Ah, the upside of social media. And there is plenty of upside -- especially for brands -- which explains why so many have embraced this digital space, venue, vehicle, what have you, to get in on the conversation. And this is a conversation that brands hope will help strengthen the relationship between their customers and them and boost their bottom lines.
But, as with any relationship, the dynamic between brands and consumers is not all handholding and doling out compliments. The same voice social media provides to consumer advocates is also there for any person or persons with a bone to pick or a grudge against your product or brand. How you deal with a social media "enemy" could mean the difference between creating a loyal customer for life and a public relations nightmare that can quickly snowball.
We asked five industry experts for a few rules on dealing with a social media "relationship" that is, or already has, headed south. They put on their best Dr. Phil moustaches and came up with the following guidelines (not rules -- see tip No. 1).
"Each situation is as individual as individuals themselves," says Denise Zimmerman, president and CSO of NetPlus Marketing, a full-service digital agency. She emphasizes that there's no set formula to deal with social media foes. Rather, it's more a matter of marrying basic PR and marketing tenets with an understanding of how the digital forum can change things, such as the increased rate at which things can escalate online. "That's where it differs from historical PR practices," Zimmerman stresses, "is the speed of potential escalation."
Senior VP and Director of Insights for Edelman Digital, Steve Rubel, believes that how a brand reacts depends "upon the situation, the topic, the client, the venue, and the client's readiness." By "readiness," he's referring to a brand's plan (or lack of one), its comprehension of the severity of the situation at hand, and its presence on the web, which leads perfectly into our next guideline…
All of our experts agree that it's imperative for brands to know what's being said about them before it's too late, which means not only monitoring social media sites but also having a strong presence on them and participating in the conversations taking place.
"By the time you're having a problem with social media, if you're responding to a specific incident that's growing within social media, it's already too late," says Ty Braswell, a creative digital strategist who runs the appropriately named consulting firm Creative Digital Strategies. Braswell believes that merely responding to social media enemies is "incredibly myopic" because it means brands have lost sight of the bigger issue: They haven't made the necessary long-term investment to integrate an ongoing conversation with their customers.
"We advise people to have 'embassies' in all the different communities that are relevant to you," says Rubel, who believes this provides brands with two big advantages. "One: You'll obviously get wind of these things sooner. Two: You'll be heard because you're there already and you have an audience."
"You've got to have the pipes laid before there's a problem," advises Red Door Interactive's President Reid Carr. "If there's a problem, and then you try to jump into social media, it comes off as very inauthentic." Carr adds that having an established presence may also help keep the conversation at a one-on-one level and prevent escalation. "If you create this vehicle for people to have a dialogue with you and are responsive to it, those people, rather than go out and tell everyone they know, may actually just go directly to you."
Kevin Barenblat, CEO/cofounder of Context Optional, a firm that helps brands build an engaging presence on social networking sites, believes it's also a good idea for a company's social media presence to include more than just a single department. "Brands tend to view these channels for marketing, sales, customer support, or product development -- but not all of the above." He argues that the conversations taking place hold value for virtually every division of an organization, therefore, they should all be involved at some level.
When it comes to dealing with a potential social media crisis, all of our experts are big believers in the axiom: Those who fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
"It's really important to have some sort of plan before anything even happens," says Zimmerman. She believes an effective plan should be a well-conceived, coordinated effort between multiple departments -- not just a public relations effort. "You cannot operate in a silo; the PR department really can't do this on its own."
"My advice is to have a crisis communications plan and look at the different kinds of things that are likely to happen," states Carr. He warns brands against putting off developing a plan and adopting a complacent attitude. "So many people sit back and say, 'That's not going to happen to me; I'm not going to have a problem.' They don't see the urgency of it. But everyone has problems at some level or magnitude, and, when the big ones occur, that's when they get into some serious trouble."
So, assuming somebody's out there on various social media channels, lashing out against your beloved brand, your first instinct might be to fire right back -- but that's not necessarily the best approach, advise our experts.
"We haven't found too many circumstances where it's appropriate to respond directly," says Red Door's Carr. He suggests that, by not responding at all, a problem can frequently disappear on its own, citing the example of a homebuilder client who was being trashed by angry customers via hate sites. By doing nothing -- other than ensuring that the builder ranked higher than the hate sites in search engine rankings -- the disgruntled homeowners eventually ran out of resources and gave up, inflicting only minor damage to the builder's reputation.
"You've got to quickly identify whether it's a legitimate, organic groundswell within the community or whether what you're seeing is a deviation and merely someone who has personal problems and is taking them out against the brand," advises Braswell. He adds, half jokingly, "When these things happen, you wonder if this is when we should invest a little bit more of our tax money in the mental health system."
"If it's just somebody putting up spam, it's probably safe to ignore it," says Barenblat. He cautions against ignoring legitimate complaints, however. "I think ignoring those comments is a risk. And being able to engage users who do have legitimate complaints is a real opportunity to build the brand online."
Zimmerman recommends doing your best to determine intent and, if it looks like a case of a person or persons simply "releasing their inner demons," monitoring the situation before responding. "You might want to do some searches on that person to see if they've posted elsewhere or if they have a history of this sort of thing," she elaborates. "Then, monitor it for escalation to see how aggressively the community responds. In many cases, when you have an individual like that, the community will self police."
Sometimes, though, you simply have to respond -- ideally, according to Rubel, right before things get to the tipping point. He likens determining this point to leaning back in a chair. "There's a moment in time when you're like, shoot, the chair's falling. You want to respond just before that."
That segues right into…
If a brand waits too long to respond to a potential social media crisis, it risks things snowballing quickly and getting out of control. But if it jumps in too soon, it may create much ado about nothing.
