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Lessons in Crisis Communication From the Amazon Cloud Outage

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The outage wasn't Netflix’s fault. The Amazon EC2 cloud computing service that powers many websites (including Foursquare, Reddit, and even HubSpot) was experiencing a temporary systems failure that disrupted service. Luckily, one of the many benefits of cloud computing is that dedicated technical teams exist at companies like Amazon to handle such outages.

What’s of greater interest was the instant explosion of online buzz about the issue. The tweets about the Netflix outage were happening faster than I could count, exceeding 100 tweets in just the few seconds I was counting. The complaints started pouring in, and after a brief delay, @Netflixhelps responded with a simple message:

netflix tweet

This did little to quell the flow of complaints, but Netflix made the right move by responding to the issue within a reasonable timeframe. Crises happen, but businesses can be prepared to mitigate these situations using some simple tactics. Here is our 7-step playbook for using social media for crisis communication and management.

1. Give the Social Team a Red Phone

Your social media team should be ready to respond immediately to any crisis or developing issue. The social mediasphere will spread news of crises and issues incredibly fast. Companies should have dedicated personnel such as support staff and public relations professionals ready to handle issues.

Lesson: Make sure that whoever is controlling your social media messages is in the loop with an appropriate response.

2. Respond Immediately

Netflix responded as fast as could be reasonably expected – within about a half hour of the outage. The worst thing that Netflix could've done was to remain silent. Customers want to know that you’re aware of the issue and that you’re taking steps to correct it.

Lesson: Post an immediate statement to your social networks acknowledging the issue.

3. Get Involved in the Conversation

What Netflix failed to do was address the sheer volume of buzz around the issue. A number of Twitter hashtags were instantly floating around, but the vast majority of the tweets mentioned Netflix. Personalized responses to tweets let people know that you care about their concerns. You don’t have to respond to every single message, but by responding to many people, you'll show people you are listening and engaging.

Lesson: Monitor the buzz on your social networks and in the blogosphere, and respond to specific messages with custom replies.

4. Notify Your Employees

In the age of social media, customers (as well as bloggers and reporters) will turn to many sources for information besides just your official pipeline. Within minutes that the outage was reported, an internal email was triggered here at HubSpot to the entire company informing us of the outage and providing us with general details. Employees can be voices in social media, too, and in the case of a major issue, they also need to know the issue exists and that steps are being taken to address it. If you think your organization is leak-proof and that people are only paying attention to your official channels, just ask the Pentagon. Lazy tweets, canned responses, and information about the issue and how it’s being addressed are great ways to make sure your employees aren’t left in the dark when trying to respond to inquiries.

Lesson: Make sure your employees have information to address the issue if asked.

5. Be Hyper-Transparent

While an immediate message about the issue is important, a better way to indicate that actions are being taken to solve it is to create and share content relevant to the issue. Netflix lost valuable traction by not addressing the key reason for the outage – issues with its cloud computing service. Sharing this detail might have made customers more forgiving, knowing that Netflix wasn't personally responsible for the problem. In a crisis, begin sharing as much information as possible about details of the issue, and give customers an as-it-happens account of the actions you're taking to resolve it. When customers see a lot activity around an issue, they’re more inclined to be patient and forgiving than if they’re left hanging, waiting for a resolution.

During the BP oil crisis, for example, hundreds of personnel were immediately involved in the response and thousands more were involved in the containment and clean-up efforts. Still, by the time BP realized the common public perception was that of inactivity and it launched its campaign to highlight its response, it was too late and the brand damage had already been done. Use tweets, Facebook posts, and YouTube videos to relay your message and maintain an active social media presence .

Lesson: The more details you can share and the more frequently you can update those affected about what you’re doing to address the issue at hand, the less time they'll have to stew on the issue.

6. Empathize With Customer Pains

Don’t just address the issue itself. Identify and respond empathetically to the pain and/or annoyance it’s causing your customers, too. In BP’s responses to the oil spill crisis, they eventually got around to acknowledging the impact on the Gulf Coast community, but by the time they did, perception was already widespread that BP wasn’t paying attention to the damaging effects of the crisis.

Lesson: Respond sympathetically to specific issues to demonstrate you know the issue is affecting real people, and that it's also being addressed by real people.

7. Be Ready for the Competition

If they’re smart, your competitors will try to take advantage of your vulnerability. Be ready to respond to their efforts to capitalize on the crisis with promoted campaigns of your own. In a Twitter search overnight for Netflix, the top tweet on every page was this:

blockbuster tweet

Lesson: Be ready to respond with and reiterate your competitive advantages.

When a crisis occurs or a significant issue develops, the first places your customers will turn are their social networks, whether they're seeking information or just want to complain. If you’re ready to respond in this medium quickly, repeatedly, personally, and with a coherent message, you can mitigate some of the immediate damage and prevent long-lasting negative sentiment from developing around your brand.

What other communication tips do you recommend for dealing with crises?

Photo Credit: Dwayne Madden

free template: social media crisis plan