In this post – number 9 of a series, and, dear blog snorkellers, if you’ve missed the rest, you might want to read them just for context – we’re going to have a look at the role of social media in both creating and handling a crisis situation.
Before we go any further, by way of declaring my interests, I must say that I am not a fan of social media. I do not believe it is a valid (or valuable) communications/marketing tool. I believe there are still too many unknowns and thus it remains more of a threat than an opportunity. Those who are rushing headlong to embrace social media appear to have forgotten one key learning from traditional media. It can bite you. There is no reason to suppose that social media is not the same. As of yet, there is very little evidence of any business, brand or organisation actually getting a return on their investment in social media. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of businesses, brands and organisations getting into trouble because of social media. All this being said, social media exists – no-one can or should ignore it. The best you can do is limit your corporate exposure to it, by controlling the part of it that you can control, which is your interaction with it.
Social media can create a crisis for you, or can propagate one when it happens to you. And it never takes time off – it’s on all the time.
Ill-advised comments or content posted to a social media site by your employees – eg Dominos Pizza in the US and the UK electrical retailer, Dixons Stores Group – can cause you problems, as can commentary from unhappy customers, or trading partners. Decisions you take as a business, marketing material you produce, changes to your product line-up – all these can spark off a backlash via social media. Because of social media – and the wider internet – everyone has a voice, a voice that is instant and has global reach.
And this voice can be equally active in the case of a crisis that’s not driven by social media. In the case of an incident at your premises, or an accident involving staff and/or customers, or a problem with your product, or a gaffe by a senior executive – these things will be posted to social media within minutes. Mobile device penetration by population in the UK is over 100% – some people have two or more, d’you see? – which means that there’s always someone with a camera and internet access.
In terms of dealing with social media in a crisis management plan, you’ll be glad to know it shouldn’t be that difficult. It’s simply a question of incorporating elements of your social media policy into the plan. (And if you haven’t got a social media policy, now is the time to get one.)
Policy – your policy should (amongst other things) outline how your organisation and your employees interact with social media, when you’re using company facilities and are on company time. It should also contain information and guidelines around social media usage ‘best practice’ – both in and out of work – which should be promoted as an employee benefit.(Helping you to protect yourself and not f*ck up!) Most importantly, there should be a clause which specifically deals with crisis situations, where employee posting to social media is expressly forbidden, on pain of dismissal. Some people will say I’m being too draconian – but this is the only way to ensure your employees are not tempted to ‘participate’ – even with the best of intentions.
Monitoring – you could outsource this to an expensive outfit of social/digital media gurus, who will blind you with science and then steal your wallet. On the other hand, you could save your money and – once a day – spend half an hour on Google, searching for a selection of key words pertaining to your business. These could include your brand names, your company name, the names of your external communications staff, and the names of your c-suite. This is, of course, not scientific, and stuff will slip through the net, but if the issue’s big enough, chances are you’ll see a mention of it. Once you’re on to an issue, it becomes easier to track down where its epicentre is.
Reaction – things move fast with social media and in the blogosphere. Your standard, pre-prepared response statements (neatly filed at the back of your crisis management folder) will not suffice here, however. They’re OK and they’ll work with journalists looking for an early response to a crisis situation, but social media is not staffed by journalists – it’s populated by individual members of the public, none of whom want to listen to a corporate message. What you’ll have to do is translate your reserve statements into social media speak – humble, to the point, on a level, using language that everyone will understand (jargon-free). Put your case, and if there’s something your company/organisation needs to do to set things right, then do it. As quickly as you can. On the other hand, if you’re being mistreated, say so, and seed that message as far as you possibly can. You may have to set up your own Facebook group or Twitter feed – make sure you know how to do it, and what the basic rules of engagement are. Make sure that instructions on how to do it, and the rules of engagement are in your crisis management folder for everyone to see. Remember that social media is not a sales tool, does not tolerate corporate bullsh*t and is the soul of brevity. Ensure there is only one message coming out of your camp.
This is only the beginning – you’re going to want to go away and think about this (oh yes you are) – and you’re also going to want to think about how you ensure your people know about what you’re doing in a crisis situation. Your people are your greatest asset and one of your greatest liabilities – I’ll deal with them next time.