Social media firestorms: A first responder's guide

Has a misplaced Twitter campaign turned into a PR mess? Here's how to avert an online catastrophe.

Every new technology brings with it the capacity to screw things up in an entirely new way. With social media, it's now become possible to turn what was once a verbal gaffe behind closed doors into a public peccadillo.

Social media mistakes -- a tweet published accidentally, an ungracious response to a Facebook wall post -- are bad enough in a personal context, although they can usually be straightened out. But when such things happen with a corporate Twitter account or some other branded outlet, they can be messier by orders of magnitude.

It's not just that the wrong message gets out to that many more people, or that said message is associated with a multimillion-dollar name, or that it might well be enshrined forever in some digital archive you can't erase. It's that, on top of all those things, a mistake speaks volumes about your (in)ability to manage social media effectively.

It's best to think of such accidents as a "when," not an "if," situation. At some point, someone's going to say the wrong thing on your behalf -- maybe it'll even be you -- and you're going to have to clean it up, fast. How you do that, and how you guard more vigilantly against future mistakes, is a process that should be made part and parcel of the way you handle social media.

First step: Recognition

The first stage is to know when there's a social media issue that needs immediate attention. Consider a few examples of things that can go wrong:

  • The external PR firm you've hired to tweet on behalf of your company posts an extremely undiplomatic reply to someone with a mild piece of criticism.
  • A blog post from your CEO about a change in policy attracts a barrage of vituperation from readers.
  • An overzealous social media manager summarily deletes negative comments from your company's Facebook page, causing a frenzy of ever-nastier comments and widespread blogging about the deletions.

Looking at these examples, you should keep two things in mind. First, sometimes the hard part is recognizing that you have a problem in the first place. The sheer natural volatility of the Internet makes it easy to assume that things will blow over in short order. But it's best to assume that they won't.

Second, the source of the crisis matters. If this is something that came directly from within your organization, courtesy of someone sporting your corporate identity, then you definitely need to spring into action. "In my experience, about 60% of the points of conflict around social media are driven by internally misinformed moves," says Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks, which specializes in online community management for other companies. "From what I've seen, internal missteps tend to be more common and more impactful."

This isn't to say that outside issues (such as someone raising a complaint) aren't worth your attention. In fact, if it looks like an unhappy customer or ex-employee has posted damaging information (whether true or false), it is just as important to handle that quickly and effectively.

Second step: Action (and apology)

So now that you know something needs to be done, what do you do?

First, you have to publicly acknowledge that there's an issue. Don't try to come up with a perfect answer at first; a speedy reply that indicates you've heard and understood is better than a detailed one that's a week late.

Create a space for the reply that is easy to get to and easy to pass around and that has at least some degree of permanence. A blog post is the best default choice, but make sure the post is on a blog that is clearly an official mouthpiece for your organization. Don't create a blog just for the reply.

If the explosion was on Twitter itself, use Twitter to draw attention to your follow-up, but don't use Twitter to issue the apology or clarification. Let's face it -- 140 characters are not enough for something so nuanced, even if it's just your initial reply.

After your first acknowledgement, take time (not too much, though) to craft a more detailed response. It doesn't have to be exponentially longer than your original note, but it should contain three things:

1. Your understanding and acknowledgment of the problem.

2. Affirmation that you have learned from the situation.

3. The steps you're taking to correct it now and prevent it from happening in the future.

Nivea did something interesting with social media as a way to address a gaffe that occurred in conventional media. When its "Uncivilized" print ad campaign that ran in the September 2011 issue of Esquire drew ire for being racially insensitive, Nivea publicly apologized, withdrew the campaign and created a page on its official Facebook site to call attention to the company's response, which read in part, "The advertisement offended many and for this we are deeply sorry. After realizing this, we acted immediately to remove the advertisement from all marketing activities."

The page was retired not long after the campaign itself receded from public notice. That serves as one example of how the longevity of the medium you use for your apology also matters. Social media can be ephemeral -- in other words, if the controversy has completely died down or become seriously outdated and if you don't need the public-facing response to be archived perpetually, you can remove it.

The Nivea response also underlines that how you say something is nearly as important as what you say. Stick to the subject at hand, address it directly and don't get too far afield. Save any speculation or philosophizing about the subject for another venue -- that can smack of trying to change the subject. Most importantly, be transparent. Talk directly about what you did; don't just allude to it.

"Transparency is a derivative of the company's culture," says Brian Solis, principal at Altimeter Group and author of The End of Business as Usual. "As such, processes for admitting a mistake and attempting to fix it, as well as the openness required to instill trust and believability, will differ from company to company. What is consistent regardless of case is that transparency and sincerity always win."

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