It all started with a single tweet…
— Tim Ferriss (@tferriss) September 19, 2012
Before we knew it, our traffic was redlined, our site was down, and we were frantically calling our hosting company to get a hold of someone – anyone – who could help.
Sigh – and things had been going so well…
Hold on, woah, back up a sec
We’d been planning a big PR push around our work for the New York Times’ bestselling author Tim Ferris and his book, The 4-Hour Body. Everything was going according to plan: the case study was engaging and written in a brisk, easily-digested style; the design was awesome; we had all the right calls-to-action; and a solid viral loop built into the page. In a major coup, we’d also secured help from the “Superman of Silicon Valley” himself, Tim Ferriss, to help us promote the article.
So everything was all set, right? Wrong.
Our first inkling that there was a problem came via our server monitoring tools. Out of nowhere, Chartbeat and New Relic went crazy, dwarfing our 30-day record number of visitors in a matter of seconds. The next thing to go was our Twitter stream. @-mentions started to pour in, mentioning our case study, and the words “doesn’t work”, and “broken”. It didn’t take a ton of detective work to figure out what had happened – we’d been Ferriss’ed.
Tim had tweeted out a link to our “4-Hour Website” case study, and posted it to his Facebook wall. Although we’d known he was onboard to to provide promotional support, we hadn’t been too specific as to exactly when he should do it. Turns out our man Tim knows how to sling some serious traffic – we were getting something like 600 page requests per second. Within short order, our poor server began to foam at the mouth, before finally choking on the virtual firehose of requests being flung its way. Although our setup is normally pretty solid, we had simply underestimated the volume of people that’d arrive at our front door all at once.
The upshot was that our main site at dtelepathy.com slowed to a crawl for everyone – and several thousands of visitors didn’t even make it to the page, instead seeing a white screen as their browser requests struggled to be heard in the overwhelming din.
What Happened Next
Honestly, our immediate reaction was to toss out a few choice cusswords (that we’ll decline to repeat here).
- We called our hosting company, Media Temple at multiple different numbers, trying everyone there from their support line to our personal contacts, looking to get our servers beefed up to handle the traffic load
- We hopped onto Twitter and Facebook and kept the lines of communication with our suddenly-swelled audience open
But there was bad news – in order to get more capacity on our servers, we were going to need a physical change in our server hardware. This meant that our IP address needed to be changed, and we were going to have to wait for the new address to propagate across the DNS, and redirect visitors to the new server’s location.
This would take a while. Rock, meet Hard Place.
And so we waited. And waited. And waited.
Actually, that’s not all we did. As the rush subsided, more visitors were gradually able to view the site, so we immediately flipped on our trusty surveying tool, Qualaroo (formerly KISSinsights), and our onsite live chat tool Olark, in order to monitor for any additional issues they might be encountering.
On the social media side, we were heavily engaged in clean up – letting people know that we’d been experiencing some issues, and to give us another try later on.
Meanwhile, our developers used the time to assess our current server setup. They then provisioned and load-tested a more efficient system, consisting of an improved software stack, plus better protection against sudden traffic spikes, courtesy of CloudFlare.
Most importantly: we didn’t stop. Despite the initial setback, we still had a story to tell, and we were going to make sure that as many people heard it as possible.
How not to mess up a PR launch
“Why do we fall, sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up” -Alfred, Batman Begins
Although we’ve done a number of product launches in the past, we’re still learning new things about these tricksy beasts.
This time around, we gleaned some particularly valuable learnings that we’re seeking to apply to our preparations for the next big PR push. But of course, we’re not ones to keep this stuff to ourselves, so here are the major takeaways.
- Orchestrate your team – Clear communication with your press contacts is vital – everyone should know exactly when they’re going to push traffic to you and wait for your signal
- Stress-test your hosting server & caching systems - They’re your foundation, your bedrock – if they go, nothing else matters
- Your hosting company is your friend - Call them before you launch and get their suggestions as to what you’ll need in place
- Have an emergency procedure in place - Determine who’s responsible for what in as many scenarios as makes sense for you: operations and social media management/ marketing need to work in tandem to successfully weather a storm
- Pace yourself - Do yourself and your team a favor, and try to evenly space out your announcements across different channels. If possible, post them in one place at a time throughout launch day so you’re not contending with an influx of traffic on multiple fronts – if your message is significant enough, cross-platform buzz will happen anyway
- Listen up - Have your listening tools in place. Establish a direct line of communication in order to funnel insights gained from your visitors back to Operations, and likewise send updates from Operations back to your visitors, so they’re in the loop.
Houston, we have a problem
- Cusswords - Say them. Then take a breath. You’ll feel better.
- Get your story straight - Establish a consistent message to communicate across your social channels and audiences. Saying different things in different places to different people will only add to the confusion, and your stress headache
- Be available - Once you have your message, man the phones ASAP, and engage with your audiences wherever they’re active
- Transparency - Give your audiences regular updates about what issues you’re experiencing, and what you’re doing to fix it. If you don’t know when you’ll be back up, say so – it’s better than giving a made-up estimate that then turns out to be wrong.
Running a big PR launch is a lot like being a teenager – it’s an exciting, chaotic time where everything seems of hugely magnified importance and dire consequences. But unlike your pubescent years, you can actually take simple steps to prepare for them, and mitigate at least some of the instability and uncertainty.
As for the rest of it, gird your sense of humor, and keep communicating – as unbelievable as it may seem when everything’s falling apart, you’ll be fine.
What PR damage control tips do you have? Share them with us in the comments!