Data breaches, distasteful ads or marketing campaigns, offensive content left unmoderated for far too long… as community professionals, we’ve studied these situations when they arise and many of us have had to manage such issues in our own communities.
In this episode, Patrick and crisis communications expert Kate Hartley discuss examples of micro and macro communications crises and how to best manage them. Kate breaks down the difference between a full blown communications crisis and negative or critical response to a change. “It’s only a crisis if it’s going to stop the community [from] being able to function,” she says. “If it’s not going to stop the community being able to function, then it’s not really a crisis. It’s an issue that just needs to be well-managed.”
Kate and Patrick also discuss:
- How social media and news feeds fuel outrage
- Remembering your employees during a communications crisis
- Setting a strategic intent for handling a communications crisis and knowing how to measure your outcomes
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If you enjoy our show, please know that it’s only possible with the generous support of our sponsor: Discourse.
The concept of manipulated outrage (6:30): “We are more likely to post or share commentary that makes us angry. The two things we like to share are things that make us laugh and things that make us furious. The more angry we are, the more likely we are to share things. So we’re seeing more and more of this content everywhere we look.” –@katehartley
Living up to your community or organization’s values (25:18): “One of the things that will get a community to turn on you quicker than anything else is if you go against your own values. If you do something that goes against your own values, people will call that out, quite rightly. … You have to have the actions that meet the words you’re saying.” –@katehartley
Don’t forget about your employees during a communications crisis (34:40): “We see this a lot when we’re working with organizations on how to manage their reputations in a crisis. They’re so focused on the external, on what the media think, on what their outside community think, on what their customers think, [that] they forget about their own people. In some organizations, that’s a significant number of people who actually could be your greatest advocates. … These are people who are going to be talking to their friends, to their families, [and] they need to believe in you. They need to believe that you’re doing the right thing. They need to share your values, they need to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you have an employee community, what better place to talk to them and explain exactly what’s going on [during] the crisis.” –@katehartley
Measuring whether or not you’ve managed a crisis successfully (40:23): “The measurement for [the successful handling of a] crisis has to come quite a long time after the crisis is over to really understand the full impact that crisis had. It needs to reflect what you wanted as the objective from managing the crisis right at the beginning. If you bear that in mind at the beginning, everything you do will be informed by it. How you communicate, how you behave, what you ask the business to do for you. Everything will then be informed by that objective. Then six months down the line, you can look back and say, ‘Did we meet that strategic intent? Did we behave in the way we said we were going to? Did we retain the loyalty of our customers? Are our communities healthy?’ That’s how you measure it.” –@katehartley
About Kate Hartley
Kate Hartley is the co-founder of Polpeo, a crisis simulation company that helps some of the biggest brands in the world prepare to deal with a crisis as it breaks and spreads over social and digital media. She is the author of Communicate in a Crisis, a book that explores the changing way people behave in crisis situations, and how organizations respond.
Kate has 25 years of agency-side experience in crisis and reputation management and corporate PR. She is also a trainer in crisis communications for the PRCA, the UK’s PR industry association, where she sits on the digital steering committee, designed to shape digital best practices in the PR industry. She has spoken at and run workshops on the impact of social media on crisis management at international events including SXSW, The Global PR Summit, PR Week’s Crisis Comms, and Social Media Today’s Social Shake Up.
- Sponsor: Discourse, civilized discussion for teams, customers, fans, and communities
- Kate Hartley on Twitter
- Polpeo, a crisis simulation company
- Communicate in a Crisis
- PRCA (Public Relations and Communication Association) and CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations)
- The Social Element
- Dr. Molly Crockett on moral outrage in the digital age
- Rohit Bhargava on manipulated outrage
- Streisand effect
- Derek Powazek on Community Signal
- Ocado says fire at robotic warehouse cost it more than £100m
- Jonathan Hemus, UK crisis expert
[0:00] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, a podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Discourse, civilized discussion for teams, customers, fans, and communities. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
December 7th marked four years since the release of the first episode of Community Signal. I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone who regularly listens to the show, shares in public, and recommends it in private. Thank you to our Patreon supporters, including Rachel Medanic, Heather Champ, and Maggie McGary. Thank you to all of our guests and those sponsors that supported the program, including our newest, Discourse. Thank you to the Community Signal team, our producer Karn Broad and editorial lead Carol Benovic-Bradley. We’ve had a great four years full of amazing guests and I’m grateful.
Now let’s get into the show. Kate Hartley is the co-founder of Polpeo, a crisis simulation company that helps some of the biggest brands in the world prepare to deal with a crisis as it breaks and spreads over social and digital media. She is the author of Communicate in a Crisis, just released from Kogan Page, a book that explores the changing way people behave in crisis situations and how organizations respond. Kate has 25 years of agency-side experience in Crisis and Reputation Management and corporate PR and is a trainer in Crisis Communications for PRCA, the UK’s PR industry association.
She has spoken at and run workshops on the impact of social media on Crisis Management at international events including SXSW, the Global PR Summit, PR Week’s Crisis Columns, and Social Media Today’s Social Shake-Up. She is a member of CIPR and PRCA and sits on PRCA’s Digital Steering Committee, which is designed to shape digital best practice in the PR industry.
Kate, welcome to the show.
[00:01:51] Kate Hartley: Thank you very much. I’m really pleased to be here. Thanks, Patrick for having me.
