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Case Study: How Twitter Helped Save Ford From a PR Disaster

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Company: Ford Motor Company
Contact: Scott Monty, head of social media at Ford
Location: Dearborn, MI
Industry: Automotive
Annual revenue: $139,300,000,000
Number of employees: 224000

Quick Read

When US Airways flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River, Twitter users broke the news, 15 minutes ahead of mainstream media, according to UK's Telegraph.

The same channel and its immediacy also helped Ford Motor Company's head of social media quell a different kind of disaster—of the PR variety—in December 2008.

After a fan site received a formal letter from Ford demanding that the site's URL be relinquished, the owner posted news of the event on the site's user forum, launching a firestorm of criticism against Ford.


Scott Monty, who heads Ford's social media efforts and was the first to be informed of the fiasco, played a crucial role in resolving the situation, using Twitter as his main communication platform to help quell incendiary criticism within 24 hours.

Challenge

On the evening of December 9, 2008, the owner of The Ranger Station, an independent Ford fan site, posted a comment to the site's user forum announcing that he had received a cease-and-desist notification from Ford Motor Company that demanded he both surrender the site's URL and pay a $5,000 fine.

As told by Ron Ploof in his e-book titled "The Ranger Station Fire," 916 "heated responses" were posted to the thread, vilifying Ford for bullying its own fans and suggesting that the company was inappropriately trying to recoup revenues lost in the down economy. And that was just the beginning.

By the time Scott Monty, head of social media at Ford, awoke the next morning, the news had spread beyond The Ranger Station to numerous blogs as well as social-networking media such as Twitter.

Two messages were waiting in Monty's own Twitter account that morning alerting him to the situation, with links to some of the other sites where the story was already circulating.

Campaign

Monty's first step was to contact the office of Ford's Associate General Counsel to get the facts behind the original letter sent to The Ranger Station owner. As it turned out, The Ranger Station had been selling unlicensed Ford logo products, and the letter had been part of the legal action taken to end that activity.

Understanding the issue's sensitivity, Monty then spoke to The Ranger Station owner, came to an agreement with him, and worked with Ford's Legal Department to revise the communication so that it still demanded an end to the selling of counterfeit goods without confiscating the site's URL or demanding a fine.

The owner of The Ranger Station, in turn, agreed to post additional insight into the situation on his site's user forum, including the basis for the original cease-and-desist letter and the subsequent agreement made by both parties.

Monty also worked with multiple departments to begin composing a public statement, which would go through the proper approval channels before being announced.

Meanwhile, however, he took the lead and performed his own brand of PR using Twitter—since that was where he had the "most immediacy and reach"—to help calm the situation.

He began with tweets acknowledging the issue, including these:

  • "@JRegner Thanks for letting me know. I'm looking into that this morning."
  • "@pblackshaw I was made aware of it this morning and I'm tracking down our trademark counsel to weigh in on it. Not good."
  • "@badgergravling I'm on it. Getting our legal team's perspective and trying to stop a PR nightmare."
  • "@leeTrans @davidrinnan @Energy_Geek @petertdavis @insideline_com I'm personally looking into it. Hope to have an answer soon."
  • "@ContractorTalk I'm in discussions with our Chief Trademark Counsel about it right now. I'm none too pleased. #ford"

(Note: by including hash tags, such as #ford, Monty's message was also broadcast to anyone following Ford on Twitter.)

He continued to keep people updated with tweets, including these:

  • "@mdurwin @voltageblog I'm finding it's a much different story from our legal department..."
  • "@petertdavis It means we didn't get the full story from the site owners. There's a deeper issue in question. #ford"
  • "Re the Ford fan site: I'm finding that there was counterfeit material being sold on it. Trying to get clarity on the URL issue. #ford"

"I had an inkling there may be more than met to eye of this and wanted to make sure people knew that," Monty later said.

He also asked his followers to help spread his message with a tweet that read, "For anyone asking about the Ford fan sites and legal action: I'm in active discussions with our legal dept. about resolving it. Pls retweet."

"A retweet is probably the most powerful communications device in the social media world today," wrote Ploof. "It's when one Twitter member retransmits a previous tweet to their own Twitter followers. A retweet is an endorsement of sorts, where followers trust the original author enough to retransmit the message to the audiences who trust them."

Furthermore, Monty kept an eye out for any new misinformation and was quick to react to subsequent tweets that discredited Ford.

For example, one user posted "How do you repay your online evangelists? Well if you're Ford Motor Company, you step on their necks & demand $5,000 http://snurl.com/7r12q." Monty responded within minutes with a post that read "@BrettTrout Please correct that. We've since remedied it http://tinyurl.com/6b7njd."

When Ford's official corporate statement was made public later that day, Monty alerted his followers with yet another tweet and once again asked them to retweet the message to their own followers.

Results

With the help of Monty's proactive measures, Ford was able—all within the first 24 hours—to gain control of the situation and stave off what could have been a much larger PR blow.

