No business, regardless of size or industry, is immune from the threat of a public relations crisis. For Wag, a startup facilitating dog-walking and dog-sitting services, the company's recent complaint quickly snowballed into a public relations crisis when its damage control methods earned national attention.
Frequent user of the Wag app, MaryEllen Humphrey, requested a service for her Beagle-Labrador mix, Buddy, in September while the family vacationed in Disney World. The trip, sadly, was cut short when she discovered that Buddy went missing under the supervision of a Wag contractor.
One would think this situation would be an opportunity for the startup to take responsibility and value the most important participant in their business model -- an established customer and her beloved pet. But yet, they missed the mark.
In an October 10th Facebook post, Humphrey accused the company of misrepresenting rescue efforts and offering her $2,500 along with paying for the family's trip to Disney World to stay quiet on the issue. Wag spokesperson Marcy Simon said that the company hired a professional dog rescuer, established a $1,000 reward, and issued a Pet Amber Alert in an attempt to find Buddy, according to Bloomberg.
Following the alleged hush efforts from Wag, Humphrey continued using social media to escalate the situation, posting links to the company's review pages and encouraging connections to post on them.
Wag's attorney threatened legal action in the form of a cease and desist statement dated October 10th. The statement, which accused Humphrey of making false and libelous statements, demanded her to "immediately and publicly retract the statements [she had] made, and issue a public apology to Wag for having made such statements."
The cease and desist went on to state:
"If your retraction and apology to Wag are not publicly posted to each and every social media platform that you have used to libel Wag within 24 hours of the time of this email, this office has been authorized to use all available means to bring as swift as possible an end to your lies."
After Wag issued the letter, Humphrey continued sharing her disappointment with the company. She posted the full cease and desist letter on the "Find Buddy" Facebook page, which gained over 2,000 followers in less than one month.
Humphrey's posts and interactions with outraged pet owners quickly garnered the attention of local media outlets, including CBS New York, where Humphrey shared her account of how Wag tried to influence how she talked about the issue. They sent her suggested talking points, she said, including "I don't blame them for Buddy" and that Wag had "gone to extraordinary lengths to help us bring Buddy home."
Thankfully, Buddy was found and returned to his home on October 14th, largely due to Huphrey's social media efforts and community engagement, which she now uses to spread awareness on other missing dogs and to update followers on Buddy's health.
Business leaders must understand that, in this situation, as with other poorly handled crisis PR events, it's often the cover-up rather than the original issue that causes lasting reputation damage to a brand.
Wag had a an opportunity and a duty to show true accountability and empathy. Instead, after their initial response was perceived as all bark and no bite, they threatened legal action against a customer.
That decision could leave them in the doghouse with potential customers for quite some time.