#DearKen: How Do I Prevent Social Media Disaster, And What To Do If One Hits?

social media disasterCustomers talking about you on social media can “make” your brand – and destroy it. People are by nature “social”, and regardless of their device (computer, mobile, tablet, TV) or location, people are connecting to online communities to share what they think about your brand, company, or organization. Fast fact: when customers complain about you, 70 percent of them do it first on a social network.

Social media is no longer “optional.” Marketers MUST not only listen, but also actively participate in the online communities in which their customers are talking about their companies. More importantly, they must have prepared a plan of action to follow to avoid a social media meltdown.

The marketing teams at Gap, KitchenAid, and Celeb Boutique need no convincing. They experienced some of the nastiest social media crises of 2012, showing us that the worst social media disaster isn’t the one marketers cause themselves, but the one for which they have not prepared. The Altimeter Group found a whopping 76 percent of the social media disasters companies reported could have been avoided – if the companies had been better prepared.”

NOW is the time to kick off your New Year with a written social media disaster response plan to which all of your organization’s functional departments (don’t forget Legal/Compliance!) have agreed. Social crises can and do happen, even when we’ve done everything “right” to prevent them. It’s therefore critical to the financial health of our organizations to create – and rehearse – a formal social media response plan. No matter where you are or what you market, this is marketers’ number one priority for 2013!

A reminder that the opinions expressed here are my own. They come from my hands-on experience managing social marketing content and campaigns, leading social marketing teams, and consulting for social marketing clients. Your organization and brand are unique! Use what works for you. Toss the rest! Do you disagree with any of my guidelines, or think I have forgotten something? Please share your experiences with us in the comments section below, so we can continue the discussion and the learning.

To start, thank you for your question! When positive or negative content goes viral on a social channel, it requires marketers to act fast — and smart. The increasing ubiquity of mobile devices and apps, and the *explosion* in mobile video in 2013 mean the world is waiting to rave about your successes…and rant about your (perceived and real) failures. Let’s be crystal clear: This is not about image; this is about revenue. Good crisis management practices will mitigate the negative impact that social media goofs, disasters, and crises – self-initiated or not – would otherwise have on your revenues.

As regular MobileGroove readers know, I like to share both strategy and execution (let’s do this, and here’s how!). Here is my cheat sheet to help you assemble an immediately actionable social media response plan that makes sense for your organization. In it, I describe the various social media problems or “challenges” for marketers and identify the current best practice(s) to deliver the best results. I also share some of my favorite social media goofs from 2012 [in green], showing what can really happen and why a social media response plan is essential. While many of these goofs were truly innocent, they still had a serious (and sometimes fatal) consequences. When marketers mismanaged the situation, the result was a full-blown social media meltdown that had a significant negative impact on 2012 revenues.

Challenge #1: Social Authority

Your company is a media company. Period, full stop. While this simple statement of fact would have been inconceivable to a brand manager (or CEO) just five years ago, it’s a given that much of a brand’s Klout [sic] is now earned through their content. It’s not just about having influence online, it’s about managing effectively in a space where you are no longer the default authority on your own brand’s products and services. Think of social media as the great equalizer. Social media enables every person on the planet with a connected device to build influence and authority by sharing what they think about your brand. And it doesn’t even have to be accurate!

Best Practice: Presence

As a marketer, you are [hopefully!] already actively sharing, participating, and engaging on all of the social networks your customers are on. I include in these, the “review” sites – such as Yelp, TripIt, TripAdvisor, and Foursquare – where your customers (and target customers) are talking about your brand. Taking part in these conversations is the lynchpin of your crisis management strategy. Your goal here is to become the authority for your brand, build relationships with people and — ultimately — cultivate an audience of “brand fans.” Once you have created a community of brand advocates you can also reach out to them, in real-time, for ideas, insights – and help!

A great example of this is how diapers/nappies brand Pampers “pampers” its mommy bloggers, so these brand fans can quash rumors and inaccurate information about Pampers’ products the moment they appear online, anywhere on the planet. In a way, it’s similar to how tech companies have been befriending industry analysts for decades. At the end of the day, it’s about forging positive working relationships with your brand’s social influencers. And yes, this means you need to know who they are! Using social networks to connect with influencers and encourage brand advocates ensures you have valuable allies, who are willing and able to help you to get your message out when disaster strikes. They may even help you to avert a social media disaster altogether!

United Breaks Guitars taught everyone (unfortunately, except United) the high price a company can pay when it fails to make things right for a customer and correct a simple service delivery mistake.


Challenge #2: “Official Spokesperson”

Remember when organizations had a “company spokesperson”? This single, highly-trained person was designated as the only person authorized to speak on behalf of a company, and the media respected their position. Today, social media provides everyone in your company a platform to speak out — and be heard. Any post on any social network by any employee in your organization is “official and on-the-record” as far as the media is concerned. Moreover, every form of digital content (texts, photos, videos) can go viral in a heartbeat.