[00:01:54] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a pleasure. It probably is rare to have a guest that I’ve already met in person, than one I have yet to meet on this show.
[00:02:02] Kate Hartley: Yes.
[00:02:02] Patrick O’Keefe: We hung out a little bit at SXSW a few years ago-
[00:02:05] Kate Hartley: We did.
[00:02:05] Patrick O’Keefe: [crosstalk] tomorrow-
[00:02:07] Kate Hartley: I think we had tacos and margaritas probably.
[00:02:08] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, you and Tamara [Littleton], then Emoderation, now The Social Element were the first sponsors of Community Signal, always thank for that.
[00:02:16] Kate Hartley: Fantastic.
[00:02:17] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s great to finally get you on you have this new book about crisis communications. I’d like to take people’s knowledge, and of course, you have a community understanding, you work with Tamara, et cetera. You understand this playing field very well, but I’d like to take people’s specific knowledge in this case crisis comms and apply it to know online communities small and large, and that’s what we’re going to do today.
[00:02:36] Kate Hartley: Sure. That’s so great.
[00:02:37] Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned before the show that the greatest challenge that you see for crises in online communities “is polarization that comes from the increased outrage that we see in communities and on social media and the extremes of emotion and outrage that sees members of a community attacking each other. Sometimes, this is malicious trolling, sometimes genuine emotion.” Expand on that if you could.
[00:02:58] Kate Hartley: It’s a really interesting thing that’s happening in social media and communities that we are more likely to learn about things that outrageous than ever before because we see all this stuff in our online communities and our social media feeds. There’s some interesting research that’s come out of Yale by a woman called Molly Crockett, who makes the point that actually social media sites encourage this behavior. They encourage the outrage and there’s a really interesting guy called Rohit Bhargava who talks about manipulated outrage, i.e. social media algorithms, see that you are outraged by something that you’ve expressed on Facebook, say, they then feed you more of that outrageous information because they think you like it. The algorithms say you’ve posted this, therefore we’re going to send you more content like this. You get more outraged.
Then Molly Crockett at Yale, this researcher at Yale says that, “We’re getting into this habit of outrage. The algorithms of online media sites are encouraging us to become more and more outraged. Then because we’re getting this positive feedback for all our outrage responses on social media, likes and shares and comments and so on, we’re getting positively reinforced for that outrage. That’s kind of becoming almost habit-forming.”
That’s a really interesting thing that’s happening and it’s like we’re live experiment I guess. We don’t really know how much anger we can sustain, but I think what’s happening is that leads to very polarized views, and then, of course, you get one extreme at one side of an argument, another extreme at the other side.In the middle you have all these people who are just exhausted from being outraged, so they disengage. I think that’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing the people who are very vocal in some communities and certainly on a lot of social media sites, they’re at the extremes of every side of the opinion, and all people in the middle are kind of putting back.
[00:04:43] Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned manipulated outrage, I like that. I was going to ask you about that you talked about it because it’s on your book page.
[00:04:48] Kate Hartley: Yes.
[00:04:48] Patrick O’Keefe: [laughs] Manipulated outrage sparked from interaction on news feed algorithms fueled by social media and the constant demand for an instantaneous response.
Just the other day, I saw some tweets going out about Twitter’s interests list. Someone discovered this, someone with a blue check mark or someone with some influence and tweeted about this interest list. I don’t know how long it’s been in there, but if you go to your Twitter settings, and you go to the right area, it’s under your data and Twitter interests. It shows you what Twitter thinks you’re interested in based on your profile and activity.
If I look at mine right now, unsullied, I haven’t touched it at all. I haven’t customized it. I haven’t unchecked anything. I see all sorts of interests in there. Donald Trump is not an interest of mine. He is an interest of mine in the sense of he’s the president of my country and I don’t like him and that’s sort of the interest that I have. That’s an interest now and his son is listed as an interest too, which is unfortunate because that’s even less of an interest to me. Also, there’s a lot of other things like travel to Disney, which I’m very interested in that actually, I’m very interested in traveling to Disney. I love Disney.
To the point of, another interest of mine is the National Rifle Association, the NRA, a lobbying group over here in the US and that might be international for all I know, but another one that my interest in them is because I don’t care for them. To your point, that I have this list of interests, and it’s really just stuff that I tweeted about once or twice.
[00:06:09] Kate Hartley: That is so interesting because the nuance there about why you’re interested in it is lost, isn’t it? If you’re interested because you’re following politics, but actually, you don’t like a particular politician, and yet Twitter is registering that you’re interested in that and therefore sending you more information, you’re then going to see more stuff that makes you angry if you don’t like that particular person. I think kind of proves the point, doesn’t it? That we’re being manipulated to become more outraged or more angry.
There’s also some really interesting research that shows that we are more likely to post or share commentary that makes us angry. The two things we like to share, things that make us laugh and things that make us furious. The more angry we are, the more likely we are to share things, so we’re seeing more and more of this content everywhere we look.
[00:06:51] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, and going back many years and managing communities myself, one of the things that I have done for, gosh, 18 years now is I don’t allow people to talk about politics in communities that aren’t about politics. I run a martial arts community and I don’t allow people to talk about politics except if it intersects with the martial arts. If there’s a law about nunchucks, maybe that’s relevant.
