iMedia Connection

Your social media disaster kit

Michael Estrin

Brand meltdowns are as old as brands. In the past, we called them public relations disasters -- usually because the brand had somehow become ensnared in an epic controversy that would require the entire might of the PR department to spin like mad before the bad news swallowed the brand's message, equity, and just about anything else the marketing team had spent years building.

Sometimes the meltdown could be laid at the door of the marketing department or the agency (think of an ad campaign gone wrong and you get the idea), but more often than not the meltdown's origins came from elsewhere inside the company or from a public source. Regardless, the response was usually a PR problem first and an advertising problem second (aside from frantically pulling media). But that was then, and this is now.

The days of putting problems in neat, little boxes to be fixed by the appropriate department are long gone. Digital media in general, and social media in particular, have collapsed those traditional boundaries. When a brand is in peril, reporters, pundits, politicians, internet users with serious followings (say, a few thousand Twitter followers), and just plain regular folks will all kick your brand and your message around for as long as the topic is trending. And they'll likely do that kicking in various social media channels like Twitter and Facebook, where the probability of amplifying the conversation increases dramatically.

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Consider how JetBlue handled (or in some ways mishandled) the Steven Slater incident. Back in August, the internet went into overdrive almost immediately after the airline's disturbed flight attendant popped the hatch on the plane's emergency exit, and -- cold brew in hand -- slid down the ramp, becoming yet another Warholian celebrity.

In the wake of the story, The New York Times blasted JetBlue, calling the brand slow to respond: "For the first 48 hours, JetBlue said nothing about the matter, an nusual course of action -- or inaction -- for a company known for skillfully cultivating the public through social media like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter."

Two days after the Aug. 9 incident, JetBlue did respond on its blog. In part, the response read: "While this episode may feed your inner 'Office Space,' we just want to take this space to recognize our 2,300 fantastic, awesome, and professional Inflight Crewmembers for delivering the JetBlue Experience you've come to expect of us."

But if The New York Times was rough on JetBlue for being slow to respond initially, the blog post itself did get good reviews from MediaBistro's WebNewser blog.

"It is a funny, brief, and appropriate response to an issue that probably has been blown out of proportion," Alex Weprin wrote. "Companies could learn from this: Social media is your friend. Even when the PR isn't positive, using Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to address issues head on can help make the situation better."

In the final analysis, it's probably fair to say that JetBlue did some things right and some things wrong in terms of how it responded to Steven Slater. But if there's one thing all marketers should takeaway from Steve Slater, it's this: The fight to get your message out and protect your brand will be waged first and foremost on Facebook, Twitter, and your company's blog. It's now 2010, and we're beyond the point of debating whether or not brands should have a social media presence. Customers already answered that question in the affirmative. The question today is how do you use that social media presence when disaster strikes? It's a question we put to several social media experts.

Set alerts
The speed of life has never moved faster. By now, we've probably all had the experience of walking away from our computer for a cup of coffee and returning 10 minutes later to find that something has blown up. Well, whether it's an office uproar or a full-blown internet phenomenon, the crisis does not start at its zenith. Yes, it may look like things got out of hand from the start, but there's always an evolution, albeit a superfast one. That's why Pete Scanlon, an account coordinator at Strategis, says the first order of business is to set alerts.

"In social media, as in all media, being the first to address an issue during a time of crisis is crucial," Scanlon says. "You can stay on top of all potential crises by setting flags through tools such as Google Alerts. It would be impossible for agencies to have employees constantly viewing your social networks. Alerts will notify you anytime a name, product, competitor, or any other specified term is mentioned on a social media platform, blog, or the web."

It's a good idea to set alerts for your brand name, key executives, products and any terms closely associated with your ad campaigns.

But does setting alerts mean you'll be able to avoid all crises? Sorry, that would be wishful thinking. What alerts do is cue you to a problem at a time when the problem is small -- or better yet -- still taking shape. You may still find yourself in a crisis, but the beauty of alerts is that they allow you to enter the conversation when the noise level is relatively low and your brand's voice is most likely to resonate.

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Hold your fire for a second
Ok. You've set your alert, and you've managed to spot a crisis in its infancy. If you were a firefighter, you'd hose those sparks down before the flames spread. But you're not a firefighter, and those sparks may not be the only thing burning. So before you press "Send" on your response, you must ask yourself if you fully understand the issue, says Connie Bensen, director of social media and community strategy at Alterian.

"Listen to get the whole story first before jumping to conclusions," Bensen says. "And if it's serious, don't jump into the fray without having a plan that legal has given their nod to."

Pre-plan
You may not be able to plan specifics in advance of a crisis, but you really don't want to "wing it," says Lauren Candito, cofounder of Social Media Solutions.

