Caribou Coffee Brews Digital Crisis of its Own Making

Caribou Coffee’s announcement last week, that the company was shuttering stores and laying off employees, proves that relying exclusively on a press release to deliver unpleasant news is a bad strategy in the digital age.

I’m not saying press releases aren’t important. But in the age of Facebook, Twitter and other social media, I am saying they’re not enough.

In case you missed it, German-owned Caribou announced on Apr. 8 that it would be closing 80 of its stores and rebranding an additional 88 others as Peet’s Coffee & Tea.

That same day seemingly as though everything was business as usual Caribou Coffee posted a status update about its new Bistro Bagel breakfast sandwich to its Facebook Page provoking a rash of bitter feedback. Customers and employees posted comments “roasting” the brand for its insensitivity, for deleting comments critical of its plan to close stores and for giving its employees only one week’s notice to find new jobs.

Caribou’s Facebook administrator tried to manage the backlash by removing the snarky comments, but the company’s critics apparently had greater stamina. A week later, the page is littered with defamatory remarks and sad goodbyes from customers whose preferred brand of morning Joe was being taken away from them.

We’ll never know for sure why Caribou showed such poor judgment in how it managed the fallout from its store-closing announcement. Perhaps the company missed the bus to the digital future and still thinks it can control the message

More likely, it was a failure of Caribou’s management.

“Good communications come from solid leadership and training,” says Greg Reeder, an executive at DC Media Group, who will deliver learnings such as these as part of a panel on crisis communications at the PRSA Digital Impact Conference, June 7-8, 2013, in New York.

Reeder agrees that there are three important lessons that public relations professionals can take away from Caribou Coffee’s mishandling of its store-closing announcement.

1. Do What You Say, Say What You Do. Any gap between what a company says and what it does is riskier than ever. On its Web site, Caribou claims to have a corporate culture that’s committed to listening, developing and recognizing their team members, but by terminating hundreds of employees with one week’s notice, the company’s actions proved otherwise.

2. Communications Should be Multi Channel. It may be naive to think that there’s any “nice” way to communicate job losses. However, making public disclosures of this nature exclusively through top-down, asymmetric, “command-and-control” type communications is a poor choice. A smarter choice would have been to make the announcement through employees who could provide context and show empathy. Remember, too, that people trust employees more than executive leaders. In a multichannel universe, communications should be distributed simultaneously through as many avenues as possible.

3. Social Media is a Team Sport. While communicating to and through employees provides benefits in terms of engagement, reach and trust, it still requires social media literacy and social media compliance. Social media policies are necessary, but not sufficient to promote social media literacy. Very few employees take the time to read a social media policy. And if they do, fewer actually understand what they mean. The objective of a good social media policy is not censorship or message control; rather, it is to train and teach employees key concepts, “how-to” mechanics and best practices, such as disclosure, transparency, respect, diplomacy and penalties.

Looking back in hindsight, what should Caribou have done differently? First, it could have given its employees more advance notice. Second, it could have involved its employees in the announcement. And finally, it could have made severance payments contingent on social media policy compliance, assuming it has a social media policy and has conducted social media training.

Granted, there’s always going to be some kind of negative backlash when jobs are lost. But if you learn from Caribou’s mistakes, the backlash is far less likely to spiral out of control.

Eric Schwartzman is CEO of ComplySocially, a company that develops e-learning courseware to deliver social media training to employees on-demand via their laptops and mobile devices.

# # #