Six crisis lessons brands can learn from Wikileaks

Whistle blower

It’s not just governments which face threats from whistle-blowing sites, like Wikileaks. Organizations, especially consumer-facing brands, can easily attract a negative online presence from a disgruntled customer or employee. We’ve all seen those Brand X Sucks sites. So what should you do?

1. Put it in context – the tendency when a negative site springs up is for the organization to over-react. Here is a site which is the antithesis of its brand values, unpicking its marketing and customer support efforts. It can come as quite a shock to management teams that they are not universally loved. The best response is not to panic or get distracted, but to make an assessment of the impact of the site – how much traffic is it getting (eg Alexa/Comscore)? How many links go there and from where (eg Google)? Who’s visiting (eg Quantcast)? How often is it updated? Where is it quoted in the media? Who owns the domain? What’s their beef? Scope it out – it might be nothing.

2. Don’t sue – at least not yet. The typical commercial response to a potentially libelous site is to reach for the legal sledgehammer. This is certainly in the armory but not the only weapon at the brand’s disposal. Dialog may be a good first step. In general, people don’t waste their time unless they have a genuine complaint. It may be valid even. Solve that, and the problem may go away. It could simply be an attempt to gain attention (one which is clearly working!)

3. Monitor – anyone involved in promoting an online presence knows it takes a LOT of effort. Fresh content, SEO, link building and patience. The detractor is going to have to be pretty determined to do some serious damage or to compete with the organized resources of a brand which has a commercial objective to promote itself. Sure, sites can quickly become a cause-celebre, but those tend to be genuine wrong-doings, rather than malevolent rants. Watch to see how the site develops – it may run out of steam.

4. Counter – now would be a good time to start your SEO and Social Media Optimization (SMO) programs. What other news does the company have? How can you change the conversation?

5. Policy – every organization has confidential information and privileged communications it would rather did not enter the public domain. These could be embarrassing or commercially damaging if released, potentially even leading to legal repercussions. The best protection here is a culture of trust, professionalism and fair play, but it can be bolstered by norms and policy. For instance, preventing discussion of an individual’s performance over email, making sure confidential documents are properly marked and archived/deleted, restricting access to files. If there isn’t a policy in place, it’s a good idea to develop one before a knocking site gets its ammunition.

6. Fight – if the site is really getting traction and is causing commercial damage, it might be time to take the gloves off and fight. Unleashing the attorneys may win the war, but it won’t win the battle for public perception. That will require a point-by-point rebuttal program. There are various channels to use here (from an FAQ to video), different spokespeople (from the CEO to the community) and different approaches (from the high road to the trenches). Be prepared however for the response to become the story itself and, at least in the short term, to escalate the profile of the issue. Conflict is an essential news ingredient and you’re creating that by fighting back. Plus you may stand more to lose than your opponent (eg customers, brand value). Goliath Brand picking on David Consumer isn’t going to win hearts, but it may be preferable to bring the matter to a head, then publicly resolve it.

Regardless of your views about Wikileaks, what would happen if a similar site started sharing your corporate secrets or openly attacking your brand? Are you ready to respond?