If there is just a general dislike of a candidate or a party or something like that, that’s not so much of interest because it felt like back then and going back many years, I was a teenager, then, it felt like then that I was trying to unite people around the martial arts, not to vibe them on things that were not the martial arts.
We’re just in this interesting time where these platforms operate at such a scale where accountability is challenging because of how they’ve built themselves. They didn’t build themselves to be accountable. They built themselves to be as big as possible, and so when they’re at this scale, they’re not accountable until Facebook can say, “I’ll hire, who knows how many moderators now outsourced around the world and in various working conditions to moderate content and look at the worst of Facebook, whatever that might entail, or look at reports from people on Facebook.”
There are arguments to be made that there is, to your point, it sounds like the study from Yale, from Molly Crockett, that a lot of the behaviors that they’re having to moderate for are due to their own platform design and choice.
[00:08:20] Kate Hartley: I mean, who knows? It’s really interesting, isn’t it? We don’t know which came first. Is it that we are getting more angry as the human race because of what’s happening in our world that we don’t want to bring politics into it, but politics is very divisive at the moment wherever you look. Or is it that social media is creating this environment, or is it a bit of both? I don’t know, but it’s certain that one thing is fueling the other, and I really liked what you were saying about using community to kind of bridge some of those gaps. Everything seems to be very divisive now, doesn’t it? We’re coming up to a general election in the UK, we’ve had an incredibly divisive campaign fought around Brexit. Honestly, I can’t go into some of my communities where they’re talking about politics because it just is exhausting and I don’t want to have those fights. I don’t want to be angry all the time, so you come away from them.
We need to find things that put us together. I really liked that about the martial arts community because you find the things that we have in common rather than things that put us apart and we just need more of that. We need more proper community rather than just algorithmic fed feeds coming in on social media. We need proper community of people who share common interests, and I do think there’s a real resurgence in community as a result. People are looking for alternatives.
[00:09:31] Patrick O’Keefe: We can figure out why we hate each other later. Someone will tell us, I’m sure at some point.
[00:09:35] Kate Hartley: Exactly.
[00:09:36] Patrick O’Keefe: Fill us in and capitalize on it for money or for power, for votes, or something.
[00:09:40] Patrick O’Keefe: I’d like to take a moment to welcome our new sponsor, Discourse, who we’re really glad to have.
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Let’s talk about the crisis of change. I don’t know if it’s really a crisis, I’m going to call it one, but it’s one that crops up in communities, because communities, by their nature, as you know, very loyal, repeat visits, they’re there all the time, they’re used to everything, everything that is the platform. The colors, where the login button is, every single thing they’re used to it, and so you’re making a change in the community.
My audience is really savvy. This is a really savvy, experienced audience. Let’s just assume that they have communicated about the change more than once. They’ve given people lead time, they’ve provided people time to get used to it, they’ve asked for feedback, they’ve shared detail, they’ve listened to feedback, they’ve made adjustments. This is a smart group, so they’ve done these things already.
Now the change is being made, and the response is skewing negative, at least the loud part, the part of the community. People are piling on and it hampers the launch. It makes it bittersweet. A week or more passes, and it’s still going on. I don’t know if that’s a crisis or not, I’ll let you tell me, but if it is, what does that make you think of? What would you do in a case like that?
[00:11:14] Kate Hartley: It’s really interesting, isn’t it? I think we have to understand why people behave like that. In a way, it shows that the community is very passionate, which is a good thing because they’re invested. They’re invested in the way things are done, they feel a sense of emotional ownership. They want things to stay the same because they like them, and that is a good thing.
The negative, of course, is when you want to do something that is going to improve the community, but people just don’t see it, and people are very resistant to change. I think the thing to do is to work out, does it matter that people are going to moan about it? Because do you accept that there is going to be a level of moaning and you move on? I guess the issue is, are the changes going to negatively impact the community, really, or are they just going to create a little bit of negative noise around the community and that’s the thing you have to differentiate.
It’s very easy to see negativity and think this is a crisis. Actually, it’s only a crisis if it’s going to stop the community being able to function, I would say. If it’s not going to stop the communities being able to function, then it’s not really a crisis. It’s an issue that just needs really to be well managed. That is exactly why you have brilliant community managers who know the communities, they understand why people feel the way they do and they just navigate that tricky water until the community settle down again, and understand that the changes actually bring benefits.
[00:12:29] Patrick O’Keefe: You can make people feel heard without taking action, right? We get bad feedback all the time. I don’t want to sound like it’s objectively bad, but we’re supposed to, as you alluded to there, have good judgment, know the communities, know the people, talk to people, get a sense of what the overall sentiment is, and make good decisions because, at the end of the day, that’s what we have to do.
It can be difficult sometimes to make people feel heard, but also not taking action because you think that will not help. What do you think the difference is there? It’s a delicate line, you won’t please everybody, but how do you make people feel heard without actually having to do what they say?
[00:13:03] Kate Hartley: [laughs] I think you have to tell them that that’s what you’re doing. I think that people will know when they’re being fobbed off. They’ll know when you’re trying to say something without really saying it. We see this when organizations make mistakes, for example, then they say sorry, but they don’t really. I think people are getting wise to that stuff. I think sometimes you just have to be really straight with people and say, “We know that this might upset you, but these the reasons that we’re doing it, and we believe this is going to bring you benefits.”
