What the staff saw
It was certainly a crisis for DSG International when a Sunday newspaper discovered that staff at its electronic store chains, Currys and PC World, had been slating customers on social networking site Facebook.
They may have intended their group to remain private, but with about 3,000 members, there was always the likelihood that the nasty messages would become public. Foolishly, many of the comments have been made under the authors' real names.
Customers stand accused of being 'really, really stupid' and 'ignorant', the article's opening line declared, before adding: 'Staff at PC World and Currys are using Facebook to launch a torrent of abuse at customers.'
The story came out on 6 September, and DSG corporate communicators swung into action to ensure that the reputations of their flagship shops were not wrecked as a result.
'We have clear guidelines for staff and will investigate any alleged abuse of customers,' a statement read. 'We will take the necessary action with any staff found to be acting inappropriately.'
The extended quote is buried in the fourth of a five paragraph article, the message of 'delivering excellent customer service' subordinated to the image of vindictive staff resentful of their customers and disrespectful of their employer's image.
Whether this will be enough to satisfy offended customers who have plenty of options in the electronics market is yet to be shown. However, it is yet another example of a massive problem for communicators who must turn crisis managers as staff decide to take their grievances and puerile horseplay to social networking sites and blogs.
Corporate victims of online customer abuse have included clothes retailers Marks & Spencer and Primark, supermarket chains Asda and Waitrose, and airlines British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. This is part of a much wider problem. Footballer Darren Bent, who pined for a move from Tottenham Hotspur to Sunderland in the summer transfer window, and cricketer Philip Hughes, who was dropped from the Australian Test side, both leaked the information on Twitter.
Responses are varied as communicators figure out the best way of protecting their companies' reputations in the wake of a very modern type of corporate crisis.
A strong message can be sent by simply sacking the guilty. Virgin Atlantic fired 13 staff last year who had referred to passengers as 'chavs' on a public forum.
Paul Charles, communications director at Virgin Atlantic, says swift action needs to be taken so that customers are not lost to other brands, thinking that their feelings have been ignored. 'You can't be seen to be agreeing with the comments,' he argues. 'If you're serious about customer service then you can't have the attitude that you can employ people who criticise customers.'
Charles adds that any such comments are in contravention of contracts of employment, which state that the company is not brought into disrepute. As such, attacking customers on a Facebook group is no different to criticising the company to the press. 'Online or offline this is the same offence,' says Charles.
A spokesman for Primark, which was forced to investigate staff who had described the store's shoppers as 'tw*t customers', defines 'inappropriate or offensive comments' as gross misconduct.
Monique Lester, director at online agency London Digital PR, agrees that the only effective way of handling such a disastrous action is to take commensurate retaliation.
'If this was something else where a member of staff was damaging the business, it would be a sackable offence. Why should Internet comments be treated any differently?' argues Lester. 'Corporates have to be taught how to play rough. The guidelines should state that staff can make positive comments on approved [company] sites.'
On their terms
However, others think that the stupidity of staff can in fact be turned into corporate advantage. Gordon Beattie, the eponymous founder of crisis management and public relations firm Beattie Communications, which counts Specsavers and easyJet among its clients, was hugely impressed by Asda's response to videos posted online by former employee Adeel Ayub.
Made between 2005 and 2008, the footage emerged last month, and shows a series of disturbing images, including Ayub licking a raw chicken in the Preston branch of the supermarket giant and playing both cricket and football with stock.
Current employees at the same branch condemned the actions on a video posted on YouTube. 'What Asda did was brilliant PR,' enthuses Beattie. 'Asda and their employees basically disowned the guy and got fabulous coverage on how they handled the situation. That's the way to respond: use the same media as the employee would use.'
Beattie says that such an approach is preferable to firing employees - a reputation no corporate wants as it battles with rivals to employ the best available staff. He adds that some comments are best left to 'disappear into the ether', as, after all, a 140-character message on Twitter is likely to be forgotten in half an hour.
Indeed, some corporates seem to have taken the line that discretion, rather than a big public statement through dismissals, is better. That way the fallout does not receive continued media coverage.
A source close to Marks & Spencer says that the retailer took such a lenient line at the start of the year when an employee group forum on Facebook contained comments describing customers as 'cheap' and 'crazy'. 'People were made aware of the implications,' explains the source. 'But in the context of M&S staff it was a relatively small group of people.'
Richard Dymond, managing director at crisis management specialist Lattice PR, says that his initial advice to communicators looking to handle such a story would be to issue a very simple apology. However, he concedes that this will not be wholly effective as a journalist is likely to put this towards the bottom of their story, at which point most studies show that the reader has already moved on to the next news item.
'There's a limit to what a company can do in the short term,' sighs Dymond. 'In the medium term you have got to find out why it was that they said it. People shouldn't have to go on Facebook to raise their concerns.'
Dymond believes that the emphasis should be on ensuring that the situation does not arise again. He recommends providing an internal forum, online if the staff is predominantly young, as in the case in most retailers, as they are likely to be more comfortable on that medium than face-to-face.
The argument here is that talking on social networks is the modern equivalent of staff going down the pub and moaning about their bosses, only to be overheard by customers.
Shimon Cohen, chairman of reputation specialist The PR Office, agrees, arguing that the crisis can only be overcome by employees feeling proud of their companies, slowly putting out more upbeat messages.
He says: 'The most important thing to remember - and it never is - is that it's not the bloggers who cause the problems, but mistakes by the company that cause them. This is just the 21st century version of neighbourhood gossip - if you don't treat staff properly they will grumble.'
Cohen says that simply having regular staff meetings weeds out concerns. For example, Cohen holds a Thursday morning meeting with staff and was surprised to discover that people were worried about the financial health of the firm because of the downturn.
This had not been a fear of which Cohen was aware, as the company was in rude health. But rather than face the prospect of staff posting their fears online, he was able to go through the state of the company's finances and reassure the staff.
'The trouble is,' sighs Cohen, 'people are shooting the messenger [by sacking staff].'
Whichever route is taken, online monitoring is now vital. James Harrison is client director at online reputation management firm Digitalis Media and counts seven FTSE 100 companies among clients concerned by what is said about them online.
'The biggest challenge for companies is not what's being said about them, but what they don't know is being said,' hinting that by then it is too late - the press can get hold of staff comments ahead of their employers.
Harrison suggests that communicators need to use online monitoring products, which can trawl social media with a few keywords. Once the findings are reviewed by communicators, quick responses to dangerous comments can be made.
Only then can a communicator ensure that he or she is in control of the message, avoiding the need to make that horrible crisis management decision: whether or not to sack irresponsible, or even just disillusioned, staff.