Alarm Call: Social Media & Organizational Crisis

by admin

As social media platforms continue to disrupt the way that news is consumed and how traditional media operates, its impact on and relevance to how businesses operate and communicate becomes especially important to understand and plan for.

Last week, an alleged discrimination incident was caught on video at a Washington credit union. The alleged discrimination was directed at Jamela Mohamed, a Muslim black woman, who walked into the Kent branch of the Sound Credit Union to pay a bill. A teller at the credit union asked Mohamed to remove her hood because of the credit union’s policy that requires members to remove their hats, hoods or sunglasses inside the branch for their safety. Mohamed said she was wearing a hood because she was observing Jummah, a congregational prayer that Muslims hold every Friday around noontime. The video, which Mohamed posted on her Facebook page, ignited a social media firestorm from thousands of people demanding that the employee involved be fired. As of this morning, there were 2,547 comments, 7,398 shares and the video had 677,000 views.

All of this happened in the proverbial ‘blink of an eye’. It’s unlikely that Sound CU’s senior management or executive team had any idea about or had even been notified that this incident was occurring and, even if they had, there would have been precious little time to coordinate a proper response (let alone a response that could hope to quell the social media firestorm). The only option in this case, as in so many others, seems to have been to react in the moment.

If that old crisis management adage “it’s not IF but WHEN” holds true (and there seems to be overwhelming evidence that it is), there’s no question that businesses must take seriously the importance of strategic crisis management and communications planning and preparation. Social media has, by now, made it painfully clear that news and the spread of information (such as the sometimes ugly details of customer experience) is instant – there is no hold-time. Anything that happens can and will be posted-tweeted-shared instantaneously – and the social reaction will be swift and relentless.

In this case, a policy requiring members to remove hoods, hats, & sunglasses simply wasn’t enough to prevent a situation like this from occurring. Business and organizational policies are rarely public-facing and, even when they are, they must be communicated widely, occupy a prioritized space in employee onboarding practices, and implemented with consistency (and, no, a sign that states your policy for customers to see doesn’t replace the necessity for proper communication and implementation). At first glance, a seemingly benign policy that asks customers to present themselves in a certain manner when conducting business with your organization doesn’t appear to warrant inclusion in crisis planning considerations and processes. However, this simple oversight wound up serving as the catalyst for a full-out social firestorm.

What cases like these illustrate is that the business community, at large and in general, is still a bit slow to accept the fact that organizational crises are the rule rather than the exception to it and that engaging in strategic planning for crisis management and communications well ahead of an actual crisis really is a priority. They also serve as examples of just how quickly incidents like these can escalate and that, if businesses haven’t directed time and resources to developing a strategic crisis management and communications plan that comprehensively considers organizational operations as part and parcel to public perception and engagement.

For better or worse, social media is here and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. It’s best to acknowledge the impact it has on how we conduct business and interact with our publics – for better or worse – and plan accordingly. Simple, really.