Just be really, really clear. Treat people like intelligent human beings that they are, and just explain it. I think if you stick to your purpose, and there’s a really good reason for that change, then you’ll bring people along with you mostly, there’ll always be a few naysayers. There always are, and that’s fine. They’ll either stay or they’ll leave. Maybe they’ll stay and they’ll moan, who knows? I think you just have to be really, really clear with people about why you’re doing it and what the purpose is.
[00:13:55] Patrick O’Keefe: You touched on something that I find especially relevant to communities that I wanted to highlight and dive into a little bit because I feel like with potential, “crisis situations,” and this is true for any communications channel obviously, it tends be true for general social, but it is true for communities especially. Is there can sometimes be an exaggeration of just how bad something is, or really, if something is a crisis at all. I think it’s so easy to be tricked into thinking there is an issue, where in reality, it’s just a small percentage of the community being loud where most people don’t care or don’t feel the same way, or really, are just using the product and enjoying it and not really focusing on this thing.
It’s simply like just a minute of their day that they spend here and it’s not that deep. Then we fall into this trap of making announcements to the whole community, and bringing attention to the whole community for this one issue, because we overestimated the influence of the vocal group, almost like a Streisand effect in a sense, for those familiar with that phrase. When is a crisis, not a crisis?
[00:14:56] Kate Hartley: Quite often, actually. I would define a crisis as being an unusual event that is going to negatively impact the ability of the organization to function in some way. In organizational terms, it might hit your share price or your sales, for example. In community terms, it would mean people are going to leave your community. It would take away the ability of that community to function as a community. Mostly, the kind of change complaints are not going to do that. Unless it’s really you sometimes see it with social networks where they make huge changes and people leave in droves.
[00:15:31] Patrick O’Keefe: #NewTwitter. [laughter]
Not that you’re drawn on Twitter which, obviously, is not a community and just the platform, but sorry.
[00:15:38] Kate Hartley: Exactly. In a proper community where it’s got a very clear purpose, there’s a reason for people to be there. They’re still getting everything that they need. They’re just getting in a slightly different way, generally, people will go with the change. At that point it’s not a crisis. I think what you have to do is you have to see what is normal. What’s a normal level of grumbling and then what looks really unusual.
Where is the real spike in conversations that you wouldn’t normally see on a normal change, for example? If you’re getting something very unusual, then you need to dig into that and look at why. That might be an issue that’s really burning up that you need to do something with.
I would always say to people, understand what normal looks like and then understand at what point the conversation is escalating to the point where you need to do something. You can predetermine those things. You can say, actually we don’t need to worry if we get this many complaints in this situation. That’s fine, that’s normal. We’ll manage it. It’s not a crisis, and just have all that predefined.
[00:16:33] Patrick O’Keefe: I think this knowledge and information is especially pertinent, although I’m sure your book is targeted toward companies of a certain size and certainly bigger mid to big brands. I think of crisis communications and just general advice in this area being useful to communities and small businesses in the sense that with a lot of communities, the martial arts community I mentioned is like this too, in a sense, is that, the founder and the person managing it are the same and the person owning it are the same, oftentimes. That can lead to a personal nature that goes into the community.
It’s always easy to say people are criticizing the thing, not you. Just another example would be restaurants and Yelp reviews. This is my restaurant, I’m the chef, I’m the owner, this is my lifelong dream to open this restaurant. This is me, this is everything I’ve worked towards. Someone goes on Yelp and they say, “The wait staff is a bunch of jerks. The meatloaf was cold. The sauce was basically vomit on a plate.”
People are nasty and sometimes could have had bad experiences that are legitimately bad experiences and they’re honest in their reviews. You see people, man, they just go off sometimes on reviewers and they get snarky or they get nasty, and maybe they get some attention in the media. They’re like, “Oh my God, look at this snarky restaurant owner. You’re never going to believe what he said to this other person.” They’ll get some likes. They’ll get some shares. That feeling goes to your head.
To me, it’s almost always a bad look because I look at that as a consumer and I think, “They talk that way to that person. Yes, I think that person’s nuts, but that means that they could talk that way to me. I don’t want to be talked to that way when I have a problem.” I feel like people who are more personally invested are often people who manage communities and often those small businesses. I don’t know where I’m going here, but I think the question or the thought is, how do you separate yourself?
[00:18:32] Kate Hartley: It’s so difficult.
[00:18:33] Patrick O’Keefe: For companies, it’s easy to have all these departments all these teams. I’m going to offload that to PR, I’m going to offload to sometimes when they may have dedicated crisis people. If you’re a celebrity that has $500 million, you have crisis people, but if it’s just the one person, what do they do?
[00:18:48] Kate Hartley: It’s so difficult, isn’t it? If it’s just you, if it’s your business or your podcast, or your community, or your restaurant, or the pizza that you’ve made whatever is, it’s really, really personal. It’s going to be personal, you’re going to take it personally. There’s nothing anyone can say to you that’s going to stop you doing that. People say, “Don’t take it personally, it’s just a review,” but when it’s reviewing something that you’ve done and you’ve put your blood, sweat and tears into, it’s going to really feel personal.
The thing that you have to do that I say to everybody, no matter what size organization or what size community they’re running is pause, take a breath. Take a pause, go and walk around the block. Don’t think you have to go back immediately. Give yourself some space to think about what you’re actually going to say. It’s incredibly easy to fire off really snarky response to somebody who’s left you a negative review.
