How to respond to product disasters: Analyzing Samsung's response to their exploding phones in contrast to Dyn's response to the DDoS attack
Dominating most technology podcasts is talk of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7, which overheats to the point that it either melts, catches fire, or explodes. Samsung initially recalled the product and sent replacements to users, but the replacements had the same problem, prompting Samsung to issue a double recall. What does Samsung’s communication strategy look like in the midst of the disaster around the exploding Note 7 phones?
If you look at their recall statements, their announcements are brief, plain, and without much detail. You don’t get a sense of what exactly is happening, why, or what Samsung has done to investigate the problem.
Here’s a sample of the kind of information in the statements. This is an excerpt from the first recall:
Samsung is committed to producing the highest quality products and we take every incident report from our valued customers very seriously. In response to recently reported cases of the new Galaxy Note7, we conducted a thorough investigation and found a battery cell issue.
To date (as of September 1) there have been 35 cases that have been reported globally and we are currently conducting a thorough inspection with our suppliers to identify possible affected batteries in the market. However, because our customers’ safety is an absolute priority at Samsung, we have stopped sales of the Galaxy Note7. [Statement] Samsung Will Replace Current Note7 with New One (Sept 2)
And here’s an excerpt from the second recall statement:
We are working with relevant regulatory bodies to investigate the recently reported cases involving the Galaxy Note7. Because consumers’ safety remains our top priority, Samsung will ask all carrier and retail partners globally to stop sales and exchanges of the Galaxy Note7 while the investigation is taking place.
We remain committed to working diligently with appropriate regulatory authorities to take all necessary steps to resolve the situation. Consumers with either an original Galaxy Note7 or replacement Galaxy Note7 device should power down and stop using the device and take advantage of the remedies available. Samsung Will Ask All Global Partners to Stop Sales and Exchanges of Galaxy Note7 While Further Investigation Takes Place (Oct 11)
The terminology used here doesn’t quite depict what’s happening. The words “exploding,” “melting,” or “fire” don’t appear, but these terms are clearly what is saturating the media. (Just search for samsung + exploding.) I think Samsung wants to avoid associating the term “exploding” with their products, since this term connotes fear and a potential threat to safety in a far greater degree than simply “overheating.”
Although Samsung is trying to own up to the product’s defects and responsibly issue a recall (twice), by limiting the terms to “overheat” and “safety risk,” it seems to steer clear of full ownership and transparency about exactly what is happening. In fact, Samsung has even taken action to suppress a Grand Theft Auto video that shows someone using the Galaxy Note as a bomb.
(Note: I haven’t poured all of Samsung’s communications on this issue, so there may be other Samsung news sources I haven’t found. Also note that I don’t actually own a Samsung device – I’m simply interested in the communication angle of a product disaster. )
The big question is whether Samsung can regain consumer confidence in its brand. From a communication perspective, how do you rebuild consumer confidence after a product disaster?
If you look at Samsung’s “Most Recent” tab on their newsroom, none of their recent articles touches on the exploding phones topic (scroll back a few pages just to make sure you aren’t missing anything). And yet, this topic has occupied tremendous attention and analysis on mainstream technology sites.
You can only find information about the faulty devices on Samsung’s newsroom by looking at the “Most Popular” tab or by looking at their statements category. But these articles are way too brief to ever satisfy the user’s need for more information about what’s happening.
Can you regain your brand by ignoring the elephant in the room? If you decide to address the sensitive issue, what position do you take?
For example, in the face of a product disaster, would you ever take a more emotionally honest approach to connect in a more human language? Maybe starting out like this:
We are so sorry/embarrassed/mortified to read reports of our new Samsung Note 7 phones catching fire, melting down, or [cringe] in some cases exploding. We have no idea how this happened! But we are actively dissecting and analyzing every faulty battery and component in the phones to figure out just what the problem is.
