his assigned seat, being bloodied and dragged down a narrow airplane aisle are simply too raw for this to be repaired anytime soon.”

United’s disaster, which caused its stock to lose over $1 billion dollars within a matter of hours, proves how damaging words and images can be online, and this disaster isn’t limited to multi-billion dollar airlines. It’s crucial that every customer facing business is prepared for the threat of complaints going viral online.

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Picture this: Your national restaurant chain, with 100+ locations, encounters food contamination in some of the produce used in less than a handful of locations. Several customers have gotten sick, you’re struggling to find a new supplier, and local news stations are beginning to report on your misfortune.

On its own, this crisis is scary and creates a full-time job to fix, costing thousands of dollars and countless hours of damage control. Now, with the advent of social outlets like Yelp, Facebook, and Google that blast out consumer reviews, this contamination issue that only impacted a handful of your restaurants, is now spreading to other locations under your brand’s umbrella. People who’ve never eaten at your restaurants, and some who’ve never heard of your restaurants, begin to write reviews on Yelp, Facebook, and Google regarding what “a friend said” or what they “saw on the news.”

Evidence of this, are the thousands of negative reviews United Airlines is now receiving online, based on one event.

Such reviews are often posted on location pages, management teams don’t even know exist. In United’s case, a quick look at a few of these listings, reveals that the pages haven’t been claimed (aren’t owned) by the company.

Listings like these are often created by an online data feed, have no working credentials for your access, and are left open for attack. During a time of crisis, these pages go from having one or two reviews, to having hundreds, even thousands, within a matter of hours.

In such a scenario, your brand would have a black eye, nationwide, that you may not even know exists. Once you discover the things that are being said, you will have days’ worth of red tape to cut through before you can claim ownership of the listings and begin to address the concerns of the reviewers. In the meantime, negative reviews are flooding in and you are left helpless, while your revenue hits rock bottom.

Again, United isn’t the only company who faces such challenges. From individual business owners, to nationwide franchisees, this anxiety filled, seemingly helpless scenario, resonates with many brands we’ve encountered.

To aide you in avoiding the same pitfalls these businesses encountered, here are some items to focus on in order to prevent a catastrophic brand crisis:

  1. Confirm that your listings on top sites are claimed and accessible

    You can do this one-by-one by typing in your locations’ names and addresses in Google, but if you’re wanting to finish sometime before next year, you may want to look for a platform that will consolidate all of your listings, across multiple locations, in one central place. Don’t be deceived if your listings just look good. You must claim ownership and have working credentials to access the listing. Merchant Centric specializes in crisis management preparations and solutions, including a multi-location brand management platform.

  2. Understand your options for addressing negative content

    After you’ve uncovered which of your business’ locations have online listing pages, you can begin the process of proactively taking control of those listings. Your business representatives will have to go through a verification process for every site, and it is important that each listing has a correct phone number, street and web address.

    Be wary of companies that offer data feed solutions that blanket your listing pages with your business information. Those solutions, while giving consumers information, do not always grant control over what is published on your listings (reviews). The best solutions allow you to not only claim your pages and ensure their information is accurate, but also, provide an easy way to modify or address the content should the need arise.

    IMPORTANT NOTE: Specifically for reviews, you will not be able to submit a reply to consumers until after you have uploaded an approved photo of the business owner. The approval process for this takes up to three days, so make sure you give yourself time. You do not want to be waiting while negative reviews are piling up.

  3. Learn what you can do to remove harmful content

    Every review site has content guidelines that dictate what reviewers can and can’t post. For instance, if we consider the case mentioned earlier, if a person posts on Yelp about a health issue she “saw on the news,” and does not mention purchasing goods or services herself, she may be in violation of Yelp’s content guidelines; however, she may not be in violation of Google’s guidelines.

    Familiarize yourself with the guidelines for each listing site relevant to your industry. This will inform you of what recourse you have in terms of getting damning content removed. Should you need help with this, Merchant Centric’s team of Consumer Engagement Experts is always happy to speak with you.

Admittedly, United Airlines’ concerns go far beyond online listings, but a very real lesson can be taken from their struggles and applied to all channels of communication: Be ready for online complaints to happen (it’s all but inevitable), and have a fine-tuned reputation management strategy in place before the crisis occurs.

Online consumer engagement and reputation crisis management can be a scary thing, but it doesn’t have to be. Like anything in life, things that worry us become much less intimidating when we understand them, and prepare ourselves with the appropriate tools for defense.

Of course, finding some allies to help in the fight is always a good idea as well. To learn more about how Merchant Centric can help you, please email connie@merchantcentric.com or call (818) 665-7865