If you just pause for a few minutes, then your rational brain will start to kick in and you’ll start to realize, actually that’s not a very sensible thing to do. You just walk away from it. Normally, if we have a habit of walking away and thinking before we respond, as I said, your rational brain will kick in and you’ll start to think about it in a slightly more organized way and understand what the bigger game is. It’s so difficult. You even see it in bigger organizations, in a crisis situation where you’ve had somebody who’s been taking abuse from the community or from their social media users or whoever it is. At some point, they’re going to be tired, they may not have had enough sleep if they’re dealing with a crisis, they’re going to be sitting in front of a computer screen all day dealing with difficult people.
At some point, they’re going to break and they’re going to snap back. You just have to learn to spot the warning signs before you do that. I get the red mist. I totally understand how hard it is to deal with it. I’ve learned over the years to walk away, just go walk around the block, take a deep breath, count to 10, all the cliche things that you’re told, but you’re told them for a reason, is to let your brain catch up with itself so that you have a rational response, not an emotional response.
[00:20:51] Patrick O’Keefe: I don’t know if this falls under crisis comms or not, but I think that sometimes there is this almost a rebound effect that can happen depending on the crisis, obviously. There’s totally different crises. The crisis of your CEO being accused of sexual assault is a different crisis from somebody didn’t like my food. The whole spectrum. Depending on the crisis, there is this bounce-back effect that after someone is beat on enough, or after someone is criticized enough, that people are compelled to come to their defense.
[00:21:23] Kate Hartley: True.
[00:21:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Whether that be like community members or other people who enjoy that restaurant, if you respond in the right way, I think you can help encourage that without encouraging a mob mentality and without pushing people away, but if you respond in the right way, you can kind of encourage that level of support.
[00:21:42] Kate Hartley: Yes.
[00:21:43] Patrick O’Keefe: Thoughts on that, how do you do that, because that’s the magical sauce, I think is when other people come to defend you or at least have your back to some extent without also turning into abusive losers who dox people or do crazy things that are bad. Of course, you have to, there’s a scale, but how do you encourage that?
[00:22:00] Kate Hartley: Of course, all the work you do for that is actually before the crisis hit, so if you got an amazingly healthy community who are loyal to you, who understand the purpose of the community, who share its values, then they will always defend, I think. I mean, unless there’s a major, awful incident, you’ve done something terrible, but if it’s a minor misdemeanor, then people will generally defend human error, but you have to have done that work beforehand. You have to have that community that believes in you beforehand. You can’t go into the crisis and then change the community, say that suddenly they believe in you in a way that they didn’t an hour ago.
Really, once the crisis hits, you’re stuck with a reputation that you had at the point at which it happened. You can’t do anything to change that. We do often say, as you said, the community just coming in and defending when something’s gone wrong. Equally, you see, again going back to the outrage thing, we call it the outrage cycle. You see somebody posts something outrageous onto a community. You have a lot of other people who then go, “That’s outrageous,” and they start attacking that person and then if you wait long enough, you’ll get a sort of counter group who will come back and attack the people who were originally outraged, and then they all kind of implode. They all start attacking each other, and that’s a really fascinating thing. When you’ve got something that’s really problematic, you end up with a community turning on itself, and that’s very difficult to manage.
[00:23:18] Patrick O’Keefe: Goodness, what a nightmare.
[00:23:20] Kate Hartley: Yes. That is typically what we see with politics, right? You have somebody who’s defending Trump. You have somebody who’s a staunch Democrat. People turn on each other and they just get outrageous, just so phenomenal. You’re never going to change anyone’s minds, and then you have people defending each group. You just get, as we said earlier, this polarization. That can be very tricky.
[00:23:40] Patrick O’Keefe: Speaking of that polarization, here’s something that relates to change and relates to, unfortunately, Twitter again, but let’s say you wait too long to do something. Let’s say you wait too long to do the right thing, you wait too long to take action, you wait too long to make that change.
Again, I’m going to draw from Twitter here. We mentioned him earlier, President Trump. Twitter has allowed him and other public officials to violate their guidelines with some degree of impunity. We know this, they basically come out and said it, that different rules apply to public officials, and those guidelines that apply to you and me, well, they don’t apply once you get a certain number of votes and you’re in office. That’s essentially what they say.
Gosh, when you set that tone for a long time, let’s say tomorrow they wake up and they decide to actually apply their policies and say, “Hey, you know everyone, it applies to everyone, whether you’re a celebrity or you give us money, you don’t give us money, it applies to everyone.” Maybe that’s not the best example, but I guess what I’m thinking of is a delay in principle, almost.
How does one explain a delay in principle? I feel like a lot of the time when that happens, heads need to roll and you need to have a change in leadership that made the decision. I’m sure you have examples that come to mind where someone made the wrong choice and maybe they were slow and eventually they came to the light, but for a lot of people it’s too late. How do you explain the delay in principle?
[00:25:00] Kate Hartley: Delay in principle is really interesting. I think the Twitter and the Trump example is perhaps slightly different, because I think there are a lot of people arguing that actually, we’d rather know what he’s saying and be able to deal with it than not know. That’s quite a complex thing, isn’t it? One of the things that will get a community turn on you quicker than anything else is if you go against your own values. If you do something that goes against your own values, people will call that out, quite rightly. I think that is the worst thing, actually, in terms of crisis that an organization or community can do is to go against its own principles.