Internally, Monty said, this scenario opened his eyes to the need for more open communication between his Corporate Communications group and the company's Office of General Counsel, and he plans to be more involved in their case reviews going forward in an effort to help prevent similar issues from transpiring.

Lessons Learned

Monty's use of the Twitter platform was instrumental in this situation because it provided him with the channel to continuously broadcast his message to an extensive audience in real time.

Moreover, Monty already had the trust of Ford Corporate Management and could take full advantage of Twitter's immediacy, rather than having to first gain approval of every comment posted, which could have prevented him from reining in the situation as quickly as he did.

"Had Ford taken the traditional route—organizing a committee to determine how to respond—this situation likely would have spilled into the mainstream press, where the fire would have been too big to handle," wrote Ploof.

It was also fortunate that Monty was already well established on Twitter. Had he not been, he may not have caught wind of the situation early enough since it was on Twitter that he was first made aware.

"I had developed relationships with people who went out their way to make sure I knew about this in the first place," said Monty.

Also, had he not already put in the time to build his group of "followers" and establish trust among 5,600 users (as of December 10—he now has more than 9,800 followers), it would have been much more difficult to quickly broadcast his message, especially to such a receptive audience.

In addition, had that trust not been established ahead of time, Monty would not have been able to successfully make—or benefit from the multiplication effect of—the request for his followers to retweet his messages to their own follower bases. As it was, 19 people complied with Monty's first request to retweet, potentially reaching a combined 13,400 followers, and 25 responded to the second request, with a reach of 21,000 followers.

"Basically, I had an army of helpers out there assisting me along the way, and I couldn't have done it without them," said Monty.

Monty demonstrated other Twitter best-practices, in addition to his retweet requests:

Transparency

Monty was straightforward and open in his communications on Twitter, which was key in enabling Ford to regain public trust.

"Ford was seen to be open and transparent about what was going on, in real time," said Monty. "Giving people an inside view into how the company works was an extremely important aspect of this entire exercise."

A channel-appropriate tone

Monty said he also knew he needed to craft communications that carried a more human tone than corporate statements. "It couldn't be legalese, the formal and off-putting language lawyers typically use," he said. "I had to speak the language of the medium in which I was communicating, and you don't typically communicate in legal terms on a forum."

In addition, Monty's own personality came through with fill-in tweets such as "Excuse me for just one moment. CALGON, TAKE ME AWAAAAAYYYY!! Thanks. I'm all set now" which helped to further humanize the automotive giant.

(What have you done to join the ranks of Super Marketing Hero? Tell us about it by emailing CaseStudies@MarketingProfs.com)

Related Links

Twitter can help your business with more than just crisis management. Check out How Your Business Can Benefit From Using Twitter: Four Proven Strategies another Premium Member-only article in our MarketingProfs Library to learn how to use Twitter to reach your customers and grow your business. Premium Plus Members may also enjoy viewing Twitter Like You Mean It: The Right Way to Tweet Your Brand in the MarketingProfs Seminar Library. We hope these resources help you rapidly build an effective Twitter program for your company.

 


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Kimberly Smith is a staff writer for MarketingProfs. Reach her via kims@marketingprofs.com.

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Comments

  • by John White Tue Feb 3, 2009 via web

    This is a splendid story. If I were Ford, I'd repackage it with the title, "Why We Don't Need the Federal Bailout Money - We're Figuring Things Out On Our Own".

  • by patsy Tue Feb 3, 2009 via web

    I don't see "save this" at the bottom of this article. Am I missing something?

  • by Claudia Wed Feb 4, 2009 via web

    And where is Scott Monty's Twitter name???? Please!

  • by Ann Handley Wed Feb 4, 2009 via web

    Claudia -- Scott is @scottmonty on Twitter.

  • by Ken Williamson Wed Feb 4, 2009 via web

    Need a print version of this article. Please.

  • by Mandy Vavrinak Wed Feb 4, 2009 via web

    Thanks for sharing... this is just the type of info I need to make the case to some clients that investing some time and resources in the community that is social media makes sense... not to "push product" but to connect on a human-to-human level. Sometimes the human connection is what makes the buying decision.

  • by Mandy Vavrinak Wed Feb 4, 2009 via web

    Addendum to story... see how it continues... this is a brief Twitter convo from Feb 1st.:
    ---
    cristintx: Speaking of American autos... why did Ford have a #superad09 ?

    Scott Monty: @cristintx Because we didn't take any government money and it was one we already had in rotation #superads09

    Cristintx: @ScottMonty Duly noted. Thank you.
    ----
    And that quickly, someone moved from questioner/antagonist to understanding (at least publicly). Also important, I think, to note that at the time of this exchange, cristintx had less than 50 followers. Scott appears to be reaching out to all those who are talking about Ford, not just "influencers." That is what makes social media powerful. IMO.

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