"In the chaos of a crisis situation, messages can seem frantic, desperate, or defensive if not planned ahead of time," Candito says.

The key to putting out polished messaging when a crisis strikes is to make concrete plans in advance. While plans may change quickly once a crisis is underway, Candito advises clients to detail a chain of command and to plot out messaging points and platforms today. True, it's hard to plan for unknowns. But consider the fact that you already know at least some of the disasters you're likely to face. For example, if you're a food brand, you can plan in advance for massive recalls or negative studies that say your product is bad for health. Likewise, if you're a retailer, you should have a pretty good grasp of the kinds of customer service problems that come up -- and which ones tend to gain traction.

Taking it off-line
Once you've spotted a crisis and determined the parameters of the problem, you may want to take a counter-intuitive step by discussing the matter "offline." It's a tactic that works well when you have a dissatisfied customer, especially if they have a large social media following or your brand is being slammed on a well-trafficked forum. Of course, going offline can be a little outside the comfort zone for most marketers who traditionally have worked in a brand-to-all world, rather than a one-to-one conversation.

"It's extremely difficult to resolve a conflict in an open forum like a blog or social media site, says Matt Kucharski, SVP, and Tony Morse, director at Padilla Speer Beardsley. "It's a little bit like the parents arguing in front of the kids -- nobody looks good. Instead, it's often best to take the conversation into a private forum: a phone call, a face-to-face meeting, or at the very least a one-to-one email conversation (not ideal). Then, when the issue is resolved, go back into the open forum to share what the resolution was. Often times, the person who made the complaint in the first place will volunteer to post information on how the issue was resolved."

Rally your enthusiasts with lots of information
Not every crisis is a brand-against-world fight. In fact, most of the time, a brand will have supporters. Consider the Toyota recall not so long ago. While some customers shot arrows at Toyota, others offered passionate defenses of the brand and their cars. But how can a brand leverage those loyalists? Consider what Chris Pitre, social marketing strategist for IDEA, believes Toyota could have done better.

"In the case of Toyota, they had several groups on Facebook and elsewhere that were passionate about the brand before and after the recall, but Toyota waited for a long while before communicating with these groups after their recall issues," Pitre says. "By over-communicating with this crowd, Toyota could have benefitted from saving face with this group."

According to Pitre, bigger brands often tend to overlook their own employees as loyalists. During a crisis, the tendency is to clamp down on potential leaks, keeping both employees and the public in the dark.

"[But] instead of operating in fear of a leak during crisis, brands should consider that perhaps leaking the truth is not a leak at all," Pitre says. "Arming employees (such as internal enthusiasts) with the right information that they can share with their networks is an incredibly smart move that can be easily overlooked."

How's your tone?
Remember when BP CEO Tony Hayward said, "There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I'd like my life back"? That was a pretty stupid thing to say as the world watched oil spread across the Gulf of Mexico. While Hayward didn't tweet it, the statement's length was perfect fodder for Twitter, and the phrase became emblematic of BP's indifference.

But for the sake of playing devil's advocate, try giving Hayward the benefit of the doubt. Ask yourself what would have happened had he simply stopped at: "There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do"? Omitting the offensive part about wanting his life back might have helped the statement connect. The message would have been empathy, not indifference. In effect, he would have been saying: We all want this to end, especially BP.

Of course, BP didn't do a very good job of managing the crisis (although to be fair to their PR and marketing teams, there weren't any good moves on the table). But one thing they should have asked themselves before issuing each statement was whether the voice was genuine, says Richard Harmer, Brand Strategist at Brady Media Group.

"Be real and be open, especially about situations that come up," says Harmer, adding that the key is to build trust.

"When [shit] hits the fan, say so," Harmer says. "You want to be the voice of trust. If you build up credibility with the audience by saying, [for example], 'OMG!!! [shit] just hit the fan!! Our CEO got fired!!!!!! I'll keep you updated,' you have the audience and press waiting on your next tweet."

Of course, the tone and words you choose should connect to your brand's voice. So while Harmer's example included some colorful language, other brands may opt for different words.

Social isn't the only game in town.

While you certainly want to be an active player in the conversation during a crisis, brands shouldn't ignore others channels, says Eric Papczun, VP at Performics.

"Don't limit yourself to Facebook and Twitter," Papczun says. "Many options to own more of a brand-related conversation exist. Consider ways to own more real estate on search engine results pages... video, images, and other multimedia resources can provide brands with high ranking listings and valuable visibility in their efforts to sway negative public opinions and perceptions. [Brands in crisis] should do more than release a written statement and work with the editorial press. They should also leverage social resources like YouTube and Flickr to release and optimize images, videos, and other multimedia resources that help to tell their side of the story."

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

On Twitter? Follow Michael Estrin at @mestrin. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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