I think if there’s a delay in acting on something that clearly should be acted on, if somebody has transgressed in a way that goes against our social norms or as you said, it’s been a sexual abuse or something like that, you have to come out you have to deal with that quickly. You absolutely cannot delay because if you delay, people think you’re covering up. They think that you know more information than you’re letting on, and they become suspicious. Long silence will breed this suspicion. That’s when rumors start, misinformation starts to be spread, you lose the trusted status that perhaps you had. No matter what you do after that, you’re always playing catch up. You have to act quickly. Or at least you have to acknowledge the issue quickly. You may not know all the facts at the beginning of a crisis, particularly in something like a sexual abuse case where perhaps the proof hasn’t emerged yet, actually, the facts of what’s happened haven’t emerged, that you need to acknowledge what’s happened, and you need to have empathy, and I bang on about empathy all the time.
You have to understand the victims in that crisis and how they are feeling and responding to that crisis, and you have to show empathy. Of course, to show empathy, you have to have empathy. Again, it’s very easy for organizations to pretend they have empathy, and then actually their actions don’t back that up. You have to have the actions that meet the words that you’re saying. I think the gap is very dangerous in communications actually, I really do. Even if you say, we don’t know what’s going on, but we’re finding out, that is better than saying nothing, in my view.
[00:27:02] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, ambiguity is funny, right? There’s so many euphemisms out there. One thing I like from the show was when I had Derek Powazek on [the show], he said– Gosh, what was it? It was, if you leave an empty box by the side of the road, it’s going to fill up with garbage, and that’s what it is.
If you leave empty space people fill it with the worst stuff. Our minds don’t say this is the best thing that could happen in this situation. They always go to like what is the worst?
[00:27:32] Kate Hartley: Of course, they do. Our imaginations are absolutely terrible things really, in a crisis situation. They always jump to the worst scenario, always. Actually, I was just thinking that as we were talking in the Twitter and Trump example you were talking about earlier, maybe what Twitter could say would be, we don’t know if we’re getting this right, but on balance, we think we’d rather hear from him than not. We understand that some of this stuff goes against our guidelines, but we have to make a special case and just talk in a way that’s human, that people understand, and that explains your thinking. I think we believe that we have to come up with absolute answers. Actually, we don’t, we just need to explain our thinking to people and then understand mostly.
[00:28:11] Patrick O’Keefe: You brought up something I think is interesting. I want to throw sexual abuse and that sort of stuff out of here. I want to throw that sort of stuff out and just cast it aside, but other cases where there’s less terrible stuff happening, but you can’t really share the full story or you don’t want to or you feel it’s an ethical breach to do so.
One “controversy”, I’m going to get really micro here. People manage communities, there’s tons of communities around the world, all sizes, big small, most will never reach any mainstream media. They’re just people that like a thing talking about that thing. When you manage communities, you ban people, you ban people. If you don’t ban people, I wonder if you have policies that you actually enforce. You have to have a line in the sand that eventually people go across, that’s my opinion.
I have banned people, so many people and with empathy, of course. One of these controversies that I’ve had to deal with several times is when I ban an active contributor. It’s actually one of the things that pains me the most. When I have to ban someone who was once a great member, who was once an active contributor, and I’ve given them every opportunity in the world and now it is simply, this is it, I either have guidelines that matter, or I let them have different set of rules and apply them. I have to take that final action. It’s time.
Those members sometimes, because of how we manage communities, as you know, great moderators, we don’t really know that they’re doing a great job. We just enjoy the space. We don’t think about what goes in behind the scenes like the person who’s there at 2 AM, removing this post that’s 5000 words long, somebody’s diatribe that has nothing to do with the community and having to read through that mess and then document it and contact that member and try to get them to come to the light, so to speak. We don’t recognize those people. We just know that the community we’re in is a place we enjoy. We build up records of members and the actions we’ve taken, the things they’ve done, and we know as staff members behind the scenes, we know how terrible or how great someone is, at least in the context of the community, where most people don’t have that context.
I know you banned someone and I’ve banned the person with the most posts on my forum. I’ve banned active staff members. I would do it again, in a heartbeat because it was what was right for those communities. I have a principle that I generally adhere to, which is that I don’t air dirty laundry.
I try very hard not to say why I banned someone only speaking generalities, if someone actually asks, that they were banned due to repeated violations. I don’t say what they did, the sexist comment they made, or this awful thing they said, or whatever it is, I don’t go into those details. I don’t share those posts, they’re removed. They’re documented. They’re handled. That’s my standard, maybe not everyone’s standard.
Of course, what happens in some of those cases, and what would happen anyway, frankly, even if I violated that principle is that people would, in some cases, see that as an abuse on my part, or they would side with the member. I’m power crazy. I’m an overbearing sensor. I’ve been called so many names in the book, as we all who have managed communities, obviously Hitler, Stalin, Gestapo are standbys, I’ve been called dirty Irish F bag once. That’s probably my most favorite creative one. I have never been to Ireland, but obviously my name is very Irish.
In those cases, again, to get back to my point, is I’m taking what I will call it just action. Let’s assume I’m right. Let’s just cast that aside, maybe I’m not, but let’s assume I’m taking a just action, almost a crisis of adjust action, and it’s a case where I don’t feel comfortable sharing all the details. I feel it’s ethical breach, it’s unsavory, it only hurts the other person. It’s like sharing someone’s criminal record in public. Why would I do that?
