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Social media war rooms (and why you need one)

Social media war rooms (and why you need one) Ari Newman

You're midway through a successful launch when a flaw comes to light: Your product can be made to burst into flames. It only happens in the unlikeliest of scenarios, and no actual consumer incidents have been reported, but none of that matters right now. Here's what does: A video has begun circulating. It's dramatic, funny, and deeply humiliating for your company and your brand.

Over the next 24 hours, the video -- now titled "Deadly Fail!" -- will go viral. Twitter, YouTube, even your personal Facebook feed -- there'll be no escaping it. Your company page will snowball with jokes, complaints, and increasingly angry demands for a response, and panicked calls from product marketing personnel, retail partners, and investors will pour in. Already, the knives are out at Mashable, and Keyboard Cat is cracking his knuckles to accompany you on the homepages of Digg and BuzzFeed.

What do you do now?

Thanks to social media, bad news now travels at the speed of light through exponentially increasing channels, and a spark can become a firestorm in the time it takes to explain the situation to your boss. How do you keep a million posts and retweets from doing irreparable damage to your brand? Simply repeating the same canned statements through every available channel will only bring further criticism and mockery. There's only one way: You must fight social media with social media.

In this article, I'll show you how.

The time to set up your war room is before you need it. It doesn't have to be sealed in an underground bunker -- or even located in a physical room -- but it does need to be planned and configured to the last detail. When a crisis strikes, you need to be able to activate its personnel and procedures with a single tweet. Otherwise, you risk ending up in United Airlines' shoes: In the four days it took the company to respond to "United Breaks Guitars," the video had been viewed by 1.2 million people and been the subject of more than 10,000 negative tweets, and the United brand was in a tailspin.

Questions to consider:

  • Who will "live" in the war room? Whose job is it to engage with social media on a daily basis, and who is empowered to respond to emerging situations? The team should include the community managers, product marketers, and PR personnel who own and run social media marketing day-to-day.

  • Which other stakeholders will be pulled into the war room in the event of a crisis? The natural tendency will be for everyone with an interest and an opinion to converge on your war room -- a sure path to chaos. Instead, limit the extended team to the CMO or VP of marketing, who will need to sign off on your response; the product managers and support personnel for the affected product; and additional communications personnel who will help you get the message out.

  • What's the plan? What's the first thing that happens when a crisis is detected, and what steps follow as you rally the team and form your response? It's easier to think this through beforehand with a level head, rather than in the heat of battle -- and when disaster strikes, you'll know that everyone is on the same page.

  • What are the rules of engagement? Which social media critics will you respond to, and how? Who has access to the social media monitoring and messaging systems that power the war room, and what are they allowed to do with them? You need to define exactly who is authorized to tweet and post on the company's behalf. Nothing is more dangerous than an executive who "gets" social media and leaps into action ad hoc and off-script.

As you're setting up your war room, it's equally important to let the rest of the company know about it. Everyone doesn't necessarily need to know every last detail about its plans and operations, but they do need to know a few key things: There is a plan. In the event of a crisis, don't panic, don't speak or act out of turn, and trust us.

You might already have some kind of social media monitoring capability in place, but you need a lot more than a search engine and a few feeds to fully understand and leverage the conversations taking place around your company. As your social media engagement extends across multiple departments, it's important to prevent information silos from forming. You should be able to extract and aggregate activity about your company from every social media platform and share it across the organization.

National Instruments not only actively monitors activity across social media sites, but it also actively participates by encouraging and contributing to conversations around its brand. The result: more than 5,000 tweets spreading the company's messages during its annual user conference -- and a B2B Marketing Communications Award from the Marketing Leadership Council.

For Whirlpool-Maytag, mommy blogger "Dooce" could have started a brand nightmare following a series of poor customer service experiences. Instead, her angry tweets brought a response from the company in a matter of hours, and her washing machine was fixed the next morning. Of course, Whirlpool-Maytag could have avoided even those first few tweets if its customer service teams were more social media savvy, rather than initially telling Dooce that they didn't care about her 1 million followers. When social media is your friend, it's a lot less likely to become your enemy.

Don't be the last one to know that you're in trouble. Listening is only part of the picture; social media measurement enables you to set a baseline for the way people talk about you. What does your tag cloud look like on a typical day? Changing keyword patterns can provide an early warning of a developing crisis. Once you see troubling words or phrases emerge, you should be able to connect them back to the corresponding posts for more detail.

Monitoring and measurement will also help you identify your key influencers. Who within your sphere of influence has 50,000 followers on Twitter? You should know their moods and triggers as well as you do your own, and be alert for any sudden shifts in their attitude toward your company. In a crisis, influencers can make things a lot worse -- or help you make it better.

In Johnson & Johnson's case, the controversy over its "baby-wearing" Motrin campaign began with only a handful of mommy bloggers -- who happened to be exactly the influencers the company needed on its side. By the time the #motrinmoms topic peaked on Twitter and the company tried to respond (through traditional corporate channels, naturally), the damage was done.

When does social media chatter rise to the level of a situation in need of response? What's the threshold for going beyond routine reports and sending alerts outside the core social media monitoring team (first laterally, to product managers, PR, and other communications personnel, and then vertically, to executive stakeholders)? The answer will be different for every organization, but again, the time to define this trigger is well in advance.

