During a Crisis, Don’t Tweet about Ponies

Small businesses can learn a lot about how to use – or not use – social media during a crisis, simply by observing the mistakes made by major corporations. Let’s look at the following as a case study in how not to use social media during a crisis.

The Crisis

On Friday, December 4, 2015 – one week into holiday shopping season in the United States – three major banks experienced technical glitches that prevented customers from using their credit cards and/or debit cards. Many customers couldn’t pay for purchases, some complained of not being able to pay utility bills, while others weren’t able to withdraw money from their accounts using ATMs.crisis1

The customers of the three banks – PNC, SunTrust, and Wells Fargo – took to social media to try to find out why they could not use their cards, and why their online banking portals reported their accounts as “Unavailable”. On Twitter, rumors surfaced that the banks were hacked. On Facebook, frustrated customers flooded the banks’ timelines with complaints.

The Banks React (eventually)

Although problems began around 6:00 a.m. Eastern Time, it was only around 10:00 a.m. that PNC posted a notice on its Facebook page. Panicked customers had already been posting comments to the PNC timeline’s most recent post – a December 3 promotional post about the PNC Father Son Challenge.

Over on the timeline for the SunTrust Facebook page, a similar situation was happening. SunTrust’s first status update regarding the technical issues was posted around 10:30 a.m., despite dozens of panicked – and pointedly sarcastic – comments by SunTrust customers on the bank’s most recent timeline post offering tips for guilt-free shopping.

Wells Fargo’s social media team failed at posting any information for customers on its Facebook timeline. In fact, the bank posted a puff piece about stagecoaches at the same time the other two banks were trying to assure customers that they were aware of the technical issues and were working on a solution. Many customers posted comments directly to the timeline and received a generic “Our technical teams are aware of the situation and they are working to correct this matter as soon as possible” response. Others posted that they had waited long periods of time to speak with a customer service representative only to find out the problem was bank-wide. Many customers asked why Wells Fargo didn’t just post a notice that there were issues so that people would understand that it wasn’t just their personal account that was having problems.crisis

The three banks had similar activity – or, rather, inactivity – over on their Twitter accounts. PNC Bank tweeted at around 11:00 a.m. that “card issues customers experienced this morning have been resolved.” However, no other notices had been previously posted to let customers know that the bank was even having card issues. Even at the PNC Bank Help Twitter account, a morning greeting was made at 6:00 a.m. Eastern Time, but there were no other informational notices until an 11:30 a.m. tweet to say that issues had been resolved.

SunTrust finally posted an update at 6:30 p.m. on that Friday to let customers know service for debit and credit cards had been restored. There were no proactive tweets alerting customers to ongoing company-wide issues, only replies to customers who tweeted to SunTrust’s account about their problems between 10:13 a.m. and 4:09 p.m.

Wells Fargo’s Twitter feed had no information at all about the credit card problems, or about its resolution. Throughout the entire day, the bank tweeted pictures of stuffed animal ponies and cardboard soccer player cutouts that customers could pose with at upcoming MLS games. The Ask Wells Fargo Twitter account finally posted a notice at 11:00 a.m. that day to let customers know there were issues with credit cards. Although the tweet said “We will keep you updated,” there were no other tweets regarding the situation, not even after it was resolved. The Ask Wells Fargo Twitter team did reply to tweets directed at them throughout the day about the problem, stating that their technical teams were working to correct the issue.

What Did They Do Wrong?

In looking at the activities on the banks’ Facebook and Twitter social media profiles, it is apparent that the banks consider those communication channels to be primarily for promotional purposes, and not for communicating important information to customers. This is a mistake, and a missed opportunity for the banks to utilize these outlets at the first sign of problems.

Had the banks posted notices of technical issues when they first became aware of them, many customers could have known ahead of time to make alternate payment plans. Customers who tried to access their account information using online banking would not have had to panic when they saw “Unavailable” listed next to their credit card accounts. Many travelers thought their cards had been frozen and were unable to make an international telephone call, or to wait on hold for 30 minutes or longer to speak to a customer representative.

Banks, and other service-oriented institutions, need to see social media as a way to communicate important information to customers during a time of crisis – not just as a venue for posting promotional puff pieces.

The actions of December 4, 2015, are a critical case study in how three banks failed at using social media to provide important information to customers in a timely manner. When banking customers need a CNN story to tell them why they haven’t been able to use their credit and debit cards for the past several hours, it points to a breakdown in consumer relations. Customers deserve better.

What Can Small Businesses Learn from This?

Small businesses can learn a major lesson from the above event. The internet is likely the first place customers will go if they think there is a problem with a company. Consider all of your online presences: website, Facebook page, Twitter account, Instagram, etc. How do you use these on a daily basis? Do you set up promotions and then simply ignore them? Are you using social networks solely for one-way communication – from you to the customer?

It shouldn’t take a crisis for a business to realize that its social networks are two-way communication channels with their customers. You need to be proactive to alert your customers when something happens – whether it’s a power outage that causes you to close shop for the day, an illness that delays opening the store, or a security breach that allows hackers to steal customer credit card numbers.

Social media is just that: social. If you want to promote to customers, nothing is stopping you. The one-way lines of print advertising, radio, and TV commercials are there for you. But when you set up your business on a social network, you need to recognize that your customers will use it to communicate to you directly. And you will need to be prepared. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a lot of upset customers posting their frustrations on your timeline, or tagging you in their tweeted complaints, for everyone else to see.