9 Social Media Crisis Questions Dole Food Company Failed To Answer

by Brandon Uttley on Apr 17, 2012

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Driving into work today (April 16, 2012), I was flipping through the radio dial and caught a story on NPR about how Dole Food Company had issued a recall.

Apparently, it was a fairly small matter involving about 750 cases of a particular Dole bagged salad product that may pose a threat from Salmonella.

The timing was interesting, as I had been thinking about writing a blog post on ways to use social media during a crisis.

Certainly, a food recall qualifies as a crisis. And Salmonella can kill people — it represents almost 30 percent of food-borne illness-related deaths each year, according to the Centers of Disease Control.

Did Dole Seize The Opportunity?

So the first thing I did at the office was to go online to see what Dole was doing.

Surely, I thought, they would handle this with confidence.

After all, they are the world’s largest producer and marketer of fruit and fresh vegetables that does business in more than 90 countries and employs some 36,000 full-time, regular employees worldwide—not to mention 23,000 full-time seasonal or temporary employees (according to their LinkedIn page).

Boy, was I wrong.

After spending some time dissecting just how poorly Dole was handling this, I came away with several lessons to share.

By the way, this post is not meant to be overtly negative toward Dole—I’m a customer of the company, like their products and will continue to support them. However, this particular “crisis” demonstrates that even a monolithic enterprise like Dole has a long way to go to be able to handle a true crisis effectively using social media.

Another example of similar inaction is when Sony experienced a Playstation Network outage in 2011. Instead of the physical health of their customers being at risk,they were dealing with their financial health—as 77 million Playstation customers had credit card information stolen. Sony finally confirmed this to customers a full 14 days after the incident.

This resulted in weeks of bad press for Sony as well as questioning of the company by U.S. and British elected officials.

Why Should Your Company Care?

Especially for large companies, people now expect you to be using social media to effectively communicate. Just like they expect you to have a help desk or a 1-800 help line.

Consumers don’t care about whatever internal politics, poor organizational structure and other excuses you might come up with for not using social media well.

If their grandparents can do it (for crying out loud), then you have zero rationale anymore to avoid staying on top of technology. And the “we don’t have enough people to handle it” mentality doesn’t cut it any more.

Companies have to figure out how to scale their operations accordingly.

One would think that among 36,000 employees, in this Dole example, there would be at least one person willing and able to use social media responsibly to warn the public about this recall.

The Risk Of Inaction

During a crisis situation, it is even more urgent for organizations to act fast and in a proactive fashion. Simply sitting on the sidelines, silently, says four things to people:

  1. You are clueless (or your marketing/PR/social media people are not empowered to act with authority).
  2. You don’t care.
  3. You got caught with your pants down.
  4. You have something to hide.

Let’s review the 9 questions your company needs to ask before a crisis like this occurs.

1. What Day Is It?

I found out about the Dole crisis early on Monday morning, April 16, 2012. I discovered Dole knew about this over the weekend, and perhaps even late the previous week.

In fact, a press release about the Dole recall on the FDA’s website  was posted on April 14 (a Saturday). Dole put a press release about this as well on their own site on 4/14/12, but it’s buried and hard to find.

As you will see below, the recall news did not appear on any of Dole’s social media channels that I could find until about 1pm Eastern Time Monday (two full days after their press release was issued).

LESSONS LEARNED:

  • If you find yourself in a crisis, you should be among the first places to post the news, first on your own site then on every single social media channel you have. It’s called taking responsibility and showing you care.
  • The day of the week that crisis strikes is irrelevant. Most will happen at the worst times, like in the middle of the night during a holiday. You need to be prepared to respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Posting 36-48 hours later is unacceptable.
  • Companies have long drilled in worst-case “what if” scenarios. These now extend to what will happen when word hits social media sites. You need to be fully prepared, with all roles and responsibilities defined and rehearsed unti they are second nature. A handful of people cannot be the only keepers of the flame during a social media crisis. Get your team ready in advance, and have ample backup strategies.

2. What’s On Your Home Page?

Let’s say your company or organization gets hit with a crisis. It could be a product recall, a natural disaster, a tragedy in one of your locations—you name it. One of the first places people will go is your home page.

With the Dole recall, notice there are no news items on their home page, nor any prominent navigation buttons to news.

Dole home page

You might think you could find something about the recall in the footer link called Nutrition News, but that just pulls up this page:

Dole nutrition news

Instead, to find news releases, you first have to click Company Information then either News Center or Press Releases. That’s a minimum of two clicks from the home page.

dole press releases

LESSONS LEARNED:

  • Make it easy for the general public and the media to read news on your home page. Don’t make them click two or more times to find releases.
  • Better yet, embed recent news on the home page itself. Even better, work with your webmaster to create a “crisis news” mode that you can toggle on and off as needed. This may be a prominent banner or area that occupies an eye-catching portion of your home page as needed during a crisis.

3. Where Is Your Social Media Presence?

After visiting your website (or increasingly for many people, before they go to your actual site), they will seek you out on social media sites. When crisis strikes, it’s too late to register and set up your social profiles.

LESSONS LEARNED:

  • First, have you taken the time to secure your name and at least have all major channels in order and ready for your use in a crisis? One of the easiest ways is to sign up for multiple sites using KnowEm.
  • Second, are you actively monitoring and responding to people through primary social media sites? People were talking about this crisis, but it was not apparent that Dole was listening.

4. Where is Your Company Blog?

Do you have a blog? If you’re a global company with 36,000 full-time employees, of course you have a blog, right? Based on a Google search, Dole does not.