In those cases, where there’s private information, when you feel a little bit irresponsible to share, you have a unique challenge when it comes to a group of members who feel it is just a huge breach of trust to kick that person off the community. Again, getting very micro, but what do you think about that challenge?
[00:31:47] Kate Hartley: I think, well, for start, if you’re being called those things, and gosh, it was the right thing to do. I think you’re absolutely right about that. You’ve got stick to your principle, you’ve got to have the principle and your principle might be that you will kick somebody else community for this behavior. You have a principle that you don’t discuss why they were kicked out for all the reasons that you just said. You just have to stick to that principle and repeat it again and again and just say, “No, we never talk about individual cases.”
On the one hand, I think in a crisis or when you’re managing an issue, you have to tell people as much as you possibly can, but not when it comes to revealing details of an individual case, I think. I’m totally with you on that.
[00:32:27] Patrick O’Keefe: You can feel free and tell me I’m wrong. I don’t care about that, honest opinion. That’s just my principle.
[00:32:32] Kate Hartley: Yes, I think it’s really good principle, and I would apply it actually is pretty much anything. I think you never throw somebody else under the bus. Whatever they’ve done, there’s just no point in doing that in an environment where people can start to pick holes in what you’ve done specifically, and it’s much better not to let them do that. It’s like throwing a pebble into a pond, just that you start to see the ripples coming back and you just know, I think that’s a good principle to have.
[00:32:56] Patrick O’Keefe: When you do that, you said something early that I think is very relevant here, which is that you can’t convince everyone. There are some people who will be unconvinced. Even if you go and you share the full record, even if you feel uneasy about that, you violate your principle for that case, there’s no guarantee. In fact, there’s a guarantee you won’t satisfy some people. You might convince a couple more, but it’s very much an emotional belief. That I love that member, that member cannot do that much wrong. Therefore, we see this with my favorite president Trump, no comment needed from you, all the time. His supporters, but look at his list of things. Like, “Well, that’s all fine. That’s no big deal.” Honestly, that’s how we are as humans. Sometimes we can see no wrong in someone.
[00:33:37] Kate Hartley: Absolutely. We always talk about the, we say there are 15% of people, and I don’t know where this comes from, actually, but it’s something that we’ve always said is that there’s 15% of people who will love you, no matter what you do, you could murder their entire family, they still love you. They’re going to be 15% who will just be your fan for whatever, and then there are 15% of people who hate you whatever you do, they may still stick around because they want to tell you they hate you, but they’re going to hate you, you could do the best thing in the world for them, you could change their life for the better, they’re still going to hate you. You have to ignore almost those two extremes, and then deal with the 70% in the middle. As long as their balance is roughly 15% love you, 15% hate you, 70% are indifferent, you’re probably doing okay.
[00:34:16] Patrick O’Keefe: Got you. My mom, got to exclude her on one end, and she could probably see wrong in me, frankly, she would probably tell me.
You told me before the show that employee communities often get forgotten in a crisis, but there’s so critical. Tell me about that, because I haven’t really heard much about that when it comes to crisis communications.
[00:34:36] Kate Hartley: Yes, we see this a lot when we’re working with organizations on how to manage their reputations in a crisis. They’re so focused on the external on what the media think, on what their outside community think, on what their customers think, they forget about their own people. In some organizations, that’s a significant number of people who actually could be your greatest advocates. I’m not saying that you encourage them to go off and say nice things about you or any of that kind of stuff, obviously, but these are people who are going to be talking to their friends, to their families, they need to believe in you. They need to believe that you’re doing the right thing. They need to share your values, they need to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.
If you have an employee community, what better place to talk to them and explain exactly what’s going on in the crisis. It always gets out as an afterthought, actually, employee communications, employee community management, people think that’s something that you just add on or that your employees should be on your side because that’s their job because you pay them. Of course, that’s not true. We all know that anything that happens in a crisis is going to get leaks from the organization. Pretty much every crisis we see has some internal communication leak. You need your employees to be on your side.
Again, similarly, we were talking before about you need to do that work before the crisis hits, you need to have a really engaged positive community of employees ahead of the crisis because then they’ll probably come to your defense, or at least they will understand why you took the action you took and they’ll support you through the difficult times, they won’t leave. They’ll, hopefully, advocate for you if you need it. Obviously, of their own will. You should never, ever ask them to do that for you. I think it’s absolutely essential. They should be the first people you tell about what’s going on in a crisis situation.
[00:36:21] Patrick O’Keefe: What I hear is that they get taken for granted.
[00:36:23] Kate Hartley: They do. Yes.
[00:36:24] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s something because, gosh, it makes a whole difference in the world, again, to get so micro, but I’ve always had moderators and team members mostly volunteer, but some paid. From that end of things, all the actions I take that elicit any unhappiness from community members, like banning someone who was popular, they know everything that’s going on. Everything. Our private documentation is accessible to them and so they see all action as it’s happening. By the time I take that action they’re usually like, “Well, I’m glad you took that because I believe you wanted you to do it earlier,” because I’m trying to give people more opportunities, but they’re like, “Oh my gosh, that person did deserve that.”
I’ve never had a moment in 19 years where I made a decision to something like that and the staff wasn’t supportive of me privately. I never had to get it from both sides. I think when you have to take it from both sides, no matter how big or small you are, when you’re getting it from the public, it feels like, and you’re getting in from inside the house too, man, that’s the worst. That’s the worst.
