Whether it happens suddenly or gradually, any PR crisis can be a trying time for your organization. But when you add the always-on, anonymous nature of social media, it can quickly morph into a rapid-fire war on your brand.  

For the first in our two-part interview with Weber Shandwick Executive Vice President David Krejci, we discussed the unique nature of a social media crisis that originates online: how to handle them, how they’re different from offline crises and how to prevent them from spiraling out of control. 

How is crisis management for a situation that begins on social media different from management of one that starts offline?

At the outset, there’s a very clear difference: a crisis is likely to move more quickly in social than offline—or at least ignite more quickly. The match is struck. Now, what that match has to light makes all the difference in the world. It may die out just as quickly. But the main point is that starting online means the story is in the hands of thousands, if not millions, of people with Facebook, Twitter and mobile phones, so they can start spreading and sharing the news immediately. If it starts offline, that spread initially takes longer to ignite.

That said, however, almost nothing relevant stays offline, so this becomes moot in a matter of a few short hours if the story has any fuel in its tank. 

With trolls and spammers on social media, how do you tell when the situation calls for full crisis mode?

To some degree, it’s important to assess the level of influence of the people who are involved in the social media conversations. And, influence isn’t just the number of followers on Twitter, but who follows them and where do they themselves post news.

Secondly, there’s the simplest question of all: can this situation impact our business? Our bottom line? Now that could be through reputation or loss of sales or decline of stock price. But if it’s just annoyance and discomfort for a while on your Facebook page, that’s not a crisis.

What can brands do to prevent a small situation, such as an unhappy customer with a large following, from evolving into a crisis?

Respond in a meaningful way. It’s important to act not like a robot or a lawyer or a press release, but like a human being who actually heard the statement or question and cares to offer an answer. That answer might not always be the one desired, but simply showing a genuine concern and interest, quickly, is vital.

We’ve seen a number of social media crises become news stories in their own right. Why do you think these situations receive so much attention? Is there a good way to prevent the amplification of a bad situation?

I’ll take this in two segments. First, these things receive so much attention for a couple reasons. One, it’s a new phenomenon in our culture: companies getting manhandled publically by customers, critics and otherwise. Some of it is outright funny. Some of it is audacious. Most of it is unfair and all of it is new. Secondly, they get attention because humans like taking on The Man, if you’ll permit the expression. We like seeing the little guy win. Innately we seem to distrust large corporations. Now, in many cases, our feelings are unfounded and silly, but there’s a little Homer Simpson in all of us.

As for preventing amplification, it of course depends on the situation. You may not be able to prevent it, but you can perhaps attenuate it. First, responding as quickly as possible has been crisis 101 for decades. And it still is, but you need to respond even more quickly today. You don’t have to apologize necessarily, or even have a ton of facts yet. But acknowledging that there is a concern or situation, crafted carefully, is key. You don’t want a silent majority to witness a vocal minority being ignored because many of those in the silent side hop the fence for that reason alone. I have a completely unproven theory, but it suggests that if people see 10 people complaining, they do nothing; if they see 50 people complaining they watch from the sidelines; if they see 100 people complaining, they pile on. Now, my math is surely off, but you get my point. Things get amplified exponentially.

Other than speed—facts, honesty, concern, humility; more than anything: don’t try and conquer your “foe.” Simply try and find truth in the middle ground. 

Image courtesy of Alan Cleaver.

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