How To Avoid a Social Media Disaster (via Mashable)

I was writing about my terrible ordeal with the telemarketer for the iStrategy2010 conference (on Social Media, no less) [Part 1, Part 2, Part 3] when I stumbled upon this helpful article via Mashable: How to respond when Social Media attacks your brand?. Of course, prevention is much better than cure… so here’s another helpful article via Mashable: How to avoid a social media disaster. (I really love Mashable!)

For the PR and Communications professional, the impact of a crisis has been exponentially exacerbated by the power of social media. As I’ve said before, this is due to the powerful fact that social media is essentially a network, with implicit assumptions of trust and credibility (by network members), and a built-in capacity for rapid dissemination of news.

Now, anyone and everyone can now vent their dissatisfaction about your brand and, I assure you, they will have their own like-minded audiences (friends, relatives, total strangers) who are similarly equipped and empowered. If unmanaged, you will have an echo-chamber of negativity that will get out of hand.

Even so, any practitioner will understand that one can never fully “control” what customers and audiences say about one’s brand – especially on social media platforms. Most would also agree that it’s not something you want to do, since social media is essentially a social medium – i.e. you don’t own it, the community does. It’s exactly because of this freedom to comment, to voice opinions and to generally share information that results in the kind of customers you want – those who are engaged with your brand! These customers end up being that desired loyal fan base that spreads the word about your brand to their friends and family.

Still, there are a few steps that you can take to prevent or circumvent a negative PR crisis about your brand on social media networks online. Here’s what the Mashable article recommends:

1. Create a Social Media Policy/Community Management Plan

Every brand participating in social media should have a clear policy and community management plan in place. Map out crucial “Terms of Service” such as:

  • What’s not tolerated in conversations about your brand. Things like foul and abusive language, threats against individuals, hateful speech, flame comments about products or services, and similar comments are best handled as strictly forbidden. Make sure this plan maps to the Terms of Service for each channel in which you are active, such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or YouTube, all of which have their own guidelines on unacceptable content.
  • Hire a community manager or qualified agency partner who monitors your brand’s entire social media presence on the web. Your lead community manager should be in constant contact with the PR and marketing departments, and have clear escalation lines to the customer support team for hot-button issues. The community manager should not only monitor and manage your branded communities in Facebook, Twitter, and corporate blogs, but also use social media monitoring tools to find out where else your brand is being discussed online, such as third-party blogs and forums.
  • The community manager should work with the executive and PR teams to decide who will respond to which type of comments. High-level “red alerts” need to be handled by a top executive, preferably someone both knowledgeable and accountable to your customer base. The PR team should, of course, be integral in crafting all outbound communications, but in rapid-response situations it’s best to have a key executive who’s already provided his or her willingness to be accountable and available.

[Additional bonus: Here’s a list of 16 Social Media Guidelines Used By Real Companies!]

2. Have an Escalation Plan

Decide ahead of time what steps your company will take if a flare-up occurs. Knowing ahead of time how you’ll respond to negative comments takes the “panic factor” out of potential negative commentary. Map out the following steps:

  • Decide which type of comments require immediate response (such as a huge flame against your brand, a customer service rant, or a nasty rumor) and which are best left alone for the time being (a few negative product reviews, a customer discussion comparing your brand unfavorably to another, etc.). Which are indicative of a larger trend, and which are singular expressions of dissatisfaction or concern?
  • Make a plan for who will flag negative comments, and how they will officially communicate these “flags” to the PR department in order of “Urgent,””Wait,” or “Monitor.”
  • Create corporate-wide guidelines for the first, second, and third steps to take in the event of a sudden negative sentiment storm. For example, the first step might be: Flag and collect negative comments. The second might be: Community manager works with PR and CEO to craft immediate “we hear you and are working on it” response. A third step might be: Have PR team and CEO craft and post official response.

3. Plan for the Worst – Expect the Best

What’s the worst case scenario your brand could possibly suffer in a social media PR meltdown? That situation probably won’t occur, but by imagining the worst, you can craft “first line” responses ahead of time, so you won’t be caught off guard. That way you’ll be well prepared if sentiment around your brand suddenly begins to trend negative. This kind of brand take-down, should it occur, happens extremely fast — in a matter of hours.

4. Respond Quickly, Personally and Directly

If online commentary starts to trend negative rapidly, consult your community management plan to decide who will respond first. Acknowledge questions and negative comments, and assure consumers you’re working toward an answer. Then, execute your official response as detailed in your escalation plan — an official blog post on your domain is always the first, best place to post new relevant information. Even after you’ve delivered an “official” response, go back to unhappy individuals and point them to the latest blog post, as individual responses go a long way. Remember to speak personally and directly. Speed and honesty are what customers value most.

5. Don’t Play the Blame Game

Consumers expect brands to pass the buck and not own up to problems. Go against the grain and stand up for your mistakes. Acknowledge that you are working to correct the problem, and inform those looking for guidance when and how you will improve the situation. Customers are typically seeking accountability and accurate, direct information from the primary spokespeople of the brands they trust. Reward them with this through the social media channels you manage.

Read the full Mashable article here

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