In Crisis Management, Reputation

Social media crises are the angry birds of crisis management.  On one hand, they unfold before your very eyes and you just can’t look away.  On the other, they keep returning in a different form like those darned pigs.

When crises play out on social media, they offer unique challenges to those of us who manage them.  They are highly visible, catch fire in a matter of moments and never go away.

There are two sides to the visibility issue.  Obviously, an angry customer now has the ability to vent his ire in a tweet heard around the world.  That’s one side.  The other side is that the management of the targeted company can also see the on-line frenzy as it unfolds.  Before social, unhappy customers could share their discontent with everyone they met at the water cooler.  Now they can broadcast it while management watches and obsesses over it.  Don’t get me wrong, I know how volatile a social media crisis can be.  And I know how critical it is to respond before it goes viral.  But I also have had to calm down the twitchy managers targeted by those tweets who think every post WILL go viral and react accordingly.  We’ve been working with several clients that have been glued to the social media ravings of disgruntled former employees.  They just couldn’t look away or stop obsessing about the posts.

Now there’s no getting around the fact that these multiple angry tweets carried with them the possibility of an on-line firestorm, but we needed to keep them in perspective.  A little research showed that few folks were taking those on-line ravings seriously.  And all of the retweets were coming from fake twitter accounts started by those same ex-employees.  The lesson here was that we needed to dig into the on-line conversation to see how deep it went before formulating a strategy.

Now, let’s tackle the “catching fire” aspect of social crises that make them so darned tough to contain.  If the Ice Bucket Challenge has taught us anything it’s just how seductive it can be to pass things along.  That’s a positive use of social.  But what about the half-truths and misinformation that capture the web in moments?  Think about the “joke” bomb threat launched by a 14-year-old girl that gained her 30,000 followers within 12 hours of the post.  Or the Twitpic that incorrectly identified two “Bag Men” in the Boston Marathon bombing.  It went so viral that it ended up on the cover of the New York Post.  Recovering a reputation in the face of an extensive display of misinformation poses unique issues for those of who seek to manage crises and salvage reputations.

And then there’s the evergreen nature of social.  It’s been six years since Dave Carroll posted his protest song about the sloppy handing of his guitar by United Airlines on YouTube.  To date, it’s logged over 14 million views and that number continues to climb.  And what about the flap focusing on the public display of the low-tipping minister’s check at Applebees?  That’s been ranging for over 18 months with no sign of it dying down.

So what are the big lessons here?

1)   Respect the power of social.

2)   Monitor all social interactions.  For a good start on listening in on the social conversation, you should, at minimum, mobilize Google Alerts.  They are free and catch most of the conversation online.  And check out this great article on free monitoring tools for twitter. For a more complete list of free and paid tool for monitoring the online conversation, email me.

3)   Respond in a timely and open manner.  Acknowledge the post, express an honest request to learn why it’s negative and offer a transparent attempt to make things right. Responding to feedback helps improve services and also shows potential customers their input will be taken seriously For those who prefer to rant in public (instead of working with you on a solution), take the conversation off-line.  Suggest that they email you with more information and work with them to arrive at a solution.  That takes the conversation out of the arena.  For many complainers, that’s enough to take the wind out of their sails.  And, if you do it right, they might just come back on-line to crow about how you responded.

4)   Determine if it’s worth a response.  Not all critics are worth trying to win over. Sometimes, as hard as it can be, it’s best to ignore them and move on.  Stay away from criticism on really small blogs or forums.  Your response will only bring attention and credibility to a post that few saw in the first place.

5)   Respond to incorrect facts, but stay away from emotions.  If the facts are wrong, correct them, but avoid reacting to insults.  You can’t win there.  There is no response that won’t make you look thin-skinned and childish.

6)   Fight the urge to take down negative posts.  While the temptation to do this is strong (and the push from management will be heavy-duty), resist it.  Once you take down a post, you give the angry bird who authored it the opportunity to rant about why you took it down. The big advice here is to listen, learn, acknowledge that you heard them and respond with concern and compassion.  Also, remember the fleeting duration of most people’s attention online. I understand why you would want to prevent negative criticism. But the reality is that people are already talking to each other and not everything they say is going to be good. By bringing those conversations “in-house” onto your own social platform you can address them directly.  Furthermore, you are making a statement that your brand is willing to embrace criticism, a stance that can lead to greater credibility and customer loyalty. The only exception should be if a comment is profane, vulgar, or discriminatory.  Clearly you take those down out of respect for your audience.

7)   Avoid an online war.  You can’t win.  Nine times out 10 you look hypersensitive and petty if you go after a complainer. The critic is actually doing you a favor. They’re helping you be a better company. For every person who actually speaks up, many more walk away quietly, and will never return. Arguing with a critic is pointless.  People will remember you for the combat, not the “victory.”  Check out what happened when restaurateurs Samy and Amy Bouzaglo chose to launch a Facebook war against negative comments.  BuzzFeed called it “The Most Epic Brand Meltdown On Facebook Ever.”   Instead of launching on-line missile strike, respond, explain, and engage in conversation.  Skip the emotion.  If you need to demonstrate your strength, hit the gym.

Don’t let the speed and volatility of social media force you into making the wrong decisions.  As with all crises, deal with them promptly, with an open mind and with concern and compassion.  The birds may be angry.  Don’t let them knock you off your perch.


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