Technology

An Adept Lesson in Crisis Communications on Social Media

By / May 6, 2019 (Creative-Touch/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

After a major bug left users of the Firefox browser without their add-ons over the weekend, the social media accounts of its parent company, Mozilla, kicked into gear. Your IT team should take notes.

If you’re a Firefox user, this past weekend was very nerve-wracking indeed.

The popular web browser ran into an issue where its add-ons stopped working, which many Firefox fans believed was the direct result of a botched browser update. In reality, it was the opposite, something that seems surprising for a web browser company to miss: The company failed to update a security certificate.

While Mozilla, the foundation-owned corporation that distributes the browser, worked quickly to fix the issue, it was nonetheless an embarrassing situation for the firm, whose corporate ancestor Netscape actually developed the original standards for security certificates online. The problem caused by the expiration was complicated to solve, and workarounds were not exactly easy to explain to end users.

A failure like this seriously threatens trust—and it’s to the company’s credit that it immediately took steps to fix this problem.

Mozilla is a big organization and has a lot of areas to cover institutionally, and it’s in a tough field where its main competitors are now working together. A failure like this seriously threatens trust—and it’s to the company’s credit that it immediately took steps to fix this problem.

When things like this happen, even if they expose deeper problems as this incident did, it’s worth pondering after the fact what worked well, even during a period of significant failure—and for Mozilla, that appears to have been their social media strategy. Even while facing the web browser equivalent of the server being on fire, with literally millions of people affected (many of them complaining, often viciously, about their web-surfing getting disrupted), the social media team at Firefox was fairly adept at responding.

Soon after the first reports of the add-on issues came to light—just after midnight Eastern time, on a Saturday—the company tweeted that it was aware of a problem and working on a fix. And before that, the Mozilla Add-ons team started sharing out more detailed information to add-on developers via Twitter.

From there, the company provided fairly frequent updates on its various channels, including on its Discourse-based forums,  where it offered technical solutions to use as a workaround while it was finishing up a more in-depth update to the software that would prove an easier fix for normal users. And throughout the incident, the main Firefox account on Twitter was busy—responding to people who had run into problems using the browser and letting them know where things stood.

(The company even responded to users about the bug in their native languages!)

There are a lot of lessons to take from Mozilla’s difficult weekend, some of which more generally apply to all departments, and others of which apply specifically to tech failures. Among those:

Treat it like a strategic problem. IT executives don’t want to deal with stuff like this. In the 2018 edition [PDF] of its State of the CIO survey, CIO magazine reported that respondents suggested that 19 percent of the functional portion of their job involved managing IT crises—a job function that IT execs would really like to not do, as it gets in the way of strategic work. (The report found that IT execs were hoping to sharply decrease the number of fires they put out.) But what if the problem was approached in a way where crisis, or the preparation for one, was turned into a broader strategic mission long before it got to the point of no return? We know that things will happen, but having a well-considered plan in place—as well as a well-thought-out response when something does—could help make incidents of this nature less stressful.

Consider your moderation approach. People—whether staff, members, or attendees—are going to be frustrated when something they need to access isn’t available. And they might convey their opinions when frustrated. That is not the time to play comment police, PR expert Ann Marie van den Hurk argues. “Do not censor criticism on your blog, Facebook account or YouTube channel unless it violates your stated community guidelines,” she wrote in a crisis management guide for PR News. Why’s that? She notes that “removing the offending comments may lead to more, harsher comments.” Van den Hurk also recommends taking a personal tone in public responses, not a corporate one, and considering how different users on social platforms might approach things differently.

Know what can happen before it does. In recent years, Samsung has faced multiple PR crises related to its popular phones, most notably a case where the Galaxy Note 7’s batteries became flammable, and most recently when a folding phone broke in the hands of multiple reviewers. CIO contributor Andrew Stanten, writing in response to the Galaxy Note 7 phone incident in 2017, noted that it was important to do a “vulnerability audit,” to get an understanding of what could go wrong before it happens. “Talk with everyone from your entry-level developers to your CTO, and ask them what could possibly go wrong,” Stanten wrote. “Once you have a list of seven to 10 potential events, think through how these scenarios could play out.”

Learn from your mistakes. Mozilla reportedly had an idea that this might be a problem—because something similar happened three years ago. “Certificates such as this are pretty straightforward to renew, so it’s a terrible oversight on their part,” James Miller of TechSpot wrote of the incident. Your users are likely to be forgiving of a mistake—but might be less so if it happens more than once. Don’t give them the opportunity to get frustrated again.

All in all, though, Mozilla’s handling of the weekend incident shows that, even in a time of extreme stress, a swift response can really pay off. Let’s hope you never have to do the same—but be ready just in case.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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