Tech-Talk: PR Lessons from Path

Last week Path, a social network that describes itself as a smart journal, found itself in quiteImage a predicament after it was discovered that the company was uploading users’ iPhone address books to its servers without giving notice. With consumer privacy on the top of everyone’s minds these days, this discovery didn’t bode well for the company. Users were angry and reporters and bloggers were taking notice.

Within 24 hours after the first story hit the Internet, Path had issued a very honest and sincere apology, fixed the problem by implementing an opt-in button that gives users the decision to share or not share their personal data and deleted the entire collection of data from their servers. In our opinion, the company’s CEO and Founder Dave Morin, handled the situation with grace, honesty, transparency and most importantly addressed the issue at hand in a timely and effective manner.

For every company or personality that handles a crisis correctly, such as Path, there are a hundred that completely botch it. We thought this provided an excellent opportunity to discuss what to do and what not to do in a crisis situation – especially when sensitive data is involved.

  • Be Transparent: We can’t reiterate enough how important this is, especially with a consumer facing company. Users want to know what’s happening and they want to know why it happened. Covering it up only makes it worse when the truth comes out. Path took to their blog to admit that they had made a mistake, explain in detail what happened and how they were addressing the issue. The company respected its consumers enough to speak openly about the privacy issues and very frankly discuss what went wrong. Because of Path’s honesty, consumers felt reassured that their privacy was being respected and that they were being heard.
  • Be Sincere: Just as you can tell when your friend isn’t really sorry for taking the last piece of pizza, people can tell when a company or personality isn’t actually sorry for its actions. It’s not just about getting an apology out or addressing the situation, it’s about being real with your users. Sending out an insincere message is only going to hurt your brand. You need to ensure that you mean what you say. For example Path didn’t simply say they were sorry, they created a solution, opened the company up to their consumers, and  encouraged users to contact them with questions. The company also didn’t just address what would happen for consumers moving forward, but recognized that the users they already had were just as important and deleted the information they had illegally taken from them.  
  • Be Active and Timely: It’s not just about transparency and sincerity. As cliché as it may be, actions will always speak louder than words and timely actions will always be heard the best. The public needs to know that you’re on top of change. In Path’s situation a permanent quick fix was feasible. However, we understand that sometimes a company isn’t capable of turning around the right answer in such a short time period. That’s where transparency and action come together. You need to take the little bit of action that is possible. Maybe it only fixes a fifth of the problem, but letting consumers know that you’re actually doing everything you can is going to go along way.
  • Sync Your Messages: Last but not least, make sure that what you’re communicating to your employees is both in line, and timed, with your external PR strategy. If you are conducting layoffs or have an unfortunate situation like Path’s, it’s best to be upfront and transparent with them just as you would your external constituents. This approach, in the age of social media, can keep employees from sharing the unpleasant news on Twitter feeds and making your external consequences worse. No one wants to have one story, let alone two surrounding a crisis. So try to let employees know what is going on at the same time, or just before you alert the media. Timing is very tricky but, when done correctly, can be the only thing on your side in times of crisis.

Of course, some crisis situations aren’t as cut and dry as saying something is wrong and there is a way to fix it. BP, NIKE and Tiger Woods can all attest to this. But, the principles above still apply. Be transparent and sincere in your interactions with your target audience and take action in a timely matter, whether it’s an actual fix or in making a statement.

While we hope that your company will never find itself in a situation like this, keep these tips in mind and you’ll be one step closer to turning wrongs into rights.

Posted on February 14, 2012, in The Hit Board and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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