Social media cephalgia (a.k.a. headaches)

This blog post is the second in a series examining issues that may arise in the broad use of social media. Subsequent posts will discuss case studies to exemplify the points below.

“Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove.” — P.G. Wodehouse

Corporate reputation is increasingly difficult to manage. Those who may critique your company could be known—or unknown—to you. Near or far. Customers or web-watchdogs. The use of social media—freely available and distributed—mandates the creation of a preemptive strategy and implementation plan to respond to false, misleading, or intentionally malicious communications. Above all, it must be characterized by timeliness of response, unambiguous leadership, and clarity of substance.

What follows, then, is an overview to organize your approach in the unfortunate event when social media turns from an Internet-happy funfest into a high-stakes food fight.

I. TPD (Tweets Per Day)

Organizational readiness—monitor: The creation of corporate strategy has its own set of negative connotations, often defined by a cumbersome process without milestones to drive decisions, which results in a dust magnet with a fancy jacket. But time is not held in suspension in the world of social media. As you read this paragraph, approximately 9,000 Tweets have been sent, worldwide (15 seconds x 600 [current Tweets per second]). That’s 50,000,000 TPD.

If your Communications department is still sitting around scratching their collective heads wondering what to do when people start to equate your new and improved jasmine-scented organic shampoo with an alien plot to feed the intergalactic zombie hummingbirds arriving on the next meteor: you just may want to act with alacrity.

First, decide which people and/or department are responsible for monitoring social media to find out when your firm is mentioned or becomes a topic of conversation. You may outsource the discovery function to an experienced PR firm or other specialists who audit social media. Develop a metrics for reporting, so your company has a benchmark against which to compare when an issue draws your attention.

Next, identify who is responsible for orchestrating a response, and what needs to happen so they can expedite your response when the situation calls for it. A written plan with a decision-tree helps to begin defusing the situation, and also shows your stakeholders you were prepared. Whether or not your communications are centralized with one spokesperson or decentralized by product line or some other means, the plan and authority for action must be clear, and understood by all.

II. Zombie Hummingbird Feeding Preferences? We Can Explain

Organizational readiness—act:The first step is to find out who is responsible for the offending communication. How did they come to misunderstand, what is their vested interest in spreading misinformation? Did they actually have a bad experience with your company, or are they working against you for other reasons? If it’s not malicious, you will be best served by communicating with them directly, to reach agreement on where the mistake lay, and how it may be addressed and corrected. Not just for them, but for any others who may have been ill-served by your Customer/Consumer Relations department. Software glitch? Maybe. Take full ownership and spend the time and money to repair the situation now. As you will have experienced, devoting necessary resources will be a lot less expensive than trying to extinguish a social media wildfire.

I personally believe in helping people/organizations who are in the wrong to save face, if by doing so your larger interests are met. In this case, your primary interest is to correct and reverse the impact of false or damaging information. That is the goal. Litigation is not. So, to achieve your goal, begin as best you can by hewing close to these desired results. Rather than put the offending party on the defensive, help them to look good as they re-cast their message. Enhance their credibility by giving them access to your company, so they can provide a credible correction that may cite you, without your having to fight accusations on your own, and engage in a war of whom to believe.

This classic approach to embracing your adversary may serve you well by enhancing your corporate reputation, and help insulate you against similar problems in the future, by creating a model pathway to resolve conflict before it escapes into the ether.

III. Attack of the Alien Zombie Hummingbirds and Responding to Malicious Communication

Get your message out, fix mistakes, interact, and use credible third-party sources: By following the advice above, you will have increased your opportunity to defuse the social media situation. During the process you may uncover organizational problems of your own, of which you may have been unaware or under-resourced; and you’ll discover if the root cause to the damaging communication(s) was intentional or accidental.

In the instance where the misinformation being spread via social media was expressly meant to damage your reputation, your actions must be aggressive. The public seems to thrive on wanton accusations, so your task requires clarity of purpose, combined with a rapid response. First, you must be clear what your response will be, and determine without a doubt if any aspects of the malicious communication may actually be true. It’s much better to acknowledge a problem, than hide it, purposefully or otherwise. Apple’s typically flawless CEO and public spokesperson Steve Jobs faced a barrage of negative publicity by not addressing a reception issue associated with the release of iPhone4 with a more forthright acknowledgement of the pre-existing problem. If the negative information you are fighting has any basis in truth—use transparency to your advantage. Acknowledge the problem, and invite further scrutiny from credible thought-leaders, who can also use social media to their advantage, and yours.

Surprisingly, you might even discover that in certain instances, even your competitors may work with you, because they know that when it comes to spreading false information, a whole industry may suffer the consequence. Further, you should attempt to determine the motivations of your detractors. Difficult? Yes. It is likely, that you may not be able to determine exactly from whom you are being attacked.

One part of your strategy may be to subvert the offending online communications through a set of immediate actions that include a counter communications strategy that features new landing pages, and social media options that include blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and search engine optimized communications to advance your message. The template for your online response may be developed in advance just for this purpose. You will also want to include your public relations team to engage the use of credible third-party resources to assist in marginalizing the offensive attack.

IV. Open Up the Lines of Communication

Any response to a social media attack must not only be rapid—but include the option for a two-way (and more) response. Allow for Q&A, and establish interactive options within your public relations strategy. Fighting YouTube with YouTube; and providing a place to dialog on your website and/or Facebook page will help for you to understand, measure, and address the misconceptions that are being spread.

One of the hopes of the originators of misinformation is to engage and enrage a previously passive audience or consumer base. By listening to any new vocal detractors and addressing their responses—devoting as much personal attention as possible—a company stands a better chance to defuse and delegitimatize the intentional distribution of negative information.

We will explore the actions suggested in III and IV in greater detail in subsequent blog entries.

Check out these related articles:
Social media—Who said what?(!)

Posted by Frank J. Mendelson | Technology, Business Communications, Communications | Comments 0 |
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