Communicate better


Articles, opinions and case studies. For students’ unions with big ideas.

Teardown: Crisis communications


Teardown : an occasional series of case studies, looking at real-life examples of good or bad communications. I reverse-engineer them to understand how their strategy or communications plan have led to an excellent bit of work - or a terrible one.

Buffer keeps its cool

I received an email last night from Buffer, a service I use to schedule social media posts.

The email was a masterclass in how to neutralise a potential PR crisis through calm, value-driven, proactive communications.

I wasn't affected at all by the actual issue. Buffer probably didn't even need to contact me about it. But because they did, I now have more confidence in their technical abilities, and their working culture, than before.

Buffer turned an error into a demonstration of their values and skills.

Here's the email. I've broken it into chunks to point out how it works, and the techniques they've used while creating it. I've highlighted excerpts that demonstrate good comms skills.

All of these techniques are applicable to students' unions.

If your SU finds itself in a difficult situation and it needs tackled fast, keep these pointers in mind.

The email:

Hi there,

We wanted to proactively reach out to you about a bug in our login system that we identified on Friday and resolved over the weekend.

  • Solid BLUF (bottom line up front).
  • The issue is instantly summarised and the reader is reassured that it has been solved.
  • Written clearly in a matter-of-fact tone, without obfuscation or 'softening' the reader up with filler like 'Sorry to bother you' or 'We have some bad news'.
  • Use of phrasing like 'proactively' and 'identified on Friday, resolved on the weekend' are intentionally conveying the speed at which Buffer moved, to give the reader confidence.

This bug affected 0.00599% of Buffer users (467 out of 7,800,000), and we have reached out to those 467 people separately.

When a user logs in, we create an access token that secures their login and gives them access to Buffer. We identified a bug with this login system that made it possible in very rare cases for two accounts to share one access token. This would cause one of those Buffer users to log in to the incorrect account.

This issue is fully resolved. Our team has implemented a more secure system for granting these tokens, which ensures that all account access is private, safe, and secure.

  • Raw data used, to expose the scale of both the incident and of Buffer itself - a smart method of using hard numbers to give an objective demonstration of the scale of the incident.
  • Buffer users are likely to appreciate a small glimpse into the technical issue that has been exposed. This explanation is both accessible to the layperson and gives technically proficient readers enough information to understand what has happened.
  • 'This issue is fully resolved'. This is a strong, assertive statement, an underappreciated tactic for 'crisis' or difficult communication. This approach is used consistently throughout the whole statement. Its purpose is to create a clear, unarguable narrative that the problem is 'fixed forever' and worrying is unnecessary. In simpler terms - they are telling the reader what to think - for which readers are usually very grateful.

To be especially clear: No passwords were compromised. No credit card details were at risk. This was a technical bug within our system and not a malicious event or hack from an outside party.

We’ve taken precautions to upgrade all Buffer accounts to our new login system. If you use a Buffer mobile app, you will need to log back in; if you use a third party app (like Zapier), you will need to reconnect.

  • Short, sharp, unarguable assertions again, in the simplest possible language.
  • By mentioning passwords, credit cards, and privacy (in the previous paragraph), Buffer are answering questions before they are asked - neutralising customer fears before they can take hold.
  • The most common concerns of a user of a compromised service - security, money, malicious intentions - are named explicitly, and picked off one by one.
  • 'You will need' - blunt phrasing from a service that's just informed you about an error! But it is effective. The audience is likely to be sympathetic to well-explained, minor software bugs, and by this point, just wants to get back to work. Buffer tells them what they will need to do, so they don't discover later that their social media output has ceased - which would make 7.8m people very, very upset.
  • You might have noticed that Buffer do not apologise in this email. That's intentional, and it's another example of effectively telling people what to think. If Buffer apologised, that could have been subconsciously interpreted by many readers as a signal that there was something they should be upset about - and so, they would get upset.
  • By communicating assertively and calmly, Buffer take the conversation away from "failure > anger > apology" to "discovery > notification > resolution".

Lastly, I’d like to send a big thank you to the customer who made us aware of this. We’re always amazed by the community we get to serve.

Dan Farrelly

CTO, Buffer

  • In one final flourish of communication alchemy, Buffer turns a potential user uproar into a celebration of their community - cleverly positioning themselves as 'servants' of an 'amazing' range of people and companies.

Key takeaways:

A firm, assertive tone reassures your readers.

Identify the key concerns that your readers might have (such as password security), and address them clearly and definitively.

Expose complexity. People are sympathetic to problems they understand.

Sometimes, apologies are permission for someone to be upset.

Use your values. Read Buffer's values here: several are clearly evident in this email.

The best time to plan for a crisis?

When you're not having one.

Get in touch to learn more about how I can help you with crisis communications planning, strategic communications, and reflecting your values in your work.

Andrew Keenan