Fitbit's Crisis Communications Misses Social Mark

Scott Gulbransen
Scott Gulbransen Vice President Global Communications & Digital Marketing, DSI

Posted on February 25th 2014

Fitbit's Crisis Communications Misses Social Mark
fitbit recall social crisis
News of Force Recall Nowhere on Fitbit's Homepage

Being a brand-side pro, I’m always hesitant to dissect crisis situation from the outside. Seeing as I have weathered many a storm working for three large brands, when prognosticators and so-called experts were quick to jump on the companies I worked for, it always rubbed me the wrong way.

In this case, with Fitbit and their voluntary recall and subsequent 86-ing of their top new fitness tracker, the Force, I’m looking at it from two very different points of view – one as a communications and marketing professional, and the other as a loyal customer and brand advocate. It’s the latter that has motivated me to draft this post.

First, let’s give Fitbit credit where it is due. Even though the skin irritation issue is affecting a rather small portion of their customer base, the San Francisco company made the decision to not only recall the device, but to also pull it from the market, most likely permanently.  That’s the right thing – and a brave thing – to do for a startup that has been the darling of the fitness industry the last few years. It takes a lot of guts (and I guess much prodding from the legal set) to pull your hottest product from the shelves and refund every customer who purchased one. CEO James Park posted a letter – hidden in the product page – well-publicized via media outlets that are covering the contact dermatitis story with increasing interest. Kudos to Park and Fitbit for doing the right thing, and quickly, but how else are they doing?

A visit to the Fitbit website makes it hard to find any mention of the issue. A large-scale recall of this nature deserves some front-page love but there is none. Furthermore, the sites Community board is abuzz with the news and with questions yet there isn’t much engagement nor a blog post talking through the ins and outs of how the recall/refund program will work.

Perusing the social channels for the company shows a complete outage. Questions, frustrations and other posts to the company’s Facebook page and to its Twitter handle (even its support handle) go unanswered – including several from me. Once again, we see how the promise of timely crisis communications through social channels is lost on a brand. Those of us who use a Fitbit are usually rabid brand advocates. But in our time of need, the company is either in the legal bunker or never planned for an issue where they would actually have to talk to their customers.

Clearly Fitbit understood the issue, even if it was impacting less than two-percent of its customer base, could be disastrous for their business in a very competitive space. They did the right thing on the recall but continue to fail when it comes to talking directly to customers.

Here are the three ways they could improve the situation immediately, and keep fanatical advocates like me in their big tent:

  1. Start Responding in Social: While the company has set up a dedicated 800 number (which I’ve yet to be able to get through on) and a website to register (where people are also having trouble navigating), they’re completely ignoring their customers in social channels. I’ve run social and social support and understand the problem of scalability during a crisis. In this case Fitbit is showing absolutely no desire to engage. People are losing trust and this isn’t helping. Auto responses or scripted interactions to specific questions are not helping.
  2. Leverage The Community: Fitbit has a great support and enthusiast community. The message board on the company’s website is busy, active and includes company moderators. In reviewing customer posts about the Force issue, and questions to help customers make informed choices, the moderators are silent. Again, reeking of legal jurisprudence. These are the times that communities like this are most valuable. Fitbit is wasting that trust and good will. Get your people in there responding to let your customers know that you’re there with them.
  3. Over Communicate – Visibly: When you hit the Fitbit website, images and information on the Force are still front and center, but information on the recall and instructions on how to get a refund are not. In fact, you must hunt for the right area of the site to send back your Force. Again, you just recalled your entire inventory of a product. You must communicate openly, often and in plain sight. Fitbit clearly isn’t doing this. 

These situations for any public relations, social media or corporate executive are never easy. You have to balance the desire to openly communicate with your customers with the legal peril you find yourself in. In the era of instant communications, social connections, and empowered and advocate-based consumers, to climb into your crisis bunker could perhaps bury your brand.

(image: screenshot /

Scott Gulbransen

Scott Gulbransen

Vice President Global Communications & Digital Marketing, DSI

Over the past 19 years, Scott Gulbransen, Vice President of Global Communications & Digital Marketing at DSI, has parlayed a deep level of experience in public relations and online marketing into a successful career built on innovation, creativity and hardcore business results.

A former print journalist, Scott moved into the world of public relations and corporate communications cutting his teeth at one of Fortune’s top workplaces – Intuit. For 10 years, Scott served as a primary spokesperson, communications strategist and social media innovator for both the TurboTax and Quicken brands. Recognizing the full-throttle freight train that social media was becoming, Gulbransen worked to establish a social media and content strategy for Intuit’s Consumer Group. With TurboTax, Scott lead the effort to establish the first of its kind customer support project, @TeamTurboTax, by using the new and emerging channel to help customers during tax season. He also helped to create, design, and launch the brand’s content hub.

