We’ve all heard plenty of horror stories, like these:
It’s not surprising that many organisations are paralysed with fear, when they’ve been used to controlling the message for so long. Now disgruntled employees and customers can air the dirty laundry in public; and too much PR gloss causes backlash and mistrust.
So how do we overcome this problem? First of all, we need to acknowledge a few basics:
- People are talking whether you like it or not. You can putting your fingers in your ears and pretend it isn’t happening, or you can take the opportunity to participate.
- Many customers just want to be acknowledged. Ignoring them will often wind them up and stoke the fire.
- The vast majority of word-of-mouth still happens in the ‘real’ world, not online. This is obvious when you think about it, but the truth is, if your product or service or ethics suck, people will be complaining far and wide, even if you can’t see/hear it.
- Feedback is an essential ingredient for improvement and agility (i.e. the ability to respond to changes around you quickly). Embracing criticism as a means to make things better shows a confidence and willingness to improve that builds trust.
- Two-thirds of brand conversations online are positive. We tend to overestimate the potential for negative word of mouth.
- It’s crazy to think that 100% of people are 100% positive about any brand 100% of the time. We’re so used to marketing speak and PR spin that we’ve forgotten to take a reality check. In a world where anyone with an internet connection can publish their views, a bit of negativity is inevitable – and usually not the end of the world.
So what to do?
Here are a few tips:
1. If customers are slagging you off, take a judgement on whether the criticism is legitimate. If it’s just nonsense from trolls, you’re probably best to ignore it. Often loyal customers will step in and fight your corner for you, which is much more powerful than the brand stepping in. If the complaints are fair enough, acknowledge the issue, apologise and show that you’re keen to make things better. It’s important to approach social media like a human being, talking in a natural, friendly voice, acknowledging mistakes, apologising for them openly and showing willing to make things better.
2. Resist the urge to delete all negativity – particularly if it’s justified and articulated in a non-abusive way. As a rule of thumb, you should only delete posts or comments that are in breach of your social media policy, such as those containing swearing. Rather than brush it under the carpet, publicly respond to criticism in a timely, friendly manner. Turning a negative into a positive in public demonstrates you’re listening, you care and can be trusted – helping you gain support and favour.
3. Make sure you have a social media policy in place that outlines dos and don’ts. That way you have some legal protection should a tricky situation arise. Tips for creating a social media policy: a) Don’t just file it in a drawer and forget about it, as we do with most policy documents. Share it somewhere online and encourage colleagues to suggest changes as you gain experience. b) Keep it simple, short and human, not complex and full of legalese jargon. c) Consider sharing it publicly, on your corporate website.
Here are some good examples of social media policies:
4. The best way to avoid employees saying something inappropriate – and to get the scale you need in order to handle high volumes of conversation online – is to provide plenty of training. Build social media policy training into new employee inductions, so everyone knows how to make the most of it and avoid trouble. Provide training to existing employees who are interested in participating. You could consider putting certification in place to build an internal army of certified social media participants who feel confident.
5. Put social media monitoring in place to ensure you spot any potential crisis before they escalate. Some monitoring tools enable you to set up alerts if there’s a spike in negativity, for example.
6. Prepare a crisis management plan and process, so that if a problem arises, it’s clear who has what authority to respond, how frequently they’ll post updates and whom internally should be alerted in certain situations (e.g. PR, legal, IT security). It can be useful to run drills to practice crisis handling, through simulation. In a complex organisation where there are many layers of approval, create a matrix that outlines ‘if X situation arises, the community manager can respond without approval’, ‘if Y situation arises, the head of PR needs to approve the response’, ‘if Z situation arises, the head of legal needs to approve’ and so on.
7. Preparedness is key – develop as many ‘what if’ scenarios as you can and consider crafting some responses in advance. You can end up with a database of FAQs and answers, which are handy not only for crisis, but for day-to-day questions that might spring up on your social channels (‘how do I apply for a job at your company’ etc).
To get everyone into the swing of social, try making a collaborative project out of it, developing ‘what if’ scenarios together. You could do this by setting up a private group online, or on your intranet. Encourage colleagues to post concerns and questions, then craft responses between you, maybe even voting for the best answers. Don’t forget to let the humanity shine through… stiff, corporate-sounding responses won’t go down well on social channels.
8. Finally, keep calm and carry on. If you’re prepared with policies, processes, tools and training, the world of social isn’t such a scary place after all. If you mess up, say sorry and share your story. Openness builds trust, just like any ‘real world’ relationship.
Perhaps the most important common sense point of all is that serious, widespread negativity about your brand may well be for a reason. If you feel vulnerable to a barrage of upset employees or unhappy customers, chances are you may have bigger problems than social media crisis. Use the feedback to make things better. It’s difficult to change anything without knowing exactly what’s wrong, so welcome constructive criticism. This demands not just a change of approach, but a fundamental change of mindset.