If there’s one thing I obsess about more than anything else outside of race relations is marketing. The numbers, the language, what makes people tick, colors, used, what’s new, what’s shiny, what’ll be gone tomorrow and what’s here to stay. It fascinates me because it’s amazing how predictable a person will react based on a varying amount of factors. It’s also fascinating because so many underrate it.

Don’t get me wrong, many companies know that making “noise” will garner attention. But they stop there…especially small companies (and larger companies too). And what they fail to realize most is that the organization’s marketing (place, product, price, and promotion) create the perception of a company. Good or bad, those 4 Ps together work together to create a lasting impression of the organization.

While I’ve had a bit of experience in place, product and price, much of my career has fallen in promotion — the communications side of marketing. The last 7 years have been specifically in the world of digital marketing – social media, email marketing, ecommerce, website content development and management, etc. I’ve even done a bit of consulting around it all. That’s why I must admit, this weekend was a bit painful.

This weekend, I saw both of my obsessions go head on into one catastrophic crash.

The situation

A young man by the name of Marcel Price of Grand Rapids, MI was assaulted by a bar tender and told that he would not be able to enter a local bar, Tavern on the Square because he was black. Marcel recorded the event on his phone and shared it via social media. This happened very early Saturday morning. By Saturday afternoon, this had turned into a social media nightmare; one that I wished I was getting paid the big bucks to consult on because it could’ve been avoided.

This is a textbook case of crisis management.

  1. Bad thing happens
  2. It blows up publicly
  3. Organization responds…quickly

But this is not what happened at all. Tavern on the Square failed to respond quickly. In fact, they just responded on their Facebook page, yesterday. They allowed over 24 hours to pass before responding to a racially sensitive topic in a city that has been publicly responding to racially sensitive topics over the last few weeks; you know with the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile events and Dallas shooting and all.

What made it worse was that Tavern on the Square had every opportunity to respond.

Having a bit of “inside” knowledge and knowing how to get the attention of an organization on social media I reacted 4 ways:

  1. I responded as a black woman who is super sensitive to racial issues as of late.
  2. I responded as a writer who has an understanding that the words I convey have power.
  3. Most importantly, I responded as a digital marketer.
  4. I encouraged others to respond. And not only did I encourage them to respond, I leveraged my digital marketing knowledge, providing clear details on how to respond including who to tag and what hash tags to use.

Taking all these angles to me was super important. I was observing every step of the way. I wanted to know how my friends would react. I wanted to know how people in private groups would react. And most importantly, I wanted to know how Tavern on the Square, Experience Grand Rapids, and Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. would react.

The outcome: Two case studies on what not to do, and one case study on a team that got it kinda right.

Responses

Experience Grand Rapids. Within hours or a day, Experience Grand Rapids responded with a boilerplate response and suggested that I contacted them offline.

  • The good: They quickly diffused the conversation and stated that they were open for additional conversation.
  • Opportunities for growth: I would’ve preferred they responded much faster. I also would’ve appreciated a more personalized message. Finally, it would’ve been nice if they would’ve inboxed me or or at the least left an email address or phone number. When a person has a concern with your organization, you should go out of your way to learn more vs. asking them to do the work to get in contact with you. In this instance, the company has more to lose than the customer. Remember bad news spreads fast and it takes 5 new customers to replace 1 lost customer. That’s a very expensive scenario.

Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. I would say “I’ll wait”, but I won’t. They haven’t responded and I don’t expect them to respond.

  • The good: N/A
  • Opportunities for growth: Downtown Grand Rapids is perceived as a locale that doesn’t have the African American community in mind. Weekend after weekend, you see people of the majority young and old sprawling through downtown Grand Rapids. Not so much for people of color.. And Tavern on the Square is downtown…so anytime Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. communicates “come downtown” this includes go to Tavern on the Square. Yet, when asked about how they would handle it, they didn’t respond at all…and this is regarding an event that effects the black community, which represents 20% of the city’s population. This is a great way to put a blemish on all the work Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. has done in getting people downtown. But then again, are they even talking to black people?

Tavern on the Square (Tavern). Good old Tavern on the Square. There’s so much to say. So again, I’ll start with the good.

  • The good: You responded. You also stated that you’re all for diverstiy (even though there were only 5 or less people of color in your establishment at closing time). You even said that you are looking into it and would be providing sensitivity training to your employees.
  • The bad:
    • This person wasn’t fired though he stated he wouldn’t let him in because he was black. Even if it were closing time and that was the real reason, simply confirming that he wouldn’t let him in because he was black is grounds for firing. No other reasons needed. That’s now blatant racism.
    • This person wasn’t fired though he clearly smacked the phone out of the person’s hand. I may let that one slide if there was some punishment associated. He can’t just go jack free. But maybe he needs a different role, because clearly he’s endangering others…even if he was provoked. If Marcel never put his hands on the bouncer, the bouncer should have never laid his hands on Marcel’s phone.
    • Tavern on the Square did not take responsibility nor apologize for the action
    • The owner alluded to the fact that it was a big deal because of social media
    • It took the organization over 24 hours to respond on social media. I looked over and over again. Comments flooded in. No response for hours. I even wrote posts to bring attention to the fact that more than just “complaining” was happening. Here are my very public posts:
      • So this video was recently taken at Tavern on the Square GR. GR of all colors, it’s time to make a difference with your dollars. Don’t look the other way. Instead take your dollars elsewhere. And make some noise about it too. Share, tag them, tag the owners, share the owners names. Let them know this isn’t the GR we stand for. This is unacceptable.
      • So the Tavern on the Square GR voicemail box is full. Nice job GR. I say keep calling. (616) 456-7673 They have yet to post a response…not even “we’re looking into it.”

