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Crisis Communications is a well-established field, at this point, with thousands of practitioners ready to help a company that gets in hot water get back out again. Or at least turn down the temperature.

The experts offer all kinds of direction for handling a snafu. You can read articles or whole books on the subject. Attend two-hour workshops or week-long seminars. Consult one authority after another.

Most of it boils down to this. When things go south …

  • Be quick to respond. Time ticking by makes it worse, not better.
  • Be honest in your response—be transparent, no spin. 
  • Give people as much information as you can. When they know more, they feel better.
  • Admit fault and apologize.
  • Say what you’ll do to fix things.
  • Then do it.

You can gussy that up. Many people have, and I’ll just say they earn a lot more in consulting fees than I do.

Really though, we’ve known how to handle crisis communication since we were children who brought home a bad grade, hit a softball through a neighbor’s window, or smacked our little brother. (I may have some personal experience with that last one.)

Fess up. Tell the truth. Apologize. Say how you’ll fix it. Then do it.

How can a company get it so wrong?

Rackspace has provided Hosted Exchange Services for thousands of small businesses, including Catherine Johns, Ltd.

On Friday morning, I woke up to discover I’d had no email since 1:21am. Seemed strange. Most mornings, I have a slew of emails to read through before I start my day. I wondered what I’d done wrong.

Turned out, it wasn’t me. Rackspace was down. All those thousands of small business customers were, like me, wondering what the hell happened.

I managed to have a conversation early on with a tech-support guy who told me … drum roll please … “We have a service outage.” (I kinda knew that)  He couldn’t tell me why service was down, much less when it would be restored. Thanks for nothing, right?

Since then, customers have reported telephone wait times as long as seven hours. The live chat feature on the website’s no better. The Rackers seemed to have closed the doors and gone home.

The company did post a Tweet that said, “We are experiencing an outage.” No kidding? WE are experiencing their outage too.

Their first message was bad.

It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t honest, and it didn’t give us the information we needed. Namely, what happened? And when will my e-mail be working again???

Friday was a business day, and all over the country, organizations were hamstrung for lack of email access. Their clients were sending them emails only to have them bounce.

On Twitter, customers speculated that Rackspace had been hacked. Maybe a malware situation? Maybe ransomware and they were refusing to pay. Maybe it had to do with those layoffs last year? Or shifting to overseas workers? Is our data safe?

This is exactly why the experts tell us to be transparent when things go wrong.

Without any real information, customers were making up their own explanations. None of them favorable to Rackspace.

Sometime Saturday afternoon, Rackspace put out another bland, corporate-speak statement acknowledging they’d had a “security incident.” Oh, so maybe that speculation about ransomware was on target?

They promised updates at least every 12 hours. You’re kidding, right? Every TWELVE hours you’ll show up on Twitter to tell us you’re aware of an outage? We’re all aware of it. What the hell is going on? And when will it be fixed?

By Sunday, Rackspace was recommending that customers migrate to Microsoft. They published some cockamamie instructions on how to do that. But, of course, migrating email accounts from one system to another is not for amateurs.

Customers ran into one snafu after another. Many of them shared their misadventures on Twitter in between the angry posts threatening class action lawsuits.

Me? I migrated, no thanks to Rackspace and their bad advice. I am not at all tech-savvy. That’s why I rely on Sanders IT Consulting—they set me up on MS Exchange and got my email, calendar, and contacts working again.  

And guess who sent me an email shortly after I was up and running? The CEO of Rackspace showed up in my new inbox with a bland message that began, “Dear Valued Customer …”

Can I just say, Rackspace customers do not feel valued right now.

And judging from their comments on social media and in news stories, I’m not the only one who’s decided not to be a customer anymore.

As I write to you, more than three full days after Rackspace shut down, they’ve still offered no honest explanation of what happened or its implications for customer data.

The press is waking up to what went on over the weekend, writing critical stories about the company. Rackspace stock is plunging. And customers are leaving in droves.

The service outage was bad, no doubt. They’ve made a bad situation much, much worse by the way they’ve handled it.

Everything rests on communication, doesn’t it?

Whether you’re in a crisis or not your clients, your colleagues, your employees … they all respond to you based on the way you communicate. What you say and the way you say it can make your business a success or land you in a mess like the one Rackspace is facing now.

Here’s to successes—and no messes—for your business!