When social media activity is shared internally -- whether during a crisis or simply in the course of routine monitoring -- people across the organization need to be able to talk to each other privately around customer conversations, share them within virtual war rooms, and collaborate on potential responses. A virtual war room lets you avoid the pitfalls of overlapping email threads and make it immediately clear where the situation stands, and whether and how someone else on the team has already taken action.

For Wells Fargo, this kind of quick action helped assuage a customer named Austen Rustrum, who had tweeted a complaint that the company's buggy mobile app had cost him $350. His case was quickly escalated, and an executive soon followed up to tell him exactly when he'd get his money back.

All internal activity around social media should be captured and retained for the sake of accountability as well as to support post-mortem analysis: What happened? How did we handle it? What lessons and best practices came out of the incident?

Once you've identified and analyzed the crisis, it's time to take action and turn the storyline around. This is when your diligent preparation pays off: Based on your ongoing listening, monitoring, and measurement, you're well versed in the nuances of your brand perception -- both strengths and weaknesses -- and can formulate a response that sets just the right tone: humble, if you tend to be seen as arrogant; candid, if credibility isn't your strong suit. (Not to keep picking on poor United Airlines -- but when the company finally did respond to "United Breaks Guitars," its ineffective response just showed how out of touch it was with the social media conversations happening around its brand). Use multiple internal social media war rooms to collaborate around your responses on various product lines, campaigns, or offerings, as well as to maintain and update response checklists.

When you take your "official version" public, avoid boilerplate. Each platform deserves its own tailored response: short and sweet for Twitter, a fuller statement on your company Facebook page, a video clip for YouTube, and so on. Engage directly with your key influencers to win their support, or at least the benefit of their doubt; if you can't co-opt them entirely, you can at least soften their edge. Mobilize your extended communications resources to engage in comment threads. Keep monitoring and measuring to see how your response is faring and fine-tune it accordingly.

Finally, remember that in a crisis situation, real-time engagement is critical. Use real-time alerts to respond promptly to new activity and developments. Don't let dead air provide an opening for further speculation and criticism. Prolonged lapses can create the impression that you think the problem is blowing over -- a deadly sign of complacency. (Remember when Domino's Pizza thought it could just wait out the firestorm over that booger-pizza video?) Run your war room on social media engagement best practices that keep you organized and ready to engage at a moment's notice.

Springing into action
So, what does your social media war room look like in action? Even as the "Deadly Fail!" video of your exploding product is beginning to spread, your war room team is already at work. The core team quickly runs through the current activity around the video and proposes a rapid response combining one-to-one outreach to key social media influencers; posts on your own website, blogs, and profile pages; and a constant presence in the comment threads of high-profile third-party blogs. Community managers and social media marketers throughout the organization are on alert to engage as soon as your talking points and tone guidelines are set.

Based on your brand perception trends in social media, the CMO signs off on a response that strikes just the right note: gratitude to the community for uncovering this hazard, with just a touch of irony at its obscurity and the unlikelihood that it would ever cause real-world harm. Product managers and engineers have scrambled to correct the bug, and tweet frequent progress updates.

Within an hour, the momentum of the story has changed: The speed and openness of your engagement has won you crucial goodwill and headed off any real anger. Meanwhile, the absurdity of the original "Deadly Fail!" video has begun to sink in, and a new meme emerges: hysterical bloggers who contrive highly unlikely product "failures." By the end of the day, parodies are appearing ("Deadly Mail!" "Deadly Hail!" and the unforgettable farm-themed "Deadly Bale!") You take it all in stride -- while emphasizing that, all joking aside, your commitment is always to customer safety first, laughter second.

What began as a disaster in the making has ended up as a testament to the responsiveness, transparency, and social media savvy of your company. Just another day at the office for your social media war room.

Ari Newman is senior director of market engagement at Jive Software.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Responsible for Jive''s Market Engagement Solution, which provides real-time monitoring, analysis, and engagement across all online media as well as community & market collaboration tools to enable companies to fully adopt and leverage social media...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: kinoshika rai

2010, May 04

This is a wonderful opinion. The things mentioned are unanimous and
needs to be appreciated by everyone.
Golden ISA

Commenter: Ari Newman

2010, May 02

Yes! I'm @arinewman


2010, May 02

ARI, i agree. are you on twitter? if not, you need to be.

Commenter: Kim Williamson

2010, April 29

Yes, whatever you do, use social media to fake out the public. Follow bad work with a well-developed con.

Commenter: Ari Newman

2010, April 29

Thanks Kalyn!

Commenter: Kalyn Baldwin

2010, April 29


Coming from the perspective of a community manager, such as myself, I couldn't agree with you more regarding your advice on preparing your social media war room. I am currently in the process of drafting a social media crisis communication plan and also an internal social media policy for our agency's employees. However, I am very aware that without our public relations experts and senior account executives, our "war room" wouldn't be efficient or possible. Just as a PR plan would involve predetermined crisis boundaries, delegated spokespersons, and and an equipped team of individuals who are capable of acting quickly and efficiently with proper etiquette and tact. I will be using your advice in the next steps of our agency's crisis communication plan.

Thanks again,

Kalyn Baldwin