The Elusive Social Media Crisis Management Plan

I go ballistic every time I read another blog post from someone who provides this frothy bit of advice: "Have a crisis-management plan in place." Gee thanks.

That's it? How about a little help with the plan, pal. Otherwise it's like giving someone a smoke detector, but not telling them they need to take it out of the box, install a battery and mount it in the hallway. You've given them a great tool but they're still going to burn.

Let's demystify this self-impossed confusion right here and now:

By definition: is the process by which an organization deals with a major event that threatens to harm the organization, its stakeholders, or the general public. Three elements are common to most definitions of crisis:(a) a threat to the organization, (b) the element of surprise, and (c) a short decision time.[1] Venette[2] argues that "crisis is a process of transformation where the old system can no longer be maintained." Therefore the fourth defining quality is the need for change. If change is not needed, the event could more accurately be described as a failure or incident. ~ Wikipedia

What does this mean in terms of social media?

First things first. You must ALWAYS be listening. It is your responsibility to actively monitor all your social media channels. Ignorance of those channels can be your downfall. Therefore the remainder of this post is based on the assumption that your company already uses some of the main tools available to ensure that you know what's being said online about your brand. For more on "social media monitoring" go here for starters.

Second, there is a sliding scale in terms of what constitutes a crisis for your brand, service or product. Example: Toyota doesn't care that you want more cup-holders, but they will scramble like bees when the gas pedal on a Lexus gets stuck and customers start to crash. So therefore you need to create a "pain-threshold" of user opinion to determine when (if at all) you should react. Then you need to make a risk chart of what you feel requires social action, or simply allow your friends, fans and followers to address the situation without your intervention. Yes, believe it or not, most of the time passionate brand advocates will address your crisis for you. Especially if you empower them to do so by creating moderators and brand ambassadors. The point is if you jump every time someone says "boo," you'll be hard pressed to get much more done.

When deciding whether you should respond to an individual's complaint, look for things such as:

  • Intelligent negative reviews of a product or service.
  • How heavily followed and respected they are.

See if this individual is a fire-starter, troll or troublemaker with other companies. Or if they are a direct competitor. DO NOT out them of these facts unless you absolutely have to in order to LEGALLY protect your company and its assets.

Basic social crisis management techniques*

If you've researched and found your critic to be a credible personality, you should make contact publicly via the chosen channel and ask for him to contact you offline. Note: On Twitter, you must follow the person so they can directly message you. On Facebook fan pages, you must share your personal profile so the critic can send a message through Facebook. On YouTube, issues can be sent through your company's channel for messaging. 

Issue resolution:

This will be as unique to each of us as our fingerprint, but we can all do it within our own business parameters. (Exhibit A.): Summarize the issue in a document and ask if your critic is willing to post it as a PDF, blog or in an open forum to show the problem was resolved. This allows people to see that you listen, are empathetic, show willingness to resolve, and want to learn from your critics. Show readers what the issue was, what you've learned and what you're going to do (or not) about the issue. 

As far as issue resolution goes, I assume you are a professional with the necessary skills to arrive at a mutually agreeable and positive outcome with your customers should you have the opportunity to do so. 

But if they refuse to speak with you privately:

  • Ask them to outline their problem, issue or criticism. Some people only feel like they are heard if they vent publicly.
  • Listen to the problem and take their contact information. Ask again if you can contact them off the grid. If not, tell them you will research the issue immediately and respond on (insert social channel). 
  • Then do just that. Haste is key. It's about hours not days in social media. The faster you can respond, the better. If it takes time, check in and give updates.
  • Complete transparency of the issue is the best practice.
  • Then repeat (exhibit A.) upon resolution. And if they chose not to be recognized, simply identify them as "customer." The important part of your reaction is to not only show you're thorough and willing to listen, but to show humility and understanding. People who are mad often just want someone to say, "I'm sorry. How can I help?"

 To summarize what goes into any good social crisis management plan:

  • Listen.
  • Rank the viability of the user and the issue.
  • If legal issues arise within the context of claims, seek professional representation - but this barely EVER happens. If you have to wait for lawyers, the issue will simply get worse. Therefore do your very best to contact your critic and resolve it.
  • Do your best to work off the grid and with customer service representatives.
  • Acknowledge the issue and its resolution.
  • Empower all customers to give feedback. Customers complain less if they feel like  you hear them.
  • Check back in with the person(s) who had previous issues and make sure they're satisfied. 

Advanced social crisis management techniques*

  • Create a network of SME's (your advocates) within your business category who are willing to publicly respond to your defense should it be required.
  • If the issue is so large that it's collecting "mass opinions," you need to be ready to deploy ongoing messaging to the collective. If necessary, even construct a website to drive attention of the issue into one area where you can control it.
  • In all cases of mass opinion, you and your team must increase your social monitoring to more granular key-wording, and listen for abstractions that come from the opinion. This monitoring should be around the clock until you deem it no longer necessary. Like it or not, even if you think it's over, people will be waiting for you to make the same mistake so they can prove you incompetent. Given the severity of the scenario, never underestimate the power of hate towards you, your brand or your issue.
  • Actively train your staff to look out for possible threats to your brand and its messaging. All social communications during heightened periods of unrest should be viewed as an opportunity to make the issue better and/or worse. So make sure that what you communicate can only be interpreted in one (positive) way.
  • Lastly, you and your staff must understand how to take responsibility for mass opinion. Like it or not, you're here to please the customer, not make your point.

*Please note that these are my opinions and are not bound by any laws, certified or guaranteed practices. Additionally, these directions should be considered advice only, and I shall be held harmless, in all counts, regardless of use or misuse in any way.

Do you have a formal social crisis management plan in place? What challenges have you faced in social media pertaining to user or customer opinion? What would you like to add or edit from my list? Thanks, I look forward to hearing from you!

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