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What Businesses Can Learn from #DeleteUber Is your company prepared for a brand crisis?

By Len Devanna Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I'm going to (try to) steer clear of the surrounding politics, but suffice it to say the United States (and to some extent the world) is trying to understand our new "reality." As is the case with a handful of other technology companies, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was asked to and agreed to serve on Trump's Business Council in December 2016. Just over a month later, he's decided that he will no longer participate.

The epicenter of this about-face comes from the massive protests triggered by Trump's executive order on immigration that temporarily blocked citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. New York's JFK airport was part of the action, and the New York Taxi Alliance joined the fray by choosing not to pick up JFK passengers from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the day of the protest.

This triggered Uber's surge pricing, where rates go up based on demand. At 7:36 pm, Uber announced that it was shutting off surge pricing -- but the damage was done. The perception from the masses was that Uber was being opportunistic and exploiting the situation. I don't know for certain, but suspect surge pricing is triggered systemically based on demand and that this was all due to an algorithm versus human decision making. Regardless, #DeleteUber began to trend and reportedly over 200,000 customers have since deleted their accounts.

Meanwhile, Uber competitor Lyft announced that it was donating $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union over the next four years. So, while Uber was hemorrhaging customers, Lyft app downloads climbed from No. 39 in the App store (as of the morning of Saturday, Jan. 28) to No. 7 by the end of the weekend.

Of course there's much more to this story, but the catalyst for the exodus is clearly the series of events outlined above. So what can we learn from this?

1. Always be listening.

This could not be more important. There are conversations taking place about your brand every minute of every day. In my 25 years of experience working with many of the worlds' top brands, I continue to be stunned by the gap here.

It's not only about monitoring inbound comments to your digital channels, rather it's about monitoring the broader conversation about your brand. In the Uber example above, if the business was only wired to listen for comments directed to their social accounts, they would likely have missed the trending #DeleteUber hashtag until it was far too late. I have no idea when they picked up on it, but the 1.5 hours it took to issue a statement is quite a while in internet time.

If your company is not intimately tapped into the real-time conversations about your brand and products, you're at risk. And if my experience is any indicator, this is a major gap for you right now.

2. Have a plan.

Research from Burson-Marsteller found that 79 percent of global decision makers expect a company crisis within 12 months yet only half said that they had a crisis management plan in place. Worse, only 33 percent suggested their crisis management plan included "new media." You know -- that whole internet thing where the world does business now.

The time to develop a crisis management plan is not in the throes of a crisis. We saw that play out with poor Dominos back in 2009. While the brand took two days to figure out how to respond to a video of two employees doing disgusting things to a pizza prior to (supposed) delivery, the video received over 2 million views.

Be ready for the unexpected. Who needs to be engaged? Who are the decision makers? What are your internal communications processes and channels? What are your levels of a crisis? I once did work for a brand whose sole method for communications during a crisis was their internal ethernet based phone system. I asked, "What happens if your network goes down?"

3. Have a voice and a destination.

I strongly believe in having an established place to direct a digital conversation during a crisis. It's simple -- let the conversation spur out of control on digital media OR have a primary destination where the brand provides updates and answers questions. In the latter, you can intercept social conversations and drive them back to your turf for the facts. For me, I far prefer to control the message rather than letting the masses create it for me.

It's also important to have an established voice. Taking an executive who's never posted anything publicly on digital and hoisting them up as the voice during a crisis is risky. It's far better to have an established authority to participate in the growing discussion versus joining it reactively.

4. Know thy customer.

I'm going to dip into politics here and will suit up in flame retardant gear as a result. It's a generalization, but think about Trump's base. Largely the forgotten working class, desperate to see jobs come back to America. Are these Uber users? Most likely not. Uber's perceived political stance on this one pokes at what I suspect is its primary customer base. Political positions are tricky business. I believe Uber could have handled this far better and minimized much of the damage. But it starts with intimately understanding your customer base and messaging accordingly.

Eventually, your company is going to suffer a brand crisis. It's inevitable. Ask yourself if you're prepared for it. If not, get to work. It's far better to do it now than when it's all "hitting the fan."

Len Devanna

President of xInsights

Len Devanna, president of Trepoint, has worked in digital marketing for 25 years. He has helped startups to $180-billion companies transform and integrate how they serve their audiences through digital media.

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