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Surviving a social media storm

Here at Erskine we’re finding that our clients are taking more active control of their social media channels and integrating them directly with their website strategy. In the space of two years, mainly due to convergence around Twitter and Facebook, social media has gone from being a reasonably niche activity to an essential marketing and customer service tool for almost all organisations. One of the reasons I’ve joined Erskine is to help clients understand and make the most of the potential these channels offer.

We are increasingly asked to develop web applications that can be delivered on a variety of channels and platforms across both web and social media. For example, we recently helped WorldSkills London 2011 deliver a series of highly successful Facebook campaigns that helped attract 200,000 visitors.

Getting instantaneous access to a global audience would have been unthinkable five years ago, but now we almost take it for granted. Social media can deliver powerful and surprising results, even for experienced marketeers.

But this power can also pose threats - it’s easier than ever for consumers to publicly voice their complaints en masse. Blackberry and Netflix are just two companies that have been caught up in a maelstrom of negative social media coverage in recent times.

Being at the heart of a social media storm is a pretty scary place to be. Much like a real storm, a social media storm rages violently, but for a limited time. As in real life, the damage left behind can be serious and lasting.

Last year in a previous role, I experienced a social media storm at first hand. Although fairly small in the general scheme of things, it was still a chastening experience that taught me some valuable lessons.

Here’s what happened: our media team issued a release with a deliberately controversial title, specifically designed to tempt jaded and cynical news outlets into featuring our project.

From a news coverage point of view it was an outstanding success, attracting the attention of a wide range of mainstream news outlets and major online news sites like the Daily Mail online (with the usual range of barking mad comments beneath the article).

At first it seemed as if our news ‘hook’ (the controversial headline) had succeeded in attracting coverage without drowning out our main message, the real meat of the story.

But as the day progressed it became apparent from our social media monitoring that a significant negative sentiment was building up against the headline. This originated amongst a small group of specialist sector commentators who picked up the headline and commented negatively on it via Twitter. We were fortunate that our social media storm was fairly ‘low tags’, and didn’t spread to other social media channels like Facebook.

However, the Twitter ripple from these individuals spread rapidly and within hours we were receiving a large number of negative comments. The sheer volume of tweets and the ability to monitor them in real time was a first for many in our team and therefore a real source of alarm. There’s something morbidly compelling about being able to watch things unfold in real time, like watching live action footage from a battlefield.

Throughout the day there were surges of activity as people scanned their timelines and picked up the story (or rather the negative spin on the story) and retweeted. It became apparent that many of the people retweeting were not reading the original story as one of the ‘versions’ being retweeted linked to a broken URL.

Just as things started to abate and we were breathing a sigh of relief, a new ‘version’ of the story reared it’s head. The spin this time was critical of a government minister (the project was partially funded by the government) and this gave the story a whole new lease of life as this ‘version’ was picked up by a new network of individuals. Needless to say the minister in question wasn’t particularly happy.

And then, after almost exactly 24 hours, the storm blew itself out and comments dropped to almost nothing, leaving us slightly shell-shocked. The experience re-inforced what many companies are finding out the hard way - that social media cuts both ways.

A social media storm is a new kind of crisis that traditional media teams are not always well equipped to handle. Classic crisis communication techniques do not always lend themselves to the immediacy of social media; although some established rules hold true.

However, there are a few simple principles that will help you prepare for and weather a social media storm. These apply mainly to Twitter but have relevance for social media in general.

Five ways to survive the storm

1. Monitoring is important, but it needn’t be expensive

A surprising number of organisations still engage tentatively with social media monitoring and are oblivious of what’s being said about them. An entire ecosystem has sprung up to help organisations analyse and manage social media channels. Enterprise level products like Alterian or Radian 6 come with a high price tag, but you can achieve a fairly comprehensive level of monitoring with free products like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck.

2. Social media has a tiny attention span

When a social media storm is raging, it feels never-ending and all encompassing. The reality is that the attention span of social media is particularly short and generally measured in hours rather than days. If you can hold your nerve and respond pro-actively, the conversation will quickly move on.

3. Don’t take it personally

Seeing the name of your brand, product or organisation dragged through the mud is a horrible experience. Social media is anarchic, and if you’re at the centre of a storm much of the commentary will be unfair, innacurate and downright abusive. The temptation is to wade in and defend your honour, to reason with people, to tell them how wrong they are. You’ll need to resist that temptation and develop a thick skin, constantly reminding yourself that most comments aren’t heartfelt, and may simply be retweets where the person hasn’t even looked at the source material. The volume of comments doesn’t necessarily correlate to deeply held sentiments.

4. Silence is not golden

As with all crisis communications it’s very important to explain your actions, here social media becomes an asset again. If you maintain radio silence, others will fill in the blanks on your behalf. Netflix is a case in point. When it split DVD services into a separate business called Qwikster, and changed its pricing structure, social media channels erupted in outrage. Rather than responding quickly and clearly to this criticism, Netflix maintained complete silence for 24 hours. This is an eternity in social media and users were quick to mock this flat footedness; an @NetflixGlobalPR parody account was set up producing sarcastic comments like, ‘Really hoping Hulu makes a bad public decision today’. Holding off on public statements, hoping to ride out the wave of criticism is no longer an option. The benefits of a pro-active approach to negative publicity have been exemplified by Path CEO Dave Morin in recent days.

5. There’s no such thing as too much information

The Blackberry ‘outage’ last year was a classic example of how not to do social media crisis management. Whilst millions of users around the world whipped up a social media storm of discontent, Blackberry’s explanations were late and pitifully inadequate, lacking any real impact. Things will always go wrong, and how you respond in the era of social media hasn’t really changed the tried and tested formula of explaining in detail while fixing, apologising sincerely when fixed, then compensating fully and unstintingly. The only difference is that the ‘thinking time’ has reduced to almost zero. Social media makes it easier to communicate in a crisis, but makes it all the more apparent when these communications are lacking.

None of the above principles are difficult or complex, but the pace at which social media moves makes it vital to keep up and educate the people at the sharp end in how best to respond.

To quote the novelist Louisa May Alcott, ‘I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship’.

Erskine Design
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