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Gee whiz. We were planning on kicking off the blog with a nice little piece introducing ourselves… and then Myer CEO Bernie Brookes stuck his foot firmly in his mouth, and suddenly we’ve got something infinitely more interesting to talk about.

How to fail at managing a social media crisis.

Because, let’s face it, Myer did so in spectacular fashion in early May 2013.

The whole debacle was ignited on Wednesday 1 May, when Mr. Brookes announced to a conference audience that the Federal Government’s proposed increase to the Medicare Levy to fund the national disability insurance scheme would hurt store sales.

Brace yourself for this shocker: the internet did not exactly respond positively to Mr. Brookes publicly placing concern for his company’s bottom line over the welfare of Australians with disabilities.

Screengrab of angry comments from NDIS supporters on the Myer Facebook page

Some of the angry comments on the Myer Facebook page

The negative comments that began to appear on Myer’s Facebook page, and in the @myer_mystore mentions, were numerous, and they were furious. People with disabilities, their families and friends were incensed. Disability activists began engaging their networks. The word boycott was thrown into the mix with vigour.

This development presented two of the classic signs a crisis had reached Myer’s fair shores:

The normal communication practice has changed: as soon as the volume and tone of the online conversation around your brand deviates from the norm, you may well have a crisis on your hands.
Scale or Scope: if your customers are, en masse, this angry, there is real potential for significant reputation and/or material impact on the company.

While no-one is particularly surprised that a company would place priority on its bottom line over the welfare of vulnerable Australians, what was shocking was how poorly the crisis was handled by the Myer team.

The speech itself was given on the Wednesday afternoon, and reported on by the Sydney Morning Herald by that evening. ABC RampUp editor and disability activist Stella Young had tweeted the story to her 11,000 followers by 9pm that night. This crisis already had legs.

Screengrab: Disability advocate and journalist, Stella Young, tweets about the Myer NDIS scandal

High-profile Tweeter and disability advocate, Stella Young got on it early.

And yet the Australian public waited all night (and some of the next morning) before getting a response from Myer’s team. Why so long? Because their social channels are typically only monitored from 9am- 5pm, Monday to Friday. Seems someone in the Myer comms team forgot that the social news cycle is 24-hours.

It was an excruciating wait – both as digital strategists and compassionate human beings – to see what Myer would have to say, and when they came out with it at 7am on Thursday May 2nd… boy, was it a doozy.

Screengrab: Myer posts a 'non-apology' apology on its Facebook page

The classic ‘non-apology’ apology.

What’s wrong with this? Let’s start with the obvious: in the post – on a page with potential reach of nearly 200,000 users – Myer doesn’t sound even a little sorry for Mr. Brookes’ comments. In fact, the word ‘sorry’ doesn’t even appear – not even in the typical ‘we’re sorry you’re offended’ way.

Their first tweet addressing the issue gave a little more hope.

Screengrab: Myer apologises on Twitter for Bernie Brookes'  comments, and reinforces support for NDIS.

A solid apology appeared on Twitter.

Bernie Brookes’ later emailed personal apology also made  headway, stating, “However, I do apologise to those who have taken offence to my comments about an increase in taxes”.

But in Mr. Brookes’ statement lies the crucial fault in Myer’s approach. The ‘sorry’ portion of Mr. Brookes’ statement is a ‘however’. An addendum. The bulk of the message is, like the Facebook post, an explanation of Mr. Brookes’ and Myer’s political objection to NDIS; and by pushing the focus to the politics of the situation, Brookes and Myer have negated the value of their apology, and further incensed the public.

Myer was now facing a petition, initiated by disability commissioner Graeme Innes and already signed by 20,000 people, calling for Myer to show support for Australians with disability by ‘‘committing to an employment target of 10 per cent of people with disability by the end of 2015’’.

The situation had gone from a poor-taste comment at a conference to a deep and public examination of Myer’s position as a ‘good’ corporate citizen and equal opportunity employer.

So, what could Myer have done to nip this crisis in the bud?

  • Been ahead of the curve
    Waiting until the next day to respond to a single customer complaint is not ideal; waiting until the next day to address a crisis is negligent. Social media is a 24-hour news cycle, and it’s a cycle shaped by consumers. When a situation like this snowballs, it’s up to the brand to be already running in the right direction – which is where listening posts come in. Whether it’s Radian6 or Google Alerts, brands need to be all ears online. And not just during business hours.
  • Put Bernie front and centre
    The inflammatory comments were made by Bernie Brookes – regardless of how representative they were of the broader sentiment at Myer, the apology should have come only from Mr. Brookes. By placing the brand as a whole in the position of apologizing for his statement, it was no longer a case of, ‘Myer’s CEO doesn’t care about people with disabilities’, but ‘Myer doesn’t care about people with disabilities’.
  • Offer a real apology
    The national disability insurance scheme is a reform charged with enormous emotion. Any apology made by Myer needed to be emotional and authentic in order to make an impact. For the millions of Australians who care about NDIS, many of them vocal online advocates, this was a personal attack, and it needed to be a personal apology.

No company is immune to the risk of negative publicity online; however, too few companies have robust strategies in place to negate this risk, or handle the circumstances when crisis does arise. A well-planed and cohesive strategy focused on digital platforms can help you prepare for, manage, and minimize damage from crisis situations, reducing longer and wider-reaching impact on your brand.

In light of Myer’s misstep, we think this is an ideal time for all businesses to take stock of their crisis plans, and develop stronger strategies for risk management both online and off. Make sure you’re crisis ready!

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