Ten Rules For Navigating in The Age of Outrage

Is Social Media the New Participatory Democracy?

Verizon just folded like a cheap lawn chair on their recently-announced plan to impose a ridiculous $2 fee for customers who used a one-time electronic bill payment feature on their website. Turns out that charging customers for the right to pay you was not popular: the internet rose up and roared. Almost immediately after announcing it, Verizon was faced with a 50,000+ signature petition demanding that they withdraw the proposed new fee. The protestors even raised the ire of regulators who publicly expressed concern and threatened to have a closer look. (Some WSJ coverage here.) Verizon had no choice but to beat a hasty and humiliating retreat.

I think this is the latest example a very broad and very deep trend at work.

Verizon’s miscue is just the most recent in a long and varied chain of incidents along the same lines: the uproar over each of Facebook’s privacy policy changes, the new-fee debacle with Bank of America (covered in my recent post: BofA Sucks), the huge flap over Netflix’s price changes and website split, and the countless cases of internet vigilantes punishing bad corporate conduct (including, most recently, the fiasco with AllThis from last week and the total meltdown with Ocean Marketing this week). The list goes on.

In thinking about the theme here, and trying to make sense of it in relation to the broader, related phenomena such as the role of social media in the Arab Spring, and the Occupy protests, and the increasing role of social media and YouTube in political contexts (on both sides of the aisle as well as with newer groups like the Tea Party), I realize this is the maturing of the internet’s newest “killer app.”  When before in history has outrage had such a powerful voice? The internet propagates a battle cry unlike anything that has come before it.

LOL Catz and other humorous memes get around pretty quickly. But just as bad news travels faster than good news in traditional channels, the internet gives indignation and outrage a new set of wings. We are at the dawn of the age of the pissed-off customer as giant-slayer.

What does it mean for businesses trying to operate in this new climate? For starters, it means that rapid response PR skills and social media literacy are no longer a nice to have, they are a core competence no company can thrive without.

But crisis management only goes so far. Businesses need to prevent these brush fires from igniting in the first place.

How? With a bit of common sense and a customer-centric view of the world:

Ten rules for operating in the age of outrage:

  1. Look at every decision from the vantage point of the customer.
  2. If a decision has even a whiff of a potential anti-customer angle, proceed with thoughtful caution: question the necessity and explore alternatives such as a phase-in affecting new users only.
  3. Avoid the appearance of arrogance; the only thing that pisses customers of more than a perceived “take-back” of their rights, is a take-back done abruptly, unilaterally and with an arrogant tone.
  4. Start a meaningful, extended and permanent dialog with your customers using social media, and bring them into decisions which will affect the prices, terms and service levels they enjoy; being asked “would you rather have a price hike or a special fee” is better than a facing the unilateral imposition of either.
  5. Plan customer actions farther in advance, think them through more carefully and trial balloon them before announcing their roll-out.
  6. Recognize the need to communicate your thinking clearly and with humility; explain the rationale of your decisions in a clear and non-patronizing manner – a fantastic example of this is the Steve Jobs April 2010 letter explaining why Apple would never support Adobe’s Flash on iOS. (“…I wanted to jot down some of our thoughts on Adobe’s Flash products so that customers and critics may better understand why we do not allow Flash on iOS…”)
  7. Give careful thought to who in your business has the power to make and communicate decisions affecting the customer experience, and consider what their incentives are: do they run a P&L where their compensation is driven solely by short-term profitability, or does the measurement of their success include a heavily-weighted customer happiness metric?
  8. Don’t put idiots in front of keyboards: support your customer-facing employees with the training they need to be customer-satisfaction-focused and avoid communication missteps, particularly if they exchange written communications with customers.
  9. Be mindful of the possibility of unintended consequences and have a plan that looks a few moves down the road.
  10. Tighten up the management of your organization so that you have a fool-proof plan for swift, crisp, and well-thought-out 24x7x365 crisis response for those situations in which you’ve blown it on rules 1-9.

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  1. Rick Harris says

    There’s a theme in here that may warrant its own bullet: make customer loyalty your most important priority. That way when the fires of outrage are burning existing customers will help you put the fires out.
    PS. Love the one about not putting idiots in front of keyboards.

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