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December 21, 2009
Toot's Painful but Instructive Story

One of the most vivid PR incidents imaginable -- almost as painful as being there -- is provided by Steve Farnsworth on his Digital Marketing Mercenary blog, SearsKilledMyDog.com: the Anatomy of a Social Media Nightmare Averted -- A Case Study. It's a presentation of do's and don'ts that provides a textbook example of a crisis-communication challenge.

A Sears delivery truck struck and killed Maxwell, affectionately known as Toot, Peggy and David's welcoming dog, when the driver arrived to deliver a freezer. What contributes to making the incident so painful in PR terms is the owner of the Sears hometown store in Dripping Springs, Texas, thought he handled it appropriately. It shows how easy it is to slip into a PR maelstrom and is truly upsetting to read.

When Peggy went to the Sears store seeking solace, the owner (it was more like a franchise store), apologized for Toot's death and then went on to say it wasn't the delivery driver's fault. It was the owners' fault, for they shouldn't have permitted Toot to run freely in their front yard. Can you imagine?

David, troubled by how his wife had been treated, headed to the store himself. The owner held firmly to his defensive perspective and an impasse developed. On December 9, David and Peggy launched their impromptu Web site, SearsKilledMyDog.com. The incident has everything to do with the importance of identifying with people and showing empathy for their feelings. 

The rest of the story involves the enlightened actions that Shaunak Dave, the director of multi-channel integration for Sears Hometown Stores, took to counter a growing crisis. Peggy and David told their friends about the incident and their Web site, and the story spread to Facebook and beyond. In a couple of days, it was becoming viral on the Web.

Shaunak's actions can be described as common sense only if you are a trained or instinctively gifted, PR practitioner. He took some steps that began turning the situation around, all on a Friday afternoon:

• Listen to the customer and understand the problem.
• Acknowledge responsibility when appropriate.
• Apologize when it’s the right thing to do.
• Ask the customer what you can do to make it right.

The Toot story finally had a reasonably happy ending for Sears, David and Peggy. But it is extremely painful to experience in Steve Farnsworth's artful telling because it indicates how an unfortunately human, bourgeois stance can all too readily cause a crisis that these days can be handily amplified via social media. Here's the Internet working at its best as an instructional medium. No tuition charged -- just a blogger acting in community with and for others.   



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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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