Best Practice: Consistent Messaging

It used to be the responsibility of skilled (in-house or agency) PR professionals to create and communicate for an organization during a crisis. Today, those talking points should be created by a team with representatives from each of the company’s customer-facing organizations [yes, you can still let your communications and legal/compliance heads in the room] and shared/distributed widely. How wide is widely? Everyone who touches the customer must now have the “talking points” that used to reside exclusively with PR and executives.

It’s also helpful to remind your entire employee population of your organization’s social media guidelines on a regular basis just as you do your organization’s Code of Conduct. Of course, listing what should be included in your social media guidelines (and why) would fill another column. In the meantime, here are some basics to get you started:

  • Think before you post
  • Negative online comments about employees and/or customers are grounds for disciplinary action up to and including dismissal
  • Employees should NEVER “fight” online, with anyone, for any reason
  • Communications with unhappy customers should be taken offline as soon as practical

The goal during a crisis is consistent messaging across ALL media channels, online and off!

#QantasLuxury taught organizations not to be tone-deaf to current events when launching [even long-planned] social media marketing campaigns.


Challenge #3: 24x7x365

In our crazy global mobile wired world, it’s not just that everyone, customer or not, has the opportunity to tell the world what they think of your organization. The real challenge is that social media is always “open”. In fact, nights and weekends, in every time zone, are often social media rush hours, so plan your resources accordingly.

Best Practice: Social Listening

Identify and use the right tools to suit the size of your organization to “actively listen” to what your customers are saying about you around the clock online. Solopreneurs and smaller organizations can make great use of free social media monitoring tools such as Google Alerts and the tracking tools already built into each social network (such as Twitter Search). Mid-size organizations, with dedicated marketing resources and budget, may be best served by products such as Brandwatch, Hootsuite, and Vocus. And the largest organizations (ones that have abundant, available  IT resources) may save money by investing in creating their own solutions. Remember, even the fanciest tools are worthless if you don’t use them!

Gap and American Apparel taught all of us NOT to be clever during natural disasters by offering Hurricane Sandy-themed discounts.


Challenge #4: Public Relations

Just a few years ago, larger companies had lovely little remote islands they called Public Relations. Each PR island had a high, thick wall, and life in the silo was good. So good in fact, that many companies decided to outsource their public relations functions altogether to reduce costs. This left few, if any, “in-house” experts to manage (let alone plan for and prevent) social media disasters.

Best Practice: Integrated Planning

With response times of minutes instead of hours or days, the traditional functional boundaries between departments can easily escalate a social goof into a full-scale disaster. The winning approach is the one that tears down the walls between your functional departments of Public Relations, Marketing, Employee Communications (often under HR), Legal/Compliance, and customer-facing organizations such as Sales and Customer Service. In fact, the most effective social media response plans are those built with input from each organization. But it’s not enough to draft a plan; they must also be rehearsed to make sure everyone knows their role when the tweet hits the fan. We rehearse fire drills to learn what to do in case of an emergency, and we need to treat social media response planning the same way. Ask yourself: which will have a greater revenue impact on your organization? A small fire in the employee lounge, or a toxic post that goes viral online? One may be expensive, but the other may close your business.

The Wienergate sex scandal taught executives everywhere that if they can’t keep it in their pants, to at least keep it offline.

Risky business

Social media never sleeps. So, it’s obvious that the speed of online communications will always be faster than your organization’s legal and content review cycles. I now routinely see professional industry analysts and journalists live-tweeting press events as part of their coverage, repeating, analyzing, and interpreting (if not always correctly…) what executives say as they say it. Ask yourself: Would YOUR legal department be nimble enough to review (and approve!) corrections to inaccurate product information or company earnings posted (!) online while a company event is still in progress? If your answer is ‘no’, then it is your responsibility to both teach your company the ‘new’ rules, and drive the required changes in your corporate culture that are required to support them.

Let’s recap. Actively participating on the social networks your customers are on is the best possible “prevention” for social media disasters. Leverage technology to monitor social media 24x7x365. Actively monitor conversations about your organizations and its principles. Respond to both positive and negative discussions. When someone posts a negative review about your brand, product, or service, first determine whether the review is accurate. If the negative content is valid, own it, fix it/make it right, and reply to the person who posted it, thanking them for bringing this to your attention.

If the information is inaccurate, consider NOT responding to the post yourself. (Remember, don’t feed the trollstrolls WANT a reaction, so don’t satisfy them by giving them one!) Instead, let your brand fans respond for you as they will almost always be better able to correct inaccurate information without being salesy or defensive. It’s also important to note that censoring or deleting negative comments on sites you control [other than for language that violates your terms and conditions] usually exacerbates the situation.

As always, maintain your cool AND your sense of humor. Your company requires your leadership on this.

For more information on issue management/crisis communications in general, and social media crisis disaster communications in particular, I recommend the following resources:


What are the most effective ways have YOU have found to actively manage social media disasters when they hit? How do YOU bring together your company’s different departments to plan, prepare, and (most importantly!) rehearse? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.


Editor’s note: Do you have a question about social marketing technologies, tools, and best practices? Tweet your question with the hashtag “#DearKen”.  All tweets will be acknowledged, and considered as being submitted for publication.

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