How prepared are you if you come under social media attack? If a certain someone posts a defamatory tweet about you, your company or your products are you prepared to do anything about “it”? And in what ways can you best prepare?
This was a subject at the recent Strategic Corporate Communication and Research Conference, sponsored by the Institute for Public Relations and PRIME Research. It was an enlightening and in other ways, a frightening discussion. In fact, cottage industries are springing up to address this very issue. Organizations are grappling with the question: Should a negative “tweet” be sent about them, how would they seek out a quick response as millions of followers are reading the latest derogatory message in 140 characters?
On the one hand, people now have a forum to say what is on their mind. However, on the other hand, social media does come with consequences. As was pointed out in David Fincher’s groundbreaking film, “The Social Network,” social media posts are written in ink and cannot be erased.
So what do PR professionals do to plan and to be ready for such a potential occurrence (or the random tweet that can sink your product line)? One option, sit idly by and hope that your company stays under the radar. Or plan for the eventuality and be prepared just in case. The latter is the prudent course of action, naturally, though it will require discipline, foresight and some soul-searching introspection—and potentially a strong resistance to react.
Just like we conduct scenario planning in risk analysis and strategy development – this type of analysis is something each of us must consider in support of our respective organizations. We know that we cannot control what others may say in the digital environment (nor in other places for that matter, it’s just the digital platform makes content so much more accessible).
For example, according to research from the Pew Center in 2016, a majority of Americans now say they get news via social media. What’s more, many of us have made wrong assumptions as to who engages with social media. Surprisingly, it’s Generation X (35-49 year olds) who spend more time on social media than millennials (Nielsen survey). So it seems we are all glued to our smartphones and devices to get access to information on a real-time basis. This means your employees, your customers, your shareholders, your communities and your competitors.
So, can you prepare for the eventuality of someone taking your company on in the social media space? There are some basic rules in scenario planning and crisis preparedness that will help guide your thinking should a “tweet’ come out of nowhere.
- Establish your own issues management team. You need this cross-functional/organizational team to regularly identify what are the key issues that make you vulnerable to someone posting an inflammatory remark about your organization. This can mean identifying issues around your leaders, products, lawsuits, employees and operations that potentially could come under fire. And who would find them fodder for advancing their own agendas.
- Organizations that often have been through a social media crisis situation will tell you that the content can come from anywhere in the world. Do you have adequate ‘listening’ channels that have been put in place that are monitoring social chatter about your company and gauging the severity of it? If so, what is the sentiment and is it worth being investigated? Are you paying attention? Often there are clues that can spot smoke, which could ignite to fire.
- Have your strategy at the ready…for all potential occurrences. Once you have identified all the potential things that could happen, then the heavy lifting begins. Strategies and their corresponding tactics for what to do should they occur. And their subsequent communications. The strategy and responses would look different if it is about your CEO rather than a post about your products. Develop the “what if” communications and build on your agreed key messages and supporting proof points. Will they be perfect…no. But you will have them prepared, vetted and at the ready should you need to go into action.
- Develop ongoing content that brings up new, relevant and timely things about your company, your leaders and your products when being searched online. Make sure you are identifying and surfacing content that well-positions your company. And unlike in some communications organizations that have been recently “tweeted about” you want your communications organization to be 100% accurate. Your content should also showcase the things your company is engaged with that address contemporary issues and what you are doing about them.
- Never forget…what is inside goes outside. So, you send a note to employees in a tone that is… well… just for ‘our own people’. We have all seen too often these communications end up on the Internet and shared. There are examples too numerous to mention which have created crisis for organizations and reputational issues. Never forget the messages you share with your employees might as well be published on the Internet.
- Bad news travels quicker than good news on the Internet. In fact numerous studies point out that the brain detects negative information faster than positive. So that “tweet” can go viral with lightening speed especially if there is an emotional element to it. Scientists have long known that people connect through the process of “emotional contagions” and thus the more emotionally charged the social media posts are, the much more likely they are to spread. All the more reason you need to be prepared.
- Don’t leave it up to chance. Don’t wait until something happens to spring into action. The company that does is foolishly playing the waiting game. Engage your senior executives and make them part of your communications team. They might not like what is being said about them and the company but it is hard to create a communications strategy around improvisation. Sell them with the cost benefit analysis. Issues management costs a fraction of what you will spend when you are actually in a full-blown crisis. It is an investment worth making.
- Be balanced and evaluate when and if you need to respond. Consider the source of who is going after you and evaluate the merits. Sometimes you may have to hold yourself (and your executives) back to responding in kind when the random “tweet’ comes at you. A defensive move is just that. And don’t shoot the messenger. Another move that may not serve you well.
No list can provide every remedy or recount all the things you should consider in your ongoing analysis. What channels are more important to you than others? Who is sending the messages? How frequently and where are they coming from? How volatile is the situation? As with any crisis, each one has to be evaluated on its merits and considered. The basic tenets in crisis hold in social media. However, digital communications provide a platform for your detractors to do reputation damage much more quickly. Take heed.
Jacqueline Strayer is a faculty member in graduate programs at NYU and Columbia. She is a principal with The Sound Advisory Group, Inc. and previously served as the CCO for three global publicly traded companies. Follow her on Twitter @jfstrayer or you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.