[00:37:26] Kate Hartley: Again, the 15, 15, 70 rule, you’re going to get some people who don’t like what you’re doing or just like to complain about things. There’s some people who just love that, love to do that, but on the whole, I think if you treat your employees right, then there is a halo effect from that. People understand that you are a good organization and you’re doing the right thing.
There’s a company called Ocado in the UK, which is a supermarket delivery, basically grocery store. They deliver to your house, and they had a huge fire in one of the warehouses in Southern England and it had a major impact on deliveries, but also on their staff. The entire warehouse was burnt down. A lot of the offices were affected where people were working. Luckily, nobody was hurt, but the first thing they did was say to their employees, nobody’s going to lose their job because they knew that was the thing that people are going to be worried about. They were absolutely clear. They talked to their employees first, this is what we’re going to do. That then rippled out and yes, there were some people who were complaining because they hadn’t got their delivery of hummus for a dinner party, whatever it was.
Mostly people really love that brand because they behave so well to their employees. People think that is a good company, therefore I’m going to carry on shopping with them, and people were really loyal through that period. Even though all their deliveries were affected, they still haven’t rebuilt the place. They’re still looking for new premises, but they just behave really, really well to the people that work for them.
[00:38:45] Patrick O’Keefe: The last thing I wanted to chat about is measuring success for a crisis. The community context is really specific, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be that, but how do you measure if a crisis has been successfully managed?
[00:38:57] Kate Hartley: A lot of people think you measure it by how quickly you get back to business as usual. I think that’s not the case. I don’t think there’s any such thing as business as usual after a real crisis sometimes.
[00:39:09] Patrick O’Keefe: You can’t just sweep it under the rug and call it a win. [laughter]
[00:39:14] Kate Hartley: I definitely don’t think you should do that. I think it comes back to right at the beginning of the crisis. We worked with a fantastic guy called Jonathan Hemus, who’s a crisis expert here in the UK. He always says that the first thing a leader should do in a crisis situation is set the strategic intent of the crisis. What he means by that is what do you want to have happened after the crisis is over? If you are a restaurant, then you have to close down for whatever reason, what do you want to happen, not tomorrow, not next week, but six months down the line?
Your strategic intent probably is you want to keep your customers loyal so they’re still coming to your restaurant in six months’ time. Now, that then is how you would measure the success because you’d have that very clear objective at the beginning, in six months’ time, I want the same number of people to be coming to my restaurant, so you can measure that. It’s very clear.
If, however, you took a shorter-term view and said, I want to get my restaurant up and running as quickly as possible, which is what most people would probably do, then you might take shortcuts. You might get inferior products in, for example, just to get the restaurant up and running and so you might lose that customer loyalty over the longer period of time.
I think the measurement for crisis has to come quite a long time after the crisis is over to really understand the full impact that that crisis has had, and it needs to reflect what you wanted as the objective from managing the crisis right at the beginning. If you bear that in mind at the beginning, everything you do will be informed by it. How you communicate, how you behave, what you ask the business to do for you. Everything will then be informed by that objective.
Then six months down the line, you can look back and say, “Did we meet that strategic intent? Did we behave in the way that we said we were going to? Did we retain the loyalty of our customers? Are our communities healthy?” That’s how you measure it.
[00:40:59] Patrick O’Keefe: That makes a lot of sense because it seems like if you try to take a short term view of it, you’re almost setting yourself up to take a loss there, right?
[00:41:06] Kate Hartley: Yes.
[00:41:07] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s like a community, I mean, where the people say like, “Okay, I need to do this community thing. Give me, and I got some money. I want to do the community thing.” Okay. First of all, don’t call it the community thing. Second of all, “How long do you have?” They’re like, “I have like three months, six months,” don’t do it, don’t do that. Just send some tweets out or do something else. Don’t bother with community. You need to be in it for 12-24 months. It’s a long term kind of game. You’re building a real relationship with people.
I feel like the same is true here where if you expect to get over a crisis, a real crisis, it’s not some of the things we’re talking about. Not that they’re not real, but the kind of crisis that’s on ABC News at eight or NBC News or whatever.
[00:41:40] Kate Hartley: An issue that you have to deal with. It might be a pain, but it’s an issue.
[00:41:43] Patrick O’Keefe: Exactly, if you think you’re going to have it sewn up in three months or a month, you’re probably not. I mean, that’s probably the wrong way to look at it.
[00:41:51] Kate Hartley: Yes. In community terms, are people still engaging? Do they trust you? You can measure the conversations, you can look at whether people really understand the values. There are all sorts of things that you can measure, but I would take it as a long term thing, not as a short term hit. Don’t expect to recover in a week or two weeks’ time from a really major crisis.
[00:42:10] Patrick O’Keefe: Well, Kate, it has been great to have you on. I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you.
[00:42:14] Kate: Me too. Thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed it.
[00:42:17] Patrick O’Keefe: We have been talking with Kate Harley, co-founder and joint CEO of Polpeo, polpeo.com, that’s p-o-l-p-e-o.com. Kate’s book, Communicate in a Crisis: Understand, Engage, and Influence Consumer Behaviour to Maximize Brand Trust is out now.
For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Thanks for a great four years, and happy holidays.
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