Politicians often talk about the "3 a.m. phone call." For small business owners, that late night emergency alert might be a tweet, a Facebook status update, or an Instagram photo. Unhappy customers, disgruntled employees, and bored pranksters can and do use social media to attack companies. If you're in the crosshairs, are you prepared to manage the storm?
How to Manage a Social Media Melee
1. Set your threshold for "crisis mode"
What constitutes a real crisis rather than a typical day spent managing customer service responses? Jay Baer, author of the book The NOW Revolution, defines a media crisis as a moment of "information asymmetry." That means your company knows less about a situation than the general public, leaving opportunities to get blindsided by detractors and competitors.
2. Acknowledge the situation
Under pressure from an hour-to-hour news cycle and social media, your company sometimes doesn't have the luxury of collecting all the desired information before issuing an initial response. Social media consultant Amy Neumann advises clients not to immediately admit fault, since that could provoke legal action, but to at least publicly recognize that company experts are gathering information.
3. Establish an information hub
Use your official company blog or website to post what Baer calls a "crisis FAQ." The hub serves two purposes. Publishing everything you know about a crisis helps customers and members of the press quickly gather details about the situation. However, the hub serves the more important goal of defusing social media conversations. When you've disclosed what you know, there's less reason for people to ask questions about the issue on Facebook or Twitter.
4. Offer a safe space for reaction
The people affected by your crisis, customers, community members, or even employees, may still want to vent their frustrations online. Opening up a bulletin board or comments section on your site lets people fulfill those desires without calling more attention to your issue on their primary social media streams.
5. Document your response
If your company actually caused the crisis in question, your customers may demand more than just a blanket assurance that you'll do better next time. Showcase how you'll change your business to prevent future problems. For example, Domino's implemented a "pizza tracker" system after employees depicted improper food handling techniques online. Now, customers know exactly which employees touched their food, and when.
6. Be authentic
When a crisis isn't your fault, use a consistent brand voice to ensure that your response doesn't appear defensive. The social media team at Citi defused social media issues by posting full videos of incidents that were edited for dramatic impact. Let the facts speak for themselves, while assuring your customers that you remain committed to your brand's ideals.
While it's fair game for customers to rant about your business online, it's never acceptable for you to trash your patrons or your employees in the same forum. Use all six of the above techniques, and avoid the embarrassment of creating an all-new crisis from your emergency response.
Joe Taylor Jr. has covered personal finance and business for more than two decades. His work has been featured on NPR, CNBC, Financial Times Television, Fox Business, and ABC News. He recently completed a personal finance book entitled The Rogue Guide to Credit Cards; (Rogue Guide Books, 2012).
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