10 questions I’d ask Etsy’s PR team about issues management

Image from Etsy.com

What do you want your brand to stand for?

That’s the first question I would ask Etsy’s PR team if I had the chance to talk with them about the best way to handle the “hate cards” issue — it’s not a PR crisis at this point — with which they are faced. If you aren’t familiar with the story, Shel Holtz offers a thorough explanation in this recent post.  Shel tells the story of Jonathan Mast, a friend of ours, in his post and how Jonathan has tried to get Etsy to remove cards being sold on its site that make fun of down syndrome — Jonathan’s daughter has DS. Since Shel wrote the post, a new set of cards congratulating women for being raped have been posted for sale. There are cards congratulating women for having AIDS and breast cancer as well.

When I saw Shelly Kramer Facebook about the rape cards yesterday, my first thought was that it bothered me. But my second was what would I do if I worked in PR for Etsy. That said, here are the 10 questions I would ask them or any brand dealing with a similar issue when trying to work through the situation:

  1. What do you want your brand to stand for? In other words, how do you want people to see Etsy? And I’d want to discuss whether or not these cards or this product conflict with that vision. Even if a brand is comfortable being more edgy, there would need to be some conversation about how far is too far. That said, I think it’s important to understand how the company you’re working with sees itself. And to have the conversation that with social media, your customers often create perception, which quickly becomes reality, even if it isn’t 100 percent accurate.
  2. Do you have an issues management plan and has it been updated to include social media? Hopefully, a group of people who understand their brand better than I possibly could worked to put an issues/crisis plan together. How did they suggest handling an issue like this? Many issues plans highlight key decision makers that come together to analyze the significance of a situation. I’d be interested to hear a consensus opinion from that group on the subject.
  3. Do you have a social media policy? And when I asked this, I’d be asking from an internal and external perspective. From an internal perspective, I’d want to know if the policy covered responding to a situation like this, which gets to question four. And from an external perspective, I’d want to know what rules have been given to community members who sell product on Etsy.com?
  4. What’s your issues response protocol? Response protocol has sort of become a buzz word connected with social media issues and crises, but I think it applies to all forms of media here, especially since this story hit CNN Headline News this week. I’d want to know if the issues/crisis team has identified certain types of issues and discussed the best way to respond, who responds, what tone they use, where they respond, etc.
  5. Do you have a spokesperson(s)? A spokesperson used to be a company representative who could talk to reporters. And it still can be that. But the rise of social media has brought about the need for a different type of spokesperson — those who can engage the online community via blogs, social networks, etc. Even if at first he/she is just relaying a statement from a company representative, it’s important to know who the members of your online communities trust — hint: that person(s) doesn’t have to be an employee; he/she could be an influential customer, blogger, etc.
  6. What are you afraid of? This is a question we as PR pros don’t ask our clients often enough, IMO. Maybe it’s because it can be an uncomfortable conversation. Or maybe it feels a bit intrusive. But if I’m going to help you develop a strategy that impacts how you and your company will be perceived by the public, I want to know what keeps you up at night. For instance, in this situation, if Etsy’s leadership is worried about being seen as a trusted brand whatever the cost, I want to know that. If protecting first amendment rights of its community members is of the utmost importance, it helps to understand that too. This is kind of a way of asking about a brand’s culture pillars. And at the same time, you want to know what your client’s bosses are going to judge him/her on.
  7. Does your company have a history of dealing with situations like this one? If I’ve learned anything from my experience working with different clients, it’s that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Every company is different. Even though some agencies develop and sell products around PR needs like issues management, in the end the product always has to be customized based on a number of case-specific factors. So here, I’d want to know if the company had dealt with a community member selling cards like this before, how it had been handled and what the issues team thought of the end result. The answer to those questions would likely have an impact on strategy for this situation.
  8. Do you feel like your policy needs to be changed? This is a question I would ask specifically in this situation. Here’s why. Etsy has a “Do’s and Don’t's” policy posted on its website. One of the bullets under the prohibited items section reads: “Items that promote or glorify hatred, racial, religious intolerance.” These cards would seem to fall under that item. So I would want to know if the PR team saw it differently and what they meant by that reference. Maybe there is even a need to highlight the importance the company places on first amendment rights, which some have said is why the cards haven’t been removed. Whatever the answer, what I would advise them to avoid is confusion around the rules. Just like with kids, clear rules enforced consistently make it easier to manage a situation.
  9. Why are you deleting Facebook comments about these cards? Again, this is a question that relates specifically to this situation. As you may have read in Shel’s post mentioned above, Etsy has taken the stance to delete negative comments posted to its Facebook page and has done so multiple times around this issue. My advice here, as in any situation, would be that the decision to remove 3rd-party Facebook comments should be made based on the company’s policy. For instance, many brands don’t allow comments that use inappropriate language. The X factor that can’t be ignored here though is how removing these comments makes it look like the company believes it did something wrong and doesn’t care about the opinions of its customers. And that may not be the case. So I’d want to get to the reasoning behind removing the comments. Is it because of potential negative publicity? Or is there something more to the story?
  10. When does this become a crisis and do you feel prepared? Too many people in our industry misuse the word crisis. A crisis is often a natural disaster or life-threatening situation. So when does a customer issue like this become a crisis? Well, I think it’s different for every brand. But if you can ID when it would be a crisis for your company and everyone can agree you want to keep that from happening, then you can develop a sound strategy for trying to keep it from reaching that point.