"Timing is important, but it's more important to be smart," emphasizes Zimmerman. "I'd rather be 12 hours later and have all my facts straight than just kneejerk." She references Dominos Pizza's reaction to a video of two employees doing unsavory things to pizza ingredients, which spread like wildfire on YouTube, as an example of a swift but smart response. "They got dinged a bit for their delay in response," she points out, "but I think their delay was 24 hours, which is almost a joke. I mean, give them a break."
Carr cites an example of where jumping in too soon would actually have been detrimental for one of his clients. The client had tweeted about its "green" policy on Twitter, which resulted in some people tweeting that the client would be even greener if it didn't print so much literature about how green it was. While Carr and the client debated how to best respond, loyal customers within the Twitter community cracked down on those cracking down on the brand, quickly eliminating the problem, with no action required by the brand. "If it's not going anywhere, then you just let it die," Carr adds.
But, if letting the problem die out on its own isn't an option, how you respond, say our experts, can defuse or detonate the situation, which is why the next three guidelines are all about how your response should be crafted.
Barenblat believes that a brand's response should be completely transparent and not tippy-toe around the issue at hand. "It may not be a lengthy response, but it should at least acknowledge the person's comment and then provide some sort of helpful resolution," he elaborates.
"Honesty is the best policy," adds Carr, stating that it's imperative a response communicate three basic points: (1) you've identified the problem, (2) you're sorting out how to best solve the problem, and (3) you're in the process of implementing the best solution.
Zimmerman concurs that your response should be transparent -- especially if what's being said about your brand is true -- but it should also be responsible. A "responsible" response, according to her, would likely provide factual information about the issue at hand, as well as direct consumers to other helpful resources -- preferably through multiple channels. "You might tweet about it, directing them to a microsite," she elaborates. "You might have a search program; you might have somebody in-house in the company who's considered a credible expert, or in a senior management position, blog about it, directing them to further information."
"To make it work, you can't hide the bad stuff," stresses Carr on being transparent. "You've got to put it all out there, because otherwise people are not going to trust you, and they're not going to rely on that resource." He gives the example of a client with a pending lawsuit in which details of the case, many less than flattering, were leaking out over the internet through various social media channels. "What we did there was make the company the source for all information that was coming out," he explains. This allowed the client to exercise more control over the information and helped add to its credibility, since it was the party releasing the information -- both favorable and unfavorable.
Along with transparency, the messaging and tone of a brand's response needs to be sincere, appropriate for the situation, and consistent with the overall voice of the brand. Also, argues Barenblat, because social media is about people interacting with people, a response should sound like it's coming from a real person -- not like boilerplate verbiage from the PR department.
"People expect a certain level of humanity, even if you are speaking on behalf of the brand," he elaborates.
"Tone is everything," insists Braswell. "It's not a response -- it's yet another installment in the conversation." He adds that a brand's tone should be "organic" and that crafting any response with the assumption that it's going to be a one-way conversation is the first misstep down the path to failure.
Rubel suggests observing any good sales clerk to get an idea of what an appropriate tone might sound like. "It's much like the best people in retail," he says. "If people are ranting and raving, the first step is to make it clear that you've listened and you take it seriously. No matter what it is, you have to say you take it seriously. And by simply responding, you are. Then you try to work toward a win-win solution that's going to please everybody."
Carr makes the point that tone is only part of the equation. "At the root of it all is being consistent." Being overly jovial one day and then extremely formal the next can come off as inconsistent and inauthentic, he explains. Carr recommends adopting the same level of consistency you'd have with a friend, where one day you might joke around; the next, you might be a bit more somber or serious -- but your overall tone remains consistent over the course of the friendship.
"I think there is a risk of overreacting," says Zimmerman, who cites Motrin's pulling of an ad a group of mommy bloggers found objectionable as an example of an overreaction. She believes that Motrin, based on the reaction of a relatively small group of unhappy mothers, probably pulled the ad too soon.
Of course, there's also the risk of overreacting by taking things personally.
"I would not engage in flame wars," cautions Barenblat, using this combustible term for tit-for-tat exchanges that can quickly erupt into out-of-control fires.
Carr recommends that brands, even if the person or group going after them is in the wrong, weigh the pros and cons of playing hardball. He gives the example of an executive client who gave an interview to a blogger and was subsequently misquoted. Upset, the executive sent the blogger a string of less-than-appropriate emails, some threatening legal action, all of which were promptly posted on the blog. This triggered a chain reaction from the readers, most of whom felt the executive's response implied that he and his company might have something to hide.
"That was a bad reaction," Carr says, pointing out how much better the situation could've been handled had the executive come to him first. "It's like classic negotiation. You have to think about what does that person have to lose? What's their real motivation? Are they just trying to get a rise out of you, or do they really want to accomplish something? If they want to accomplish something, think about how you can help them accomplish it and keep yourself out of the mud."
Not only keep yourself clean, but perhaps even smelling like a rose -- which brings us to our final suggestion.
"It's kind of cliché, and it seems sort of corny, but there is always an opportunity with every problem," says the optimistic Braswell, who draws inspiration from brands that recognize, and focus on, the opportunities hidden within crises. "It's an opportunity to show what the brand is really made of and what you really care about."
To turn social-media lemons into lemonade, however, brands first need to participate. Even if it means making a mistake now and again, which Zimmerman believes is inevitable. "We are going to make mistakes; there are no ifs ands or buts about it," she insists. "Not to be overly dramatic, but it really is a new frontier."
That's why her parting advice is for brands not to use this new frontier to berate the social-media missteps of other brands. Because, sooner or later, everyone stumbles.
Sean Egan is a freelance writer.