PR & thought leadership, strategy

Problem? What Problem? How Not to Handle Crisis Communications

Carolyn McMaster | August 29, 2012

We always advise clients to communicate immediately and honestly with customers when problems arise, and a recent experience provides a textbook example of what not to do in crisis communications.

Late one evening last week our cloud file-sharing service, Dropbox, stopped working or was very slow. Files wouldn’t sync across computers, documents wouldn’t upload. I rushed to the website, only to learn that Dropbox has no system status page or help forum thread for system updates. There was nothing in the help forum except posts by angry and worried users wondering what was happening. Nothing on the Twitter feed either.

The next morning, we weren’t much the wiser—a couple of posts merely acknowledged there was a problem and said they were working on it. The last message: “We’re very sorry for the inconvenience and will provide updates as we learn more.” Eventually they fixed the problem but we had to find out for ourselves. No updates as promised.

Users got no substantive information about this crisis—and it was a crisis, lasting more than a day for many users. It caused such a furor TechCrunch reported on it. There still has been no official communication that I can tell. No blog post and no email of explanation or apology, much less an offer to compensate users for their trouble.

I only lost a few hours of work, and it didn’t affect Thinkshift projects, but it cost many Dropbox users much more. This incident destroyed a lot of goodwill and Dropbox probably lost not a few customers. They could have prevented most of the outrage by sending out a few simple tweets and responding quickly and honestly in the user forum. They should also implement a system status page pronto—it’s unconscionable that a technical service doesn’t have a place for users to get that information.

The upshot: if there’s a problem, be honest and direct. Let people know about it right away, across all appropriate channels; keep them informed of your progress; and assuage their fears as much as possible. The worst thing you can do is say nothing.


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