I’ll be honest that it’s been difficult to watch this play out because the cards bother me and have directly impacted one of my friends. But I like to see companies that learn from a situation like this, listen to their customers and make a sound, well thought out choice. I always think of Dominos as a brand that did that so well with the gross pizza video their two employees made. Dominos wasn’t using social media when that happened, but the brand listened to its customers and employees who were using social and turned a major issue into an opportunity.

Maybe Etsy will surprise us and do the same. Or even adjust their policies to back their company POV. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

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KeithTrivitt 15 pts

Fantastic thoughts, Justin, and thank you for sharing your own personal perspective. I think this point in your first question - "I think itu00e2u0080u0099s important to understand how the company youu00e2u0080u0099re working with sees itself" - is the most profound and important question a PR person should ask any employer, client, politician, etc. they work for. If you're going to representing these people, a company, whatever it may be, and very often, acting as an advocate for their products and services, you better damn well be certain it's a company or client you truly believe and are willing to stand up for. And that means understanding how and why it operates.

Our value to clients, the business community and serving the public good as PR professionals is only as strong as our convictions and belief in the good of our employers and clients. And if you're not asking many of the tough, but important questions, you list above, then IMO, you're not doing your full job as a PR pro.

JGoldsborough 241 pts

KeithTrivitt Thanks for the thoughts, Keith. They are definitely tough questions to ask. But they also show how much we as PR pros value the relationship and want to help our clients achieve the greatest success possible.

I also think we benefit our clients by asking these questions because even though they may seem commonplace, some haven't asked themselves the questions at all or don't think about them as often as they should. And that's easy to do. People get busy working and all :). That's why listening is also so important...so companies know how they are being perceived bu customers vs how they have marketed themselves to be perceived. Thanks for stopping by.

jessied 5 pts

Great post, Justin. Thanks for putting it together. I completely agree that we don't ask "What are you afraid of?" as often as we should.

JGoldsborough 241 pts

jessied Thanks, Jess. That can definitely be an insightful question. One of my colleagues taught me that finding out what keeps our clients up at night and how we can help them meet those challenges is an important step in client service. That has been a valuable lesson for me.

jessied 5 pts

JGoldsborough There is also value in asking that question and knowing you'll get an honest response. If our clients (internal for in-house folks and external for agencies) don't tell us the truth, it only makes the outcome less likely the desired one.

JGoldsborough 241 pts

jessied Good call. Definitely helps build trust.

disgustedcats 5 pts

I want to know why Etsy has failed to clarify, let alone, uphold its obscenity policy.

JGoldsborough 241 pts

disgustedcats I think that is one of the most interesting parts about the situation. The policy seems to say that the cards would be removed, but some of the comments on Facebook from Etsy seems to say that they see it as a 1st amendment issue. Even though I don't necessarily agree with the latter, I could definitely see a company taking that POV. But the fact that the policy doesn't have that 1st amendment language (at least that I could find) is what I found interesting. Maybe it could be updated to include it if it's that important to the company.


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