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#TargetDown: A Case Study in Crisis Communications

How the retail giant made a swift recovery after a nationwide register outage.

#TargetDown: A Case Study in Crisis Communications

You’d be forgiven if you thought the world was ending over the weekend.

On Saturday, an “internal technology issue” brought down Target’s cash registers nationwide for about two hours. During that time, the posts, tweets, and memes rolled in. #TargetDown, #TargetOutage, and even #TargetApocalypse were a few hashtags that quickly flooded the cybersphere.

“Will humanity survive?” one Twitter user asked.

Jokes aside, the issue was a big source of frustration for many shoppers, especially on the eve of a major retail holiday. In the wake of incidents like these, it can be dicey for companies to jump into the fray on social media.

Stacy Bettison, owner and president of crisis communications firm Bettison, says Target handled the situation well overall, though there were a few areas for improvement. On the good side, the company did the right thing by quickly acknowledging it was aware of the issue and confirming that no customer information was breached.

On its @AskTarget account, the company also told customers it was working to address the problem “as quickly as possible.”

After the issue was fixed Saturday, Target released a formal statement with an apology.

“I think this is a textbook response by Target,” Bettison says. “It contains all the essential elements.”

Jon Austin, who runs the J. Austin & Associates PR firm, agrees. One of the most important first steps for a company in crisis is to let customers know that leadership is aware of the issue, he says.

“Now that doesn’t contain much specific actionable information, but it does communicate to people you’re aware of it, you’re looking into it, and as soon as you know more, they’ll know more,” Austin says.

At the same time, though, Target didn’t provide a detailed explanation of what happened. In the company’s statement on Saturday, Target officials attributed the issue to a “an internal technology issue" without providing any other details.

What’s more, the company’s initial statement didn’t offer any assurance that the issue wouldn’t happen again, Bettison notes. The situation actually played out a second time on Sunday, when Target’s payment vendor NCR reported a data center issue that stalled some credit card payments for more than an hour.

“People need to know that whatever the problem is, it’s not going to happen again,” Bettison says.

To be fair, it’s possible Target itself may not know have known exactly why the issues occurred. And that’s where many companies walk a fine line in crisis communications.

“When you don’t know something, you don’t want to give the impression you don’t know,” she says. “You want to give the impression of, ‘We’re on this, and we’re going to figure it out.’”

After Sunday’s incident, Target released a second statement informing customers that it was “working tirelessly to ensure these issues don’t happen again.”

There were a few other factors that helped Target recover quickly. For instance, the company has invested “significantly” in its own brand reputation and goodwill efforts, Bettison notes.

“Generally, I think people are very forgiving,” she says. “I think Target has done such a good job in generating such goodwill in the community. It’s time like this that the goodwill investment matters.”

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