Social Media Crisis and the Misinformation of Immediacy

Part of my client responsibility is social media management, which means both promoting good news through targeted social media channels, and being prepared to react when the news is bad. The Web in general and social media in particular has changed all the rules of corporate communications, and it has become even more challenging to respond fast enough and in the right way.

Lies, Damn Lies, and the Internet

The first rule of social media is don’t believe everything you read.

The news business has always been about getting it first before getting it right. Since social media is such an immediate and reactive information platform, the first news regarding any crisis, including a corporate crisis, is often garbled or flat out wrong. For example, early news reports after the Boston Marathon bombing based on anonymous sources said an arrest had been made, prompting the FBI to call for media restraint and to verify reports “through appropriate official channels.”

In a crisis, misinformation often abounds. While social media can be incredibly valuable for breaking news, as in the case of Arab Spring, it also can lead to misinformation and lies that can damage reputations. Your first rule as a communications professional or even a social media citizen is think before your click. Don’t forward un-validated misinformation. When a crisis strikes, 99 percent of the time the first reports will include errors so don’t click in a crisis.

If you are responding to an incoming social media storm in response to a client crisis, be sure you have the facts and the sources to back them up before you respond. Just as the FBI in Boston called for the media to verify before they tweet, you should be reassuring and provide facts that counteract misinformation. Never get into an argument online, you’ just look like another troll. Instead, counter misinformation with correct information using an authoritative voice and source.

Plan for the Worst, In Advance

Given the immediacy of social media, your best defense strategy is to be prepared in advance. If you are dealing with a client crisis, you should have a social media crisis management plan. Here are some proactive steps to take to avert social media crises:

  1. Monitor – Keep an eye on social media channels as part of routine brand management. Use Google news and online search services to watch for any negative news. Also, keep an eye on company accounts to monitor for hackers as well as naysay
  2. Be thoughtful in your response – Not all negative comments promote a crisis. Part of the role of social media is to promote dialogue so give the naysayers their say. Show them respect and acknowledge their right to an opinion. If the company is in the wrong and receiving criticism founded in fact, then apologize and outline a remediation strategy. If the criticism is based on misinformation, offer correct information respectfully and clearly, pointing to facts and backup resources where possible.
  3. Remember context – Not all social media is equal. If you are a B2B company, flamerson LinkedIn are more important than Facebook critics. If you are a B2C company, then misinformation and bad reviews are more important. Be prepared to speak to the needs and interests of your target audience through the appropriate social medium.
  4. Apply social media policies – One of the best defenses against social media madness is managing corporate outreach. It’s common, and suggested, to have a well-defined policy in place outlining what employees can and can’t say about their employer online. Many companies just forbid it altogether. Also be sure to have a handful of designated social media correspondents who are trained in social media and know how to handle social media reputation management.
  5. Respond, don’t react – The best advice for dealing with a social media crisis can be taken from that well-known book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – “Don’t panic!” The worst thing you can do is react to a crisis without a well-considered response. Remember that sometimes the best response is no response, so be sure of your strategy before you dive in.
Jay Baer of Convince and Convert cites three elements that are required to define a social media crisis:
  1. Information asymmetry – When you don’t know anything more than the public knows. If you are in the dark you can’t manage the message.
  2. A decisive change from the norm – If you get the same criticism or experience routine complaints that’s the norm. If, however, something unusual creates a problem or scandal, that’s a crisis.
  3. Potential material impact on the company – Consider scope and scale of the message. If it’s a complaint about service or something routine then it probably won’t affect the business. If it’s a financial or criminal scandal, a product failure that threatens health, or some other disaster, then you have a crisis.

So the next time you see incoming flak from social media, consider your options before you respond. Not every criticism is a crisis, and any crisis demands a considered response. Just remember to think before you click.

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