I have a client who once said to me: “We want to use social media to attract more complaints”. This may seem an odd thing to say, all too often attracting complaints is a reason people cite for being anxious about using social media. But this client knew that one part of there service didn’t always perform as well as they might hope. They also knew that nobody ever really complained to them. They must be complaining somewhere, they thought, and we’d like them to be complaining to us.

People use social media for lots of things, but they often use it to express their opinion about a brand or organisation, to tell you where things are good and to tell you where things are bad. To complain. We’ve written before about how to react if somebody complains about your brand online. The brand should reply when a factual inaccuracy is being discussed, or when a customer has had a bad experience and is reporting it online. And when they reply they should:

  1. make sure that they know the facts so that they can correct inaccuracies and keep people up to date with what is happening
  2. represent the brand in a way that respects its history and is consistent with the brand’s image
  3. respond in good time and continue to engage in a discussion whilst it remains relevant
  4. know how to prioritise who to respond to (this may not be as simple as the person with most followers on Twitter)

In a crisis management situation there is little different to this, it is just on a bigger scale.

The typical crisis management sees a lot of people discussing, debating, and complaining about your brand online. Many of these discussions will be factually inaccurate, and many will be from customers who have had bad experiences. These are the types of discussions that should be responded to, and should be responded to in the right manner.

Whilst every crisis is different, and there is no simple set of rules about how to use social media in these situations, a number of observations arise from looking at how people have successfully (or conversely have badly) managed crises in the past:

  1. Use social media to keep people up-to-date: The worst thing in a crisis is not knowing. This is where social media can be useful as a tool to keep people informed. Update regularly as things unfold and make sure you are updating with actual developments. The benefit of having a well established blog or online community is that you can then use it for this purpose. Make it the place people can go to for information, keep it current and keep it honest.
  2. Make sure the people representing your brand know what they are talking about: When you are unhappy there is nothing worse than feeling that the person talking to you doesn’t really know or understand what is happening. You need the people that are engaging on behalf of your brand in social media to be up-to-date on what is happening and able to speak openly and truthfully for the brand. They need to be immersed in the brand and internal process and be able to update people quickly and escalate any issues effectively within your organisation. This doesn’t mean they need to work for you directly, but it does mean they need to be fully immersed in your brand and they should be effective and experienced brand communicators.
  3. Engage people talking about you – be they compliments or complaints: When crisis happens people are going to complain, and these complaints need responding to. The best thing is to do so in a direct and informative manner. Correct inaccuracies and give people who are complaining information to stop them talking about you in social media and start them helping to resolve their own problems and disappointments. This might be directing them to your blog where you are keeping people up-to-date or it might be telling them where to go to get refunds (for example).
  4. Work effectively with a the hub and the spokes of your social media presence: You can’t be expected to engage everybody in detail on Twitter, in Facebook or on blogs, forums and online communities. You will end up repeating the same information multiple times and this information will often become out of date quickly. This is where having an established hub-and-spoke model of social media engagement comes into its own. If you have a developed hub, and online community, for example, where you can send people to get up-to-date and real-time updates on what is happening then you can engage them where they are (Twitter, Facebook, forums etc) by directing them here.
  5. Don’t wait for crisis to hit to build engagement: When crisis hits, it is easiest if you have a clear process in place already for dealing with complaints and discussions about your brand online. You need a blog or online community that people recognise as the place to go to to talk to your brand. And you need a well established presence in social media. Without this, you will find it much more difficult to go in when things go wrong and take part in discussions. You will be the newbie and the outsider, when really you should be the centre of the conversation. To get this you need to have a history of really engaging your customers; not just running social media marketing campaigns.

Overall, when crisis hits, social media can be an effective and powerful tool. But only if you have been using it to engage people long-term. Only if you have a history of dealing with criticisms online, and you know where people are likely to complain. Only if you make it easy for people to contact you and to find information from you. You don’t want to be dealing with hundreds, or thousands, of individual complaints scattered around the social media web. You want people to know where to go to complain and to get information. And you want this to be a place you manage and facilitate. You want people to come to you, so you can deal with their problems and update them with what’s happening. You want a place to send people to if they are talking about you online.

Social media is a powerful crisis management tool, but only if you have been using it when you are not in crisis mode too. It’s real engagement not campaign-based marketing. And in a crisis it will be easy to see which is which.

Image by ajburgess via Flickr

Original Post: http://blog.freshnetworks.com/2009/12/social-media-as-a-crisis-management-tool/

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