Dole no blog

LESSON LEARNED:

  • A blog is a must-have presence for every company of any size that 1) takes itself seriously and 2) expects anyone to seek out information about their company for any reason. It is inexcusable for global brands to avoid having an active blog or multiple blogs.

5. What Industry Blogs Will Customers Turn To?

What are others saying about your company during a crisis?

For Dole, many people used it as an opportunity to vent their frustrations on sites like Huffington Post. The company was noticeably absent in responding.

huffington post dole article

LESSONS LEARNED:

  • Set up blog monitoring and be prepared to swiftly post within the comments section of others’ blogs
  • Claim company posting profiles on Disqus and Gravatar

6. Are You Prepared To Respond On Facebook?

Dole really dropped the ball on Facebook. Two days after the recall was announced via their press release, their main post was about the Dole Real Fruit Bites’ 3 Steps to Bliss sweepstakes. Seriously, even though people’s lives may be at stake with bags of their salads sitting in the fridge or on store shelves.

Facebook Dole

Several people were posting about the crisis, with no response back from Dole. I personally posted a message there (and on Google+) and never got  a reply.

facebook dole questions

It took them until early afternoon on Monday April 16 to finally post about the recall.

 LESSONS LEARNED:

  • Facebook should be one of the first places you post when crisis strikes. Even if you “don’t have your act together,” you need to acknowledge that you’re aware of the situation, looking into it and preparing to do what it takes to fix the problem.
  • You also need to monitor Facebook and respond quickly to customers. Either use enterprise software that allows multiple admins to receive notifications of all posts or a service that will alert the proper people when certain posts are made. For those on a budget, set up free email alerts for your Page(s) using HyperAlerts. Worst case, put several admins on rotating duty to be responsible for monitoring and responding to Facebook within 4-8 hours or less.
  • With the new Facebook Pages layout, you can “pin” sticky posts to the top of the page. Do this as soon as possible during a crisis, and keep relevant information updated and pinned. Explain where people can get more information/help.
  • You can now choose to accept private messages to the page as well. These are disabled by default. However, it may be advantageous to turn these on, particularly during a crisis. Just make sure you are equipped to handle an influx of messages and reply promptly.

7. Are You Prepared To Respond On Twitter?

Sadly, Dole missed out on getting Twitter.com/dole. So the only way to find them is to do a search for “Dole Twitter” and see what comes up.

It turns out Dole has two Twitter accounts, @DoleFoods and @DoleNutrition. Neither was updated to mention the crisis. And neither had anything of substance in their Twitter bios.

The only recent conversation was between Dole and someone asking about a mango-flavored smoothie. This is hardly life-or-death material compared to a Salmonella threat.

LESSONS LEARNED:

  • First, make sure you link to your primary Twitter account(s) from you website.
  • Second, if your brand is large enough, and Dole is, you should reach out to Twitter for a Verififed Account on Twitter so that customers know which account is official. You do not want to have a @BPglobalPR fake account telling the story for you.
  • Third, update your bio to reflect the crisis, or provide a link to your company crisis/news site. Also, consider changing your background branding image on Twitter temporarily during a crisis, with information and links to your crisis site or blog, hotline number and other main channels.
  • Above all, tweet quickly and often about any crisis, as soon as you catch wind of it and as it unfolds.
  • Pay close attention to anyone mentioning your brand. Twitter is a major source of breaking news, so it is one of the first and best places to learn what people are saying about your company.

8. Are You Prepared To Respond On Google+?

The good news for Dole is, they at least have a Google+ Page (although it is debatable whether this is their “official” page or just one a squatter set up).

The bad news is, there is nothing on it and certainly nothing about the salad recall.

 LESSONS LEARNED:

  • Companies that are slow to embrace Google+ at this point do so at their peril. It is a fast-growing, influential network that most importantly impacts organic search rankings.
  • Google+ should be a primary outlet for companies to use during a crisis. If for nothing else, updates here can quickly pop up in Google search results, making it easier for customers to get answers.
  • Google+ is also a great place for companies to engage highly active and tech-savvy customers who can help spread their side of the story. For example, Dole could hold Hangouts to share information about the situation and how they are responding.

9. Are You Prepared To Respond On Pinterest?

Companies — particularly big consumer brands like Dole — are using Pinterest and with good reason. Pinterest is new, but is already one of the most popular social networks in the US. It’s a great place for brands to enhance their following and stay top-of-mind.

So again, good news: Dole is on Pinterest (under Dole Nutrition, not Dole Food Company). They have about 20 boards ranging from kitchen gadgets to the requisite gorgeous food shots. But what they don’t have is any way to post newsworthy items of interest.

LESSONS LEARNED:

  • Think beyond just using Pinterest to post “pretty pictures.”
  • Use Pinterest to quickly spread newsworthy messages in a visual fashion (ideally by pinning images from your blog).

Answer These Questions Before Your Customers Need To

Dole slipped on the digital banana peel in this specific instance. Hopefully, someone at Dole HQ will read this and take some of these lessons to heart before the next time they find themselves facing negative public opinion.

Other companies need to heed lessons like this and act now to ensure they are not caught flatfooted when a crisis strikes.

What about you?

Have you seen recent examples of companies that handled a crisis well using social media? Let us know in the comments.

Top photo credit: pweiskel08

Post Author

Brandon Uttley is Commander and CEO of Go For Launch, which helps people launch and grow successful businesses. He is a digital marketing and public relations professional with more 25 years of experience....