• How do you manage a crisis online?

    One of the most common concerns I hear from companies when talking about social media goes something like this: “I really like the idea of communicating with my customers directly, but it’s too risky…what if they start saying bad things about my company.”

    And they’ve got a point.

    Social networks mean that bad news can travel very, very fast. A poor customer service experience or negative product issue, not matter how trivial, can get talked about online. Those conversations can be shared, passed on, commented on, and before you know it, it seems like the whole internet has heard about your company in a far from flattering light. What would once be restricted to a handful of people now has the potential to travel and be debated globally, and the nature of the internet means it will be there forever, like an Albatross around your corporate neck.

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    In the ‘old days’, which really wasn’t that long ago, companies had much more control over any messages they put out about their company, or at least thought they did. Influencing the influencers – whether they were journalist’s, stakeholders or important customers, seemed like a much more manageable task. But in today’s age of so-called citizen-journalist, it seems like everyone has a voice. Not only that but they also have the ability to broadcast it far and wide, whether you like it or not.

    Take a recent example in Australia with a prominent High Street fashion retailer. A shopper had what they perceived to be a bad customer service experience. Not only that, but after following up with the store’s management with a perfectly reasonable complaint email, the store responded with what can only be described as a pretentious, aggressive and insulting response.

    Now, in the pre-digital age, it would have ended there. Perhaps the customer would have told a handful of friends about their troubles, there would have been mild outrage and as a result they’d have stopped going to the store in question. But not-so in the age of social media.  The customer decided to publish the offending email on her own social network. It was subsequently picked up by her friends and colleagues and before long in had spread not only across Australia but overseas. The store was bombarded with telephone calls, emails and they had to close down their Facebook page because of hate mail. The mainstream media even picked up on the story with hundreds of column inches dedicated to the story.

    While a traditional crisis response, assuming the company in question had a crisis management plan, would be to make some choice calls to key contacts in the media, getting their counter argument across and quelling the issue as much as possible. Now in the age of social media – with potentially thousands of people out there ready to comment, critique and even attack – that response is no longer fit for purpose. A new kind of response is required.

    So, on the face of it, why would any company ever embark on a social media campaign? Why put your head above the parapet if it’s only going to get shot down when customers have a bad experience?

    Well, I say, if those people are willing to say nasty things about you online, then chances are they were also saying them in the days before the internet. People talking about you will happen regardless, and at least you now know what they’re saying!  But more importantly, what about the flip side of this new paradigm; if they have a fantastic customer experience with you, wouldn’t it logically follow that they’d be just as likely to say lovely things about you online too? And wouldn’t having a direct dialogue with your customers give you an opportunity to spread all the good things about your company?

    The answer is of course yes; when a crisis rears its ugly head, the power of social media can be a fantastic tool for businesses to manage that crisis. And remember, a crisis doesn’t always need to be something huge; it can just as easily be your website going down as it can be a fire in a factory.

    The solution

    We’ve spent some time talking about the problem, now what about the solution? Thankfully, preparing and managing a crisis in the social media space doesn’t need to be hugely complicated and there are certain steps you can take to ensure you mitigate risk and ensure any potential issues are dealt with quickly and effectively.

    So, by means of an example, let’s assume you’re a restaurant owner. You’ve got a half decent product, you’ve not poisoned anyone, and you’ve got a number of regular, happy customers. How could you use social media to manage a minor crisis, let’s say someone finds a fly in their soup?

    Listen to your customers, particularly during a crisis.

    A compelling benefit of social media is that it gives companies the unique opportunity to listen to what people are saying about their brand, retrospectively or in real time. There’s a wide variety of online tools, both paid-for and free, that allow you to listen to the thousands of conversations happening on blogs, forums, online news sites and twitter. Just run a Google search to find some of these tools. Businesses ranging from sole traders to international oil companies use social media listening to understand their customers, and you should too.

    In the past doing this kind of qualitative consumer analysis would involve expensive and time consuming surveys or focus groups. But now you can track these conversations quickly and easily. So in the case of the fly in the soup – use social media listening to finds out how many other customers have had similar experiences, whether people are angry or whether they perceive it as a one-off incident. You get the point, but listening and understanding what the public mood is to a particular issue and making sure you refine your response accordingly is crucial and will define how the crisis plays out. It’s the difference between you responding appropriately and quashing the issue, or further fuelling the flames.

    Remember, listening can in some cases also help pre-empt a crisis – is there a groundswell of discontent about your pricing, or in the sourcing of your ingredients, for example? Can you tackle the problem before it bubbles over?

    Be open and honest and respond decisively

    When you fully understand the issue, then make sure you respond through your own social media channels, honestly, decisively and clearly allowing other users to see how you’re tackling the problem. Don’t censor complaints if they’re being posted to your blog or Facebook wall. There’s a place for deleting or banning users if they’re racist or offensive but not if they’ve got a legitimate issue.  Don’t respond with spin, respond with the truth.  A recent study by a travel company actually found that some negative reviews about a particular hotel actually increased consumer’s trust. The same can be said for a brand.

    Use your advocates

    The nature of social media is that you’ll build up an online community through your Facebook page, blog, twitter page or whatever channels you’re active on. Remember, these are people actively choosing to engage with you so they’re already ‘bought in’ to what you stand for. Let’s assume they’re a happy bunch, so make sure you use them effectively and help them to defend your brand.

    How? Make sure you put your own view of the particular crisis across to them. Encourage them to share positive messaging. Ask them for their opinion. Get them talking positively about your business. It’s not uncommon for an engaged online community to defend you unprompted, if they feel a particular accusation is unjust.

    Take a particularly well-known US Mexican food chain. When false advertising lawsuit was filed against them on the basis of its meat content in its tacos, the company’s response was swift and decisive. The CEO published an immediate rebuttal video on Youtube, while the brand’s Facebook community was targeted with a series of positive news stories and offers, while its twitter community was engaged in conversation around the issue using the humorous ‘hash tag’ of #tacolove. The net result: the brand appeared confident and reactive, positive conversation swamped any negativity online and the story rapidly disappeared from page one of search within a matter of days.

    Fix the problem

    It’s all well and good talking-the-talk, but make sure you walk-the-walk too. So, you’ve acknowledged the problem, now make sure you solve it, and tell people about it, otherwise the problem will rear its ugly head again and again. And next time perhaps people will be less willing to forgive you.  It’s really no different to the pre-social media age – if it’s broke, then apologise, and fix it!

    Make hay while the sun shines – post-crisis

    When the particular crisis is over, make sure you revert back to broadcasting positive, good news about your company as quickly as possible. Talk about news products, recipes or offers. Run competitions, have fun. Make sure it’s business as usual. The quicker you can replace those negative conversations with positive conversations, the better and this also promotes you as a confident company.

    This also comes back to building an army of brand advocates, willing to say nice things about you, tell their friends about you, buy from you more frequency, and if the time comes, defend your reputation for you.

    Clearly, social media is not for every company. If you run a wheel clamping business, chances are that people aren’t going to want to engage with you through your Facebook page, no matter how pretty it looks, and you should probably expect the odd crisis.

    But remember; when a crisis strikes your business, people will be talking about you regardless of whether you’re active online, the only difference is if you’re not, then you won’t be able to answer your critics. With a few exceptions, most companies can make social media really work for them, building their brand and if the time comes, managing a crisis in a way that they wouldn’t be able to do in the pre-social age.