In addition to his work on TurboTax, Gulbransen also helped turn around the Quicken brand with the launch of its new, free Quicken Online product – all of which was done primarily through the use of social media. Part of the success of the launch of Quicken Online led Intuit to acquire – the nation’s leading online personal finance website.

Next, Scott was asked to create and lead social and digital media at the world’s largest casual dinging chain – Applebee’s. In his time there, he created a robust paid social strategy as well as the much heralded “National to Neighborhood” model for local Applebee’s restaurants. In just over eight months, Gulbransen and his team launched locally controlled Facebook pages for over 1,200 restaurants and the brand itself. Because the Applebee’s brand is focused on micro-local areas, he correctly surmised the social relationship had to be locally driven. That strategy continues to pay dividends for the brand and its sister IHOP. Gulbransen also led the complete overhaul and architecture of the new website and launched the companies first foray into mobile-driven marketing as well. Applebee’s, thanks to his vision, strategy and foundational work, was recently named as one of the top restaurant companies in social media

After just over a year away from taxes, Scott was again knee-deep in the middle of it again as H&R Block hired him away to push its influencer marketing and social media content strategy into high gear. Gulbransen ramped up the 54-year old brand’s social marketing and communications efforts by restructuring its social platforms, launching its new social content hub, and building new analytical approaches to social measurement He joined previous to the 2012 tax season and quickly made a huge impact. Besides being named one of H&R Block’s Top 100 Employees that year, after just eight months with the company, he also launched the award-winning campaigns to end all campaigns – The ‘Stache Act and Million Mustache March. The online-driven social campaign, designed to help the brand build relevance with millennial taxpayers, struck a nerve with customers and prospects and changed Block’s “buzz” trajectory. In besting his former employer, Gulbransen quickly elevated the brand in online and social media with the kitschy campaign.

That same year, Scott repeated his success from past stops as he created a robust, award-winning and industry-leading content strategy for the tax giant. In launching the brand’s first-ever client-focused content hub, BlockTalk, his strategy to engage tax clients all year with relevant finance and lifestyle content has paid dividends for the brand. Block now enjoys the largest share of voice and social engagement of any tax brand in the space.

In addition to his professional accomplishments at the corporate level, Gulbransen is also a prolific blogger named as one of the Top 50 Daddy Bloggers in the US by Cision in 2011. Gulbransen was ranked #21.Gulbransen is also an avid writer contributing to Social Media Today, Forbes, Technorati, and other publications. He also is a busy public speaker attending conferences and offering his views and thought leadership in PR, social media, and influencer marketing and content marketing.

Scott graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Communications (emphasis in Journalism) from UNLV, and is the married father of five kids (16, 13, 6, 4, 2), and lives in Kansas City.

See Full Profile >


Chris M Barnes
Posted on February 25th 2014 at 11:56PM

The fundamental error that many companies are making is failure to appreciate the power of social media.

They think they can pick and choose which bits they use: utilise a Facebook page to draw in customers or Twitter to market themselves, but fail to deal with the consequences.

The old saying is you get back what you put out, so they should not be surprised if they put out products that have a perceived range of faults but fail to address the issue when raised on the very media they court.

The communication point is a good one. Gaps in communication are always filled with rumour and speculation, but in the Brave New World of high speed techmedia they are also filled with rapid and often damaging facts which are contrary to the health of a company.

Lululemon are a great example. This very day I had to return two pairs of shorts that are beginning to disintegrate. I bought them two years ago. The shop manager said she had worked there for seven years and never heard of the five years guarantee. I guided her to their own website; it's there if you look hard enough!

No need to mention the disastrous recall of the see-through yoga pants and the "Come into the shop, bend over and we'll look into them", story. Why not? Because we all read about it on Social Media.



Scott Gulbransen
Posted on February 26th 2014 at 12:19PM

Thanks Chris. Great example. I'm a Fitbit customer and it's disappointing they don't get it.

Posted on March 5th 2014 at 7:27AM

If you feel like you have been cheated, lied to or abused by Fitbit, please join our new community, where you can share your your photos and experience with others who have suffered like you.

Fitbit has been censoring damaging customer comments on their own Facebook page, so we made out own support page. We promise we will keep out community comments uncensored.


Come visit and Like us here: