State of social emergency: part two

Businesses have always made mistakes. The difference now is we get to play out our mistakes in real time, before a mass audience of forensic experts, cached in perpetuity. Where consumers turn first to search, and search favours the fresh and the viral, communicators have to be prepared for digital crises, which generally stem from poor practice in customer service, governance, PR or marketing. So here’s how to deal with them.

  • Check out part one here

1. Readiness – Set up your teams and protocols

Digital crises erupt rapidly, often out of hours. You need to be able to identify and contact your crisis team members quickly. Think up a couple of decent crises. You’ll probably need a minimum of PR, a community manager/social analyst, a subject matter expert and a search specialist. Create a simple ‘team finder’ document everybody can take home. The Canterbury earthquake showed we don’t know what will work, so attach mobile, landline, Twitter, Facebook and personal email. Also, if a crisis is serious and predictable, involves injury, product recall or shareholder loss, then having a ‘dark site’ ready and waiting to be updated and deployed is not overkill.  

Treat pro-active engagement as the best prevention. Your best line of defence is the respect of a connected online community, which will often defend you. Identify and develop a working relationship with potential advocates, those ‘media go-to guys’ who are influential and active online. If someone knows you, they may be more inclined to support you. Conversely, know your ‘badvocates’. Identify and follow to counteract arguments and anticipate any mounting campaign or potential ‘hacktivism’.

Get your house rules in order and moderate accordingly. Have policies and ‘playbooks’ and ensure that your social platforms clearly state the language and behaviour that will be tolerated. Consider using Facebook’s ‘profanity filter’ option.

2. Radar – Listening and detection

Don’t get caught unaware. If something’s happening, make sure you know about it. Put listening and risk assessment in place. Create a decision tree so that information is categorised, and escalated appropriately. Google/Twitter alerts are slow and offer insufficient coverage.

To respond appropriately, you need to evaluate two key factors: the message and the messenger. What is being said? Does the content of the message pose a threat to the brand? And who is saying it? Is the messenger influential and likely to entice others to talk or take action? Is there a feeling of escalation?

3. Response – issues and crises

Communicate. Update, monitor and moderate. Engage in two-way conversation, and ensure that other units with social profiles are briefed to do the same. Stick to the playbook, don’t argue and don’t pick fights. Above all, don’t take a snarky tone or mock the grammar of your critics (a la Kit Kat). Allow your community to come in and defend you.

Speculation loves a vacuum. ‘Showing up’ can sometimes be sufficient to stem the snowballing, especially if backed with action. You are free to put your fact-based point of view forward in a reasonable manner, but be aware people’s response can be emotional rather than rational, so don’t belittle.

When faced with a nationwide product recall LG Australia created a blog ‘LG responds’ featuring infographics, serial numbers, photos and product descriptions and videos for concerned customers. This strategy earned them praise from tough media critics and consumer organisations.  

Pull tone deaf or insensitive advertising, as Nike did following the arrest of Oscar Pistorius.  And create content to humanise and tell your story. New, relevant shareable content is the only way to tell your story and move unflattering natural Google results down the page.

Make sure people know where to look for information. Use the keywords likely to be used by people searching for information on your issue, even if they’re negative. Consider internal search, optimising for organic search and paid search. If your demise is via YouTube video, consider purchasing contextual advertisements.

If you need to apologise, be a leader not a politician. “I’m sorry if some people were offended” is not an apology. An apology says what you did wrong, why you’re sorry, and why it won’t happen again. In serious cases this is a leadership test and it has to come from the top (for a short masterclass in apologising, check out The Civilian’s backdown in June). 

4. Recovery and rebuilding

Where there has been a crisis involving a breach of trust with a company or brand, the rebuild can be slow. It will occur via redemptive action rather than words. Dramatic and decisive action by leadership is a key factor in the speed of recovery.  Communication needs to be ongoing along with acknowledgement of the affected communities.

Take a moment to debrief and implement learnings. It’s an easy step to skip, but it’s one of the most important. And there’s nothing like a baptism of fire to make those clear and relevant.

The new model of crisis management is definitely a challenge to communicators. We need to accommodate the impact of key trends and technologies, to upskill in new areas, to exercise good judgement and to deliver at speed. No pressure.

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