Rogers Communications unwittingly teaches a master class in failing to communicate

On Friday, Rogers experienced a massive communications failure.

I’m not talking about the one that left millions of Canadians without cell service, cable or Wi-Fi and businesses unable to take electronic transactions. I’m talking about the corporate communications failure that left Canadians uncertain and suspicious about what was going on and led to anger and seething resentment at the company.

How Rogers Communications bungled its messaging and issues management around the outage is going to be a textbook case in communications for years to come. But not in a good way.

Every company has a bank of goodwill it can draw from when things get tough. For Rogers, though, that bank was pretty much empty when the crisis started. He had just recovered from a recent, smaller outage, had been through a Game of Thrones-style internal leadership bloodbath and was trying to grow by merging with Shaw Communications. So, it started this crisis as the bad guy.

When the network went down, it took Rogers hours to make a statement. This led to widespread speculation that the network had been hacked and questions about the security of user data. While that turned out to be false, the reputational damage spread quickly. When a spokesperson finally appeared on the news, Rogers chose a senior vice president in charge of operations, who was quickly put on the hot seat about the Shaw deal and looked shaky.

Obviously, it’s difficult to contact customers when they have no internet, cable or phone – but Rogers could have distributed regular updates to media to keep people assured it was on top of the issue. That information would have filtered by word-of-mouth to Rogers users, but instead customers were entirely in the dark through much of Friday.

When Rogers CEO Tony Staffieri finally emerged, it was to send a formal email saying, among other things, that service had been restored for “virtually everybody” when, judging by the backlash on Twitter, that just wasn’t true. Staffeiri could have said something like, “we’re working hard to get service back to everyone but there are places that are still offline,” but he further enraged Rogers customers instead.

In the same email, Staffieri also told customers they would be credited automatically for the outage. Customers scoffed at that one. As one Twitter user wrote: “I’m sure they’re gonna offer all of us a $10 refund and then, in mid-September, raise their monthly rates by $20.”

By Sunday, most service in most places in Canada had been restored. But the damage had been done.

Over the course of 48 hours, Rogers somehow managed to reinforce and amplify every possible negative sentiment about the company brand — which is impressive, as failures go.

So, how can it recover?

First, with generosity. Rogers earned $1.56 billion in profits last year. So, any refund of less than $100 per customer will be seen as a pittance. Customers are already leaving for other providers. Arguably, Rogers can’t afford not to be generous.

Second, it can recover with accountability. This is the kind of pants-around-the-ankles failure that should lead to senior executives losing their jobs – not just some hapless engineer. Fairly or unfairly, that starts at the top, with the CEO.

And third, it can recover with humanity and humility. Rogers needs to show that it really understands the impact of its failure. It needs to ditch the legal-department-edited corporatespeak. Not one message from Rogers during the outage sounded human and – particularly for a communications brand – that’s an inexcusable failure of its corporate culture.

Trust is a funny thing. Once you lose trust, it goes looking for a new home. All Rogers’ competitors need to be right now is “not Rogers” — so Rogers, in turn, must be much better than it ever was. It will have to be sincere. Honest. Generous. Empathetic. Can Rogers Communications do that?

Based on last week, it doesn’t seem likely.

Lloyd Rang is the president and narrative lead of Curious Public, a communications and business insights company.


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