Social media crises can come from anywhere, anytime and any Place. If not managed carefully, issues can easily boil over into crisis and get a company into hot water. Just ask American retailer JC Penney.
1. The JC Penney billboard in Southern California
In 2013, the retailer launched the Michael Graves Design Bells and Whistles Stainless Steel Kettle and promoted it on a billboard. It seemed business as usual. Then, the retailer suddenly realised it had an issue brewing when someone on Reddit claimed that the kettle looked like Adolf Hitler (Figure 1).
Pretty soon, the Redditors had a field day with puns and jokes galore, mocking the kettle design. Thousands claimed that the handle resembled Hitler’s hair and the little knob on the lid, his moustache.
2. JC Penney’s Twitter response
JC Penney first assessed the online sentiment before coming out with its quick response. It chose a lighthearted approach to reflect the tone of the exchanges.
It explained that the resemblance was “totally unintentional” and if they were to design a kettle to look like anything, it would look like a snowman (Figure 2). By making this kind of a comparison, it succeeded in defusing the issue fast.
The company also made sure to respond to well-known Twitter users, with a large following (Figure 3).
So, what can we learn from JC Penney’s “Hitler Kettle” storm?
RIGHT TONE: First of all, JC Penney hit the right tone when it came to its response. Often, this is the most challenging aspect given that social media is like the wild, wild west, different from traditional media.
ASSESS ONLINE SENTIMENTS: The JC Penney team had assessed the online sentiments correctly. It did not take the matter too seriously and managed to win over many of the online detractors with its light touch.
SPEED: On social media, speed matters and its public relations team was quick to respond to the saga on the platforms. They not only knew how many people were talking but also who were talking. And they varied their response accordingly, especially to the key influencers on Twitter to swing the tide in their favour.
Key takeaways from JC Penney’s Kettle Storm
- Spot and respond to potential issues on social media before they get out of hand.
- Assess online sentiments to decide on the right tone to respond.
- Move fast and decisively because speed matters.
- Engage key influencers to sway public opinion.
What more could have been done?
Some experts said the retailer should also have issued a media statement, to explain the situation and apologise to whoever might had been offended by the claim that the kettle resembled Hitler. Even better, the company could have posted a video by its spokesperson to come across as more authentic than a written statement.
A more recent incident happened to the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) when its online banking service was disrupted.
Like JC Penney, DBS was quick to respond. But it went that one step further than the retailer. Its senior management issued a video apology online, which was picked up by traditional media. This meant that the bank had total control of the look and sound, reducing the likelihood of the interview being taken out of context.
Social media is a double edged sword. It cuts both ways. And it pays for companies to harness its power to control the narrative.
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About the Writer (BCP Asia Crisis Communications and Media Handling’s Trainers):
Ms. Rebecca Low, Ms. How Hwee Yin, Ms. Ingrid Ho