8 Crisis Management Tips for your business learnt from the #Wayfairgate conspiracy theory

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Crisis management is like having a fire extinguisher ready at all times for your brand. It’s something that’s been in the news, because of #Wayfairgate. Wayfair is the online shopping portal started in Boston back in 2002. The platform has 14 million items on offer from 11,000 global suppliers, and it’s a listed company with a great market capital. If you haven’t heard, there was a conspiracy theory that was spread in 2019 originally through a subreddit that Wayfair had been trafficking children through storage cabinets. This person had noticed several of the products were extremely “overpriced” at $13,000, and that these cabinets also happened to have names like Samiyah and Yaritza, and so these cabinets were actually thought to be the names of children being sold into slavery. The very speculation seems to have been amazing in itself, but that it became such a large social media sensation is a testament to a couple of things. 

The issue with crisis management, for anyone that’s running a big company or for a public relations company involved in helping to manage those situations is, by definition, is that no one knows when a crisis will strike or what it’s going to look like, and so the key with crisis management preparedness is being organised. When EASTWEST PR works with clients on crisis management, clients are given a checklist of eight things that they need to do, and these are useful if you’re interested in getting your company prepared, so in case of an incident like #Wayfairgate, you would be ready.

Wayfair vs. influencers

Watts and the cascade theory can be applied in viral stories when people look for somebody that’s easily influenced to absorb information and be willing to share it, and they do so because they’ve crossed over a particular threshold in their own mind that leads them to want to share that information. In America, there are influencers speaking out about the issue, like Rebecca Pfeiffer, who has 110,000 followers and a fashion and home decor blog, and she put nine different references to these conspiracy theories on her website. Indy Blue Severe, who has 330,000 followers, said that the reply from the Wayfair spokespeople was very dismissive and a surface-level statement, which did not suffice. The slightly alarming thing is that these social media influencers had been reposting these conspiracy theories, and in the words of one of them, they felt that it could be true. They shared it, because they thought that human trafficking and child trafficking was in itself a dangerous thing, and the logic of someone charging that much for a piece of furniture and having the names of children was evidence enough that something was going on.

The Wayfair spokesperson, Susan Frechette, had said in their statement that the products in question are industrial-grade cabinets that are accurately priced, and that they recognize that the photos and the descriptions provided by the supplier did not accurately explain the high price point so, “We temporarily removed the products from the site to rename them and provide a more in-depth description and photographs that accurately depict the product to clarify the price point.” This, in the view of many people, was a fairly clear and definite statement.

The bridging technique

One of the first rules of crisis management is to accept that something has been said, but not in any way embrace nor endorse it. Their response was a good one in that it was explanatory, it was affirmative, and they explained the corrective action. It recognises that there was enough cause for someone to want to write about this or speak up about it, and it explained the nature of why these cabinets were considered to be vehicles for people to be trafficked in, but it also took control of the situation by saying, “We don’t agree. These are not anything other than accurately priced but ill-described products.” This, then, still wasn’t enough. As Indy Blue said, she thought it was dismissive and surface-level. Emily Heron, another influencer, posted a poll asking her audience of 1 million followers what they thought of Wayfair, referring to the scandal, and 65% of her followers said that they believed the conspiracy theory. That’s phenomenal, both an individual having a million followers, and also that level of information and disinformation taking place in the marketplace. One could argue, of course, that maybe her followers would perhaps be of the type to believe in this whole deep state theory that’s unfortunately been perpetrated in America.

Interestingly enough though, somebody had then then said that the Wayfair issue was also a Black Lives Matter issue, because a large percentage of the 23,500 children who were classified as endangered runaways in America last year are children of color, so there’s this story on story taking place. If you look for #Wayfairgate, you’ll find a huge number of websites including one called Stillness in the Storm, where it says, “Deep state fact-checkers can’t debunk #Wayfairgate. Is Wayfair really trafficking humans?” What’s interesting about this is its inquiry into the matter in the form of a question.The rest of the article doesn’t say anything of the sort, but it’s the question that, when doing media training, agencies want their clients to be aware of. It is setting a statement for somebody else to address. But because the statement is fundamentally incorrect and inflammatory, it’s extremely difficult for a spokesperson to get around that.

In EASTWEST PR’s media training program, clients are taught how to bridge. Bridging is to go from one person’s question to where you would like to bring them for your key message. So, it’s interesting that this whole social media ecosystem in America and worldwide is starting to surface. The British had this with Brexit as well. It’s partly because when someone says something like this, which is inflammatory but also unproven, it starts to trend, and some of these social media influencers then repost these articles, infographics, and memes because they’re trending. It’s like hopping on a bus without really asking where the bus is going to, or if you’ve even got on the right bus, so it’s prudent to always be wary.

Key crisis management tips

When doing media training and crisis management, there are eight important tools. There is the need, first of all, to give it an affirmative but definitive statement to demonstrate being in control. Then, work with clients to ensure that they have a number of things prepared. Have a list of all the key spokespeople for each occasion, because different occasions will warrant a different spokesperson. If it’s a technical crisis, you might have the CTO. If it’s a commercial question, you might have the CFO. In other words, it’s not always the CEO who needs to come out and speak. It’s a good idea to have a definition of what are different priorities of crises. Some are life-threatening to the business and everybody involved in it, but some are not life-threatening, and to always bring out the CEO whenever there’s a crisis can bring a mismatch between the spokesperson and the issue. It also means that there is less opportunity to escalate in case the crisis grows. As a result of having different people speaking depending on the crisis, spokespeople and photographs are prepared for different situations, and their statements should basically all speak about business continuity, which crisis management, ultimately, is all about. It’s about how the company is going to resolve the crisis, take stock, create, work around solutions and replacements.

Think of all the things that could go wrong with the company, whether it’s people issues, customer issues, facility issues, product issues, and write them down. Identify the remedies, the spokespeople, the photographs, the timelines, and what the business will look like after overcoming the crisis. Could there be a change in staff or management, a change in facility, a change in the rules? With all these things prepared, you have a holding statement, a call to a media briefing, or if that’s not possible, a one-on-one interview or a group interview through Zoom. 

The next item is to monitor trends. In the case of #Wayfairgate, some of these social media surfers were basically jumping on a wave, but actually, they didn’t really know what wave they were riding. So, monitor trends and use tools like Talkwalker, Cision, and Meltwater to track what’s being said where and how. A quick look at the stock price of Wayfair shows that in April, it was $96, and currently, it’s $226, so plainly, this issue hasn’t hurt the company. The question is why is this company being targeted? Is it short sellers that are a bit like the ones that have been speculating on Elon Musk’s fortunate Tesla, or is it something more fundamental? 

Earlier in 2020, there was a staff walk out, because the company had sold $200,000 of furniture to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE, which detain people at the American borders, ironically enough. It’s a company also that, when a reporter from Boston wrote about them, argued that their original sin is the genesis of the company, and that it is basically a digital platform that doesn’t produce anything. Just like Amazon, it releases furniture, but their company didn’t even think of its own name; it actually outsourced that to a marketing agency. What’s interesting is that perhaps the best defense in a crisis management situation is the authenticity of the brand. There will be people that will leverage the internet to try and bring down a brand, but with these tools and methods, you can implement them so that if your company does experience a crisis, you’ll be prepared.

 

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from Fox 47

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