        I can’t find an email address on their website because their website is now one page…that includes a link to a testimonial, phone number, and location info.

      • Forgive some of my grammatical errors (you have to be a grammar freak to know what they are). Here’s what I’ve posted on the Experience Grand Rapidsand Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. pages.Tavern on the Square GR has just added a smudge to the city’s resume. After a bouncer’s blatant act of racism and several calls for a response, the establishment has yet to respond…not even in the easiest spot…it’s social channels. (I’ve checked FB and twitter). We are now calling an official boycott of the establishment from people of all colors. I’m sure this is not what Grand Rapids wants to be perceived as, and we’re asking that you, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., help drive the importance of formally responding to such complaints…both publicly and privately. This is a continuance of the Grand Rapids perception of racism, and I’m sure this is something you’d like to see eliminated.This, along with Propaganda Donuts’ most recent lack of sensitivity shows the face of those who not only live in the metro area, but represent the face of this city’s economy. If nothing is done, we’ll begin calling for boycotts of bigger events that have garnered substantial revenue to the city.
      • I hate being on a digital team, knowing it takes all of 5 mins to respond to a complaint with a “we’re working on it,” yet we’re still waiting to hear fromTavern on the Square GR. The fact that this could’ve been remedied and not gotten so large (i.e. News 8) is a shame. [friend’s name], we need to add crisis control to the offerings because obviously people don’t know the importance of it.
    • Tavern removed most of the website with the exception of contact information and a link to a testimonial from 2010. (unless they never actually had a full website)
    • You can no longer post comments on their FB page. This looks guilty as heck (or insensitive at the least).

How to Avoid a Social Media Crisis Focused Around Race…or anything else

I’m glad that you stuck with me this far…or skimmed to this point. Either way, I’m okay because this is the most important part for small businesses or businesses trying to figure out how to staff for and manage social media and digital marketing communications. Here’s the gamut:

  1. NEVER think this type of thing wouldn’t happen to you. Even if you believe you operate in tip top shape, humans love to complain..and one of the places where they love to to it is on social media. Even if they aren’t trying to get your attention, know that one small spark (complainer) can set the fire ablazin’. It may be something as small as you using 1-ply toilet paper, be ready to respond to even that nonsense if it looks like it’s about to ignite a forrest fire.
  2. Have a crisis plan in place. You shouldn’t be figuring out how to handle a crisis when it hits. Make sure everyone knows what to do if media calls (i.e. what person or department should they be directed to? Can they talk to media or not?). Who should they make aware of the issue? What is the first line of defense? In the event of a complaint, how long should it take your team to respond and what should that response be?
  3. Equip your team. Ensure social media and web content managers are equipped to respond to comments. Make sure they have a who to call list. Also craft a few boilerplate statements that your team can use if they have to respond quickly. You have no idea how much scripting can come in handy here.
  4. Empower your team. If your team has to go up a chain of command before posting or responding to posts, you’re already a step behind. However, don’t leave it just to the person behind the screen. Make sure leadership is in the loop and ready to step in and help if necessary.
  5. Rules of engagement. There is nothing that can make a company more vulnerable than social media. So before you decide to enter the world, create rules of engagement. Decided whether or not you’ll allow users to post on your page. Determine how you’ll respond to complaints. Determine how you’ll respond to hateful and malicious comments.  (Complaints and malicious comments are 2 different things.) For example, some news sites allow racist comments while other companies wouldn’t allow it all.
  6. Hire competent people. Many people think that interns or cousin Pookie are the right people to manage their social media channels because they’re good at the tech stuff and “in the know.” Wrong. You need someone who knows your organization well, is a great communication and understand the difference between doing social for personal reasons and managing social accounts as an extension of the brand.
  7. NEVER take down your page. Exception: If you go out of business.
  8. Sensitivity gauge. Ensure your team has a sensitivity gauge. There are certain topics that should either be supported or not discussed for the majority of companies. Politics. Race. Sexual-orientation. Ethnicity. Nationality. War. (Yes, race, ethnicity, and nationality are all different things.) Some of these things (not all) are perfectly fine to comment on on personal accounts, but not for business accounts unless your brand is the Republic or democratic national conventions. (smile)
  9. Take responsibility. If you or one of your employees did something wrong, own up to it. Then talk about what you’re doing to fix it. If you didn’t learn anything from Steve Harvey’s fiasco, this was one of the greatest takeaways. He owned it…and got offered the job for another year. There’s a certain level of respect that comes with self-accountability.
  10. 24/7. When you work in the digital world, you have a 24 hour, 7 day a week job. That means that if something happens at 2am, you need to be responding by 2:05am. I’m blessed to work for a global company with people who monitor accounts while I’m sleeping. I’ve also had a past role where I had on-call duties.
  11. Turn on notifications. It’s not okay to just monitor your social channels when you’re on your computer or checking your facebook account. No…it’s time to turn on your notifications and check them EVERY time they come across your phone. Is it annoying? Yes. Will it be helpful in the time of a crisis…absolutely.

To be honest, if you practice these steps as normal business procedures, then it won’t be so stressful when a crisis arise. It’ll be business as usual, but with a few more people involved. Hopefully in the end, you can say “crisis averted.”

Until next time,

Gina