The six ‘hot seat’ factors of a #SocialMediaCrisis

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 11.03.54The first time your team experiences a social media crisis can be traumatic. Bombarded with complaints, campaigning and sarcasm from all corners of the social web, teams can find their nerves shredded – crisis preparation a distant memory.

Our brains are hardwired for survival. A perceived social threat – such as an attack by an angry mob on social media – causes stress hormones to go through the roof, and our bodies to go into fight or flight mode in the same way as if we face a physical threat.

Added to that, there are six ‘hot seat factors’ that come into play when a crisis hits, that determine how a team will handle the crisis and themselves:

Speed of response
In a crisis, businesses have to think and act fast. Best practice guidelines say you have 15 minutes to respond on Twitter, and an hour on Facebook. You must have a tried and tested plan in place before the crisis hits – a crisis is no time to work on strategy.

You cannot hide behind a corporate press statement on social media. Social is about being open, honest and human. It’s about responding to individuals, and the major concerns of your followers, not trying to hammer them into submission with corporate jargon. You’re visible as an individual, so keep your responses human.

Back in February, a passenger @mentioned American Airlines in a sarcastic tweet. The account instantly responded with “Thanks for your support!” – making it look as though the account was staffed by a computer algorithm, rather than a person.

Social media means you’re dealing with the public. And the public is unpredictable. Most marketers are more used to dealing with people through a conduit, such as the media, or ad campaigns. But when you’re dealing with people, they’ll bring their own personal agenda into play. You’ll be dealing directly with people who are in difficult situations, may be emotional, or just have an axe to grind. You can’t predict individual behaviour.

Lack of control
When you use social media, you’re handing over your message to be shared among groups of people. You can’t control how and where it’s used. People use social media as their space to express who they are, and what they stand for. If they want to mock, misinterpret or hijack messages published by the brand, they will. It seems to happen more when a brand is too corporate on social media channels, or when it tries to exert control over what people say.

When one woman posted a swear-laden tweet bemoaning the tardy arrival of her Next delivery, the retailer picked up the Tweet on a keyword search and – rather than helping her – asked her to delete the offensive Tweet. Remember, it’s no more possible to control conversations on social media than it is to control conversations in the home.

We are all learning
Social media is a young industry. Businesses are still discovering what works and what doesn’t on social. A stream of blog posts and articles analysing and scrutinising what happened, follows every social media crisis. We all comment on how the brand responded, and whether they did the right thing. We are all learning from each other’s mistakes and triumphs, but this leaves those on the front line vulnerable and worried about getting it wrong.

The Boomerang effect
It’s normal to fear the repercussions of a social media crisis. Senior management may question the value of being on social media, when all it does is cause trouble for the business. Those who advocated a social