Chances are, if you were in the UK in May, you saw the news about PWC quickly dubbed by the media as ‘heelgate’. In a nutshell, PWC outsources the provision of its reception staff to a company that specializes in this area, called Portico. One fateful day in May, a temporary worker called Nicola Thorpe showed up to her job at the PWC reception only to be sent home because she wasn’t wearing high heels. Unless the employee has prior agreement from the company, high heels are a compulsory part of the Portico dress code.
The story hit a collective nerve among men and women alike, in the UK. There was an outcry on social media that led to mainstream media coverage. One high-profile consumer magazine even made a video about the story, which was shared close to 13 million times (according to the Daily Mail). If you haven’t seen it – do watch. It’s very funny.
PWC was quick to respond – in an appropriate way. It apologised, and supported the sentiment behind a petition that was created to support a ban on requiring women to wear heels to work. That petition quickly reached more than 100,000 signatories. PWC moved quickly to change the requirements for women at its reception desks to wear high heels.
My question is, in all of this, where has Portico been? The company has been mentioned thousands of times on social media, in relation to a very negative story. Yet it has made no obvious response.
Having worked with B2B companies for the better part of 20 years, I can well imagine a conversation in a boardroom somewhere, sometime before this crisis hit, that went something like this:
Marketing director: “You know, we really ought to have a social media strategy”.
CEO: “What? Why? Our customers aren’t on social media. People don’t choose to buy our services because they’ve seen us on Facebook. Our customers are serious business people. Who has time to be looking at social media anyway?”
Marketing director: “Yes, but it’s about more than just our customers – who might actually be on social media, but we don’t know yet – it’s about recruiting the right talent, and just being seen to be up with the times. Oh, and a lot of journalists use social media too.”
CEO: “Seriously? Fine. Create a Twitter feed, but I want the ultimate privacy settings. I don’t want ‘just anyone’ reading what we write. Oh, and NOTHING goes out on social media without my OK. And the thumbs up from the legal team.”
And so it goes. Well you know what? Research shows that 20% of news stories break on Twitter, and the vast majority of those are related to a crisis. A crisis that could be tied to your company, whether it is true or not. We’ve seen it time and again. And we know that the one thing that keeps CEOs up at night when it comes to social media is the unknown. That ‘what if’ worry that something, somehow, sparks a social media wildfire and they simply do not know what to do.
Three steps to mitigate the risk of a brand crisis sparked by social media
Do an audit to see who, if anyone, is talking about your brand or your sector. Take all of your target audiences into account in the audit – employees, customers, investors, journalists. Based on the findings, decide on a social media strategy (which could be to simply stay off social media)
2) Run a half day crisis drill for your communications team.
And get the CEO to take part. Include all the social media platforms Portico (remember, a PURE B2B brand) had to contend with. What on earth would you do?
3) Engage a monitoring service.
There are lots of them out there and you can do trials with most of them. This does not need to be time-consuming or onerous. It is much like an insurance policy. And it means you will get information that is relevant as it happens, enabling you to better respond. We use Pulsar here at Six Degrees. Others include Sythesio, Brandwatch, Hootsuite and many more.
How could Portico have handled things differently?
They say that you should never waste a good crisis. Presumably Portico’s primary pool of temporary workers comes largely from young people (I realise this is a big assumption), and so being seen in a positive way on social media could have great value.
What if Portico had been swift to respond, saying ‘you know what? We got it wrong. Times have moved on and it’s not acceptable to require women to wear heels. So we’ve dropped that requirement not only from our contract with PWC, but with all of our clients. We want to do the right thing, not just the ‘legal’ thing.’
And what if it went one step further and sent Nicola Thorp (the worker who was originally sent home) a beautiful pair of flat shoes as an apology? Or what if they started a campaign to change the law themselves? Simply doing nothing seems like a missed opportunity and only serves to reinforce the negative reputation that has been created by the company’s behaviour.
If you run a B2B business and do not take social media seriously, it could pay to think again.