Literally every team in Samsung’s phone division is working overtime to understand the cause and fixing the issue as soon as possible.
Please keep in mind that none of our other phones have any similar problems and continue to be reliable, trustworthy phones. If you were unfortunate enough to be shunned on a plane due to your association with our Note 7 phones, we apologize in the most profound way we can…. [now insert free offers for lots of Samsung stuff…]
Okay, I doubt you’d ever see that kind of tone from a corporate newsroom addressing what is clearly a sensitive issue (so severe that analysts project a 2-3 billion dollar loss, and many users have reported burns). With tone, it’s usually better to play it safe and be straightforward, plain, and clear instead of letting the words drip with your emotions.
Instead of trying to infuse your tone with a more emotionally human voice (as long third-party bloggers and pundits can do), I suggest trying another tactic: Provide a lot of details, especially details users are interested in.
This is the approach that Dyn took in response to their servers going down (due to DDoS attacks), which cost their customers millions of dollars in losses. Kyle York, Dyn’s Chief Strategy Officer, starts off a post with the following:
It’s likely that at this point you’ve seen some of the many news accounts of the Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack Dyn sustained against our Managed DNS infrastructure this past Friday, October 21. We’d like to take this opportunity to share additional details and context regarding the attack. At the time of this writing, we are carefully monitoring for any additional attacks. Please note that our investigation regarding root cause continues and will be the topic of future updates. It is worth noting that we are unlikely to share all details of the attack and our mitigation efforts to preserve future defenses.
I also don’t want to get too far into this post without … acknowledging [the efforts of our staff, customers, and partners…]
Notice the use of the first person “I” here. The author is a real person, not a company hiding behind its PR room.
He then dives into details:
Starting at approximately 7:00 am ET, Dyn began experiencing a DDoS attack. While it’s not uncommon for Dyn’s Network Operations Center (NOC) team to mitigate DDoS attacks, it quickly became clear that this attack was different (more on that later). Approximately two hours later, the NOC team was able to mitigate the attack and restore service to customers. Unfortunately, during that time, internet users directed to Dyn servers on the East Coast of the US were unable to reach some of our customers’ sites, including some of the marquee brands of the internet. We should note that Dyn did not experience a system-wide outage at any time – for example, users accessing these sites on the West Coast would have been successful.
The post continues with more details for a number of paragraphs. In every paragraph, he’s careful to explain what they’re doing (as much as he can share without tipping off hackers to their security measures). You get a sense that he’s honestly trying to solve the issue. He lays down his cards face-up on the table:
What We Know
At this point we know this was a sophisticated, highly distributed attack involving 10s of millions of IP addresses. We are conducting a thorough root cause and forensic analysis, and will report what we know in a responsible fashion. (See Dyn Statement on 10/21/2016 DDoS Attack.)
Granted, this disaster isn’t due to a company’s potential negligence with Quality Assurance as much as Dyn is the victim of a clever hacking attack. But in both cases, the companies are trying to explain major disasters with their products or services.
The Wall Street Journal published an article titled The Fatal Mistake That Doomed Samsung’s Galaxy Note that supports the idea that sharing information and details with users is a key step in rebuilding trust. Cheng and Mckinnon write:
Big product recalls are never easy. Consumers, however, are often willing to forgive mistakes if they believe the company is looking out for them and moving swiftly to address problems.
“What Samsung should have done, very early on, was to share even its preliminary findings or thoughts” with U.S. regulators rather than pushing its own recall, said Stuart Statler, a former CPSC commissioner and independent product safety consultant in Mooresville, N.C.
Big companies will almost never connect with readers through a personal voice. However, they can share an abundance of details and information — including sharing actual thoughts — that shows what the company is doing on behalf of its users to solve the issue. It can let users peer behind the corporate curtain and get a sense of how much it’s trying to address the problem. That’s what Samsung needs to do to regain its consumer’s trust. (As well as start shipping more reliable phones.)
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.