Both Southwest Airlines and Internet domain name provider Go Daddy experienced PR nightmares recently, but the way they handled them and the customer response is a study not so much in PR management as it is in corporate culture.
ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Go Daddy’s famously brazen CEO Bob Parsons posted a video to his blog that showed him killing an elephant in Zimbabwe. Despite the message embedded in the video that elephants were a “problem” for local farmers and that the elephant carcass provided food for the village, critics were quick to respond and competitors were even quicker. Go Daddy has withstood similar calls for boycotts over its Super Bowl ads with little long-lasting damage. But the graphic nature of their most recent video—coupled with corporate branding in the form of Go Daddy hats given to villagers—inspired the passions of opposition groups led by PETA, but quickly joined by other vegetarian and animal rights advocates.
Far more damaging and ultimately costly was the fast actions of the competition. Network Solutions, HostPapa, NoDaddy and NameCheap all offered discounts for switching accounts and/or donations to Save the Elephants. Reportedly more than 20,000 accounts were switched in the following week, including PETA’s. Activists called for a boycott and, as of this writing, 25,840 people had pledged to boycott the company.
When days went by without a formal response from Go Daddy, the blogosphere was free to run wild with the story. Traditionally, Go Daddy’s response has a solid front of “Who cares? We’re still the biggest and the cheapest.” Its communications have primarily been through paid media, and they’ve used social media mainly for promotions and couponing, although the @Go Daddy account now appears to be used at least in part for customer service. The Twitter account, @drbobparsons, quickly moved on to other topics, despite the fact that on Twitter the “how to switch providers” conversations was still ongoing weeks later.
SOUTHWEST ON A TEAR
On the opposite end of the communications response spectrum is Southwest Airlines, which had to ground its fleet after having one of its planes rip open in midair. Its response won kudos from business and industry professionals alike. Having spent decades building relationships with both the media and its customers, Southwest starts out with all three ingredients needed to survive a crisis: a culture of openness, a commitment to communication and the ability to quickly take action.
Southwest has long been a pioneer in social media. It created a blog and joined Twitter long before they were the cool things to do. But more importantly, Southwest also took action shortly after the first plane landed; the company grounded its fleet for inspections before being required to do so. It also was out in front of the plane’s manufacturer, Boeing. It then kept its publics up to date with news alerts and social media updates.
The difference between the cultures of these two high profile brands is stark: Southwest believes in listening, Go Daddy believes in talking louder.
|Extent of coverage||F||The news about Go Daddy CEO Bob Parsons’ hunting trip video spread around both the Web and the mainstream media outlets like wildfire, fueled in part by very savvy moves by the competition and PETA.||When you’re in the crisis bubble and getting inundated with media calls, it’s very easy to forget that your threat is an opportunity for the competition. Put yourself in their shoes and think what you would do if you had a window of opportunity to woo customers away from the competition.|
|Effectiveness of spokespeople||D||Parsons is the company’s main spokesperson and thus a very large target for critics. Go Daddy’s VP of PR, Elizabeth Driscoll, responded to questions via e-mail, but her answers were limited to “this has had no effect on the business,” which did little to quell the critics.||Handling a crisis requires one to realize that the media will go to whatever source they can get to fastest. In most cases that means Facebook and Twitter, and anyone with an agenda. If you’re there, your point of view will be reflected. If not, chances are the reporters will trust the social network far more than they trust your VP of PR.|
|Communication of key messages||C||Go Daddy has actually been very consistent in its crisis messaging. Essentially they see all controversy as bringing more exposure and thus more business, so Parsons’ statements are true to form. To that end we give their messaging a passing grade.||In any crisis, messages should be meaningful to your customers. A nuanced message about feeding hungry villagers in Africa clearly did not resonate as well as PETA and NameCheap’s themes of cruelty to animals and saving elephants.|
|Management of negative messages||F||With virtually no response from Go Daddy, PETA, competitors and anyone else with an agenda were free to position the entire incident as heartless and cruel. By the time Parsons started giving interviews, he was already sounding defensive and the competition was way out ahead.||In this day and age, no organizations should be “surprised” by a video going viral. If you have competitors or other sorts of enemies, they can—and frequently will—take full advantage of any missteps. At best you have a two-hour window to neutralize the opposition.|
|Impact on Customers||C||Other than the well-publicized figure of 20,000-plus customers who switched to NameCheap and other carriers, it’s unclear how much the entire incident impacted customers. Customers that like Bob Parsons were clearly unaffected.||Assuming that customers are paying attention, it’s a safe bet that anything that goes viral and ends up on the major news programs is going to have some impact on customers. The nature of that impact can only be measured by survey research or sales figures.|
|Overall score||D||The culture of the company and quick response of the opposition combined to deal Go Daddy a severe blow to its reputation and perhaps to its sales. Given the difficulty in changing domain hosting providers, the fact that anyone switched at all is a reflection of the nerve one video can strike.||This crisis had all three necessary ingredients for permanent reputation damage: doing bad stuff; not showing remorse or compassion; and ignoring the relationship between all that bad press and their bottom line.|
|Extent of coverage||F||When you ground your entire fleet, it’s hard not to make the news, so pretty much everyone in the U.S. had an opportunity to hear about it more than once.||In this day and age, anything having to do with air travel and/or safety is bound to make headlines everywhere.|
|Effectiveness of spokespeople||A||All organizations should learn a lesson from Southwest’s approach. The official spokesperson wasn’t the CEO, but the guy making decisions about the planes themselves—Southwest maintenance and engineering chief Brian Hirshman. The company also did a remarkably good job of coordinating remarks with Boeing—a bit of cooperation one seldom finds in the first few days of a crisis.||The first thing a good spokesperson needs to do is to put him or herself in the customer’s shoes. Insistence on and delivering responsiveness is key to building trust in your future statements.|
|Communication of key messages||A||Southwest made sure that its actions reflected its messaging and vice versa. Their concern for safety was given as a reason for the grounding of the fleet, and the constant updates of status were a good indication of customer concern.||The best, most effective way to communicate key messages is not to write them down and teach them to your spokespeople, but to actually craft messages that reflect who you are and how you act.|
|Management of negative messages||B||When you ground your fleet, delay or cancel more than 3,000 flights, it’s hard to imagine that you wouldn’t hear some negative messages from the thousands of customers you’ve impacted. But overall, by acting swiftly and proactively, and not waiting for the FAA to tell them what to do, Southwest managed to duck most of the usual fallout.||Key to successful crisis communications is shouldering responsibility and proactive response. By not deflecting the responsibility or waiting for instructions, you can ward off most of the negative response.|
|Impact on customers||A||Most of Southwest’s customers seemed to take the delays and grounding in stride, chalking it up to normal airline travel. Years of building relationships with customers via its blog and Twitter feed clearly paid off.||Actions have far greater impact on customer response than any words. The key to surviving a crisis is to always put yourself in the customer’s shoes and communicate in a language they can understand.|
|Overall score||A-||This could be this generation’s version of Tylenol, a perfect case study of how to communicate in a digital-age crisis.||If communications and transparency are part of your corporate DNA, doing the right thing in a crisis will come naturally.|
[Author’s Note: Transparency disclosure—Southwest Airlines is a former client of mine and contributes to a breast cancer fundraiser that I started.]
Katie Paine is founder and CEO of KDPaine & Partners, a communications measurement agency. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.