iMedia Connection

6 ways to control a social media crisis

Mark Naples

We've all seen examples of social media eruptions burying companies in wave after wave of bad news. Amazingly, major corporations still struggle as often as not in their management of crises online. Sometimes, the corporations themselves make things worse.

6 ways to control a social media crisis

In today's social media-crazed world, a clear understanding and diligent implementation of damage control principles will make or break a company in its reaction to such a crisis. Having handled numerous crises for a few dozen companies over the years, I know firsthand how much heavy lifting is involved with the successful suppression of stories, let alone turning bad news into opportunities for favorable outcomes. The rise of social media has changed that calculus though, and has made what used to be regarded as successful crisis management seem almost archaic. So, I asked Orli LeWinter, 360i's director of social marketing strategy, for recommendations. (360i is a full-service agency that works with many prominent brands and is arguably the largest social media-focused firm in the U.S.) Interestingly, her six point breakdown rings true for old-school PR crisis management, though with more directed tactics.

Don't shoot from the hip. Reacting to outcry before getting a full, balanced picture of consumer sentiment may result in an even further loss of control of the message. So do some active listening before putting out a response. Just make sure you do it quickly, since silence can often be just as bad as a misguided response.
Don't deny the facts. If your product has flaws or your CEO had an extra-marital affair, own up to the issue instead of pushing it under the rug or, even worse, hiding or deleting consumer comments about it in your social media channels.
Be genuine, straightforward, and a positive force of good. You can't change the past, but you can reassure consumers that things will be different in the future. Just make sure that it's not just lip service -- that things actually change.
Be a human. People react better to a human face with a real name than they do to a "spokesperson" making a "statement," or even a "social media manager" responding to comments. Bring the product manager, the CEO, or some other leader out to respond to complaints in their own authentic voice.
Let power users emerge. Don't try to respond to everything as fast as possible. Leave room for power users to emerge by providing clear information and then empowering users to defend the brand and share the information, rather than trying to address every single Facebook comment and tweet as it comes in. You'll probably find that, in the end, you've created an even stronger community than you had before.
Redirect the conversation. Your Facebook page is a one-stop shop that acts as a brand hub, meaning that anyone who visits it might be confronted with negative or accusatory messages about your brand during a crisis. It often makes sense to redirect that conversation to venues that are less centralized and public -- and where the shelf life for comments is much shorter such as Twitter (online) or a call center (offline).

Don't shoot from the hip

So your company finds itself in the middle of a social media crisis. The last thing you should do is haphazardly respond to the issue without getting all the facts. How does one go about this? Listen, listen, listen! Find out what consumers are saying about the issue on Twitter, Facebook, and other outlets. Tools like Google Alerts can be an invaluable resource for this as it can help you keep track of what consumers have to say about your company. The key to this step, as LeWinter said, is speed as "silence can often be as bad as a misguided response." Once you have a better understanding of how consumers are reacting to the crisis, you can proceed with the next steps to suppress the fire.

Don't deny the facts

Any attempt to skirt away or deny the issues at hand will inevitably fail. With today's saturation of social media in the consumer population, the issue can hit Facebook or Twitter in a miniscule amount of time, exposing itself to millions. Nobody wants to hear excuses and even fewer people want to hear silence regarding the matter. The best method to confront the issue is to be up front with the public. Dominos is a shining example of this with its acceptance of the widespread dissatisfaction with its product. The company opened several social media outlets as avenues for dialogue with its customers to find ways to improve its pizzas.

Burger King got to exercise along the lines of this point on Presidents Day, as its Twitter Account was hacked and jokers uploaded a McDonald's logo and plenty of anti-BK Tweets. Since the people managing the Twitter Feed for Burger King were able to alert Twitter within an hour, the account was hijacked for only 75 minutes and down only until the evening. The whole thing was over in a half-day, except the news reports that seemed to humanize it in Burger King's favor.  Even McDonalds seemed to feel BK's pain, as the Chicago Tribune reported. "We empathize with our @BurgerKing counterparts,"  rep for McDonald's said via the actual @McDonalds account. "Rest assured, we had nothing to do with the hacking."  That makes one wonder why the rep wrote "empathize" and not "sympathize."  But I digress.

Be genuine, straightforward and a positive force of good

After addressing the public and giving them the facts, it's crucial to show customers what you plan on doing to address the crisis. Showing genuine concern is very important here. Don't underestimate the intelligence or perception of consumers as they will see through any empty promises coming from your company. The company should broadly outline steps it will take to fix the problem and give customers a more concrete answer than, "we're handling it."

Be a human

A company's leader taking the time to address the public in a situation where emotions are high can pay dividends in the consumers' mindsets toward the company. This is a thoughtful gesture that shows consumers the company's genuine attitude and gives them more reason to believe the crisis isn't taken lightly by the executive team. Stopping bots that could inadvertently produce further controversy could save companies any added embarrassment as well as force the company to show consumers a more human, personal side. In an iMedia article, Michael Estrin brought up the example of the NRA using a bot that tweeted "Good morning, shooters! Happy Friday! Weekend plans?" immediately following the shooting in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater. Not only are instances like this incredibly insensitive, but they could demonstrate to consumers that your company does not have much dedicated, personal presence in social media.

Let power users emerge

If Facebook or Twitter becomes an avenue for customers to share their opinions, set some basic ground rules regarding profanity and spamming and leave some room for power users to come to your company's defense. Responding to every comment or tweet would be implausible and unnecessary thanks to these power users. Kraft Foods, the brand behind the Oreo Cookie, came under fire for releasing a rainbow stuffed cookie for Gay Pride month. Those who felt strongly against the issue made their displeasure known on Kraft Foods' Facebook page. Then, the company's own fans on Facebook suppressed the crisis by defending the company there. The amount of loyal fans coming to a company's defense could also serve as a gauge for the success of the company's marketing strategy.

Redirect conversation

Directing consumers with angry comments or complaints about your company to a lesser trafficked area (on or offline) can save you from getting more negative attention in social. Jay Baer wrote about this -- he refers to this practice as building "a pressure relief valve." He cites Penn State as doing a good job of redirecting individuals to vent on a Facebook status post during the height of the Jerry Sandusky trial. With the creation of this Facebook status, Penn State was able to have some degree of control over spread of negative attention.

Crisis management on social media is never on a company's forward-looking list of things to do. However, if handled with speed and a genuine attitude towards righting the wrongs, LeWinter's points can prove the difference between the eruption of a social media crisis burying a company or not.

Mark Naples is the managing partner of WIT Strategy.

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