Nobody likes a cheat and how NOT to manage your PR crisis on Facebook

November 2012

It won’t need me to tell you that in the social media age we live in, there’s nowhere to hide for a brand when it screws-up. But of course, there’s the relatively small screw-up when something upsets a few customers and the negative publicity gets a bit out of hand on Twitter, Facebook and perhaps even the daily tabloids, and the rather bigger screw-up when you actually deeply offend a good chunk of the population in the countries you operate in and serve.

This week we’ve seen Amazon do just that with its apparent reluctance to pay its fair share of tax to the UK Treasury, with two other US giants – Starbucks and Google – being accused of doing much the same. Nobody likes a cheat – and in particular a foreign one – and I don’t doubt this is the main reason why the British public has been so up in arms over the alleged tax avoidance.

But in the case of Amazon, they’ve made the problems worse for themselves by handling the crisis so badly. If you haven’t seen it already, then Google the TV footage which shows the bumbling idiot Amazon sent along to represent them in front of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. It’s shocking, and must have made the Board at Amazon absolutely cringe. But actually, and if they did, they shouldn’t be blaming the guy in the hot seat but rather themselves for a) sending someone who clearly didn’t have the skills to handle the questions, and b) didn’t allow him to give anything but woolly and wholly unsatisfactory answers. What were they thinking? A House of Commons Committee, in my books, is about as serious as it gets.

But it gets worse for Amazon, because they’ve made an absolute pig’s ear of how they’ve handled the crisis on Facebook. For one, if anyone posts even a polite question about their tax affairs on their FB page it immediately gets deleted (I tried as have others). Secondly, and despite the first point, they’re allowing posts on the same subject – and some VERY negative ones – to go onto their own posts about products (so completely unrelated subjects), and thirdly they haven’t replied to any of the latter or indeed said a sausage about the whole nasty business by way of a statement. So in other words bury your head in the sand and pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

I suspect, though I could be wrong, that part of the problem for Amazon is that it just doesn’t have the experience of dealing with such a negative news story. And why should it – this is a brand which, up until now, has stood head and shoulders above the crowd and led the way on ecommerce best practice. (I, for one, have been a massive fan.)

I don’t know how well Starbucks and Google have or haven’t handled the similar situation, but certainly in the case of Starbucks they weren’t exactly brand flavour of the year with the UK public anyway. And to some extent it matters very little to Google, as it’s not like we’re all going to switch to a smaller and inferior search engine tomorrow to find our next bargain Mediterranean holiday or cut-price blu ray player.

The obvious short term lesson here – certainly for Amazon – is that you need to have your crisis management strategy in place before the crisis actually happens. And if the crisis does happen, ensure you implement that strategy properly, which includes putting your best people on the job – not individuals who can’t string a coherent sentence together in front of a group of MPs, or don’t even know how to manage a Facebook page properly.

Then there’s the somewhat larger issue of a brand aligning its internal culture and practice with the one it portrays to the world (i.e. don’t tell people you’re a great and ethical brand, but at the same time look for legal loopholes in tax laws so you can hold onto as much dosh as possible), and perhaps the brands in question here might just have a discussion along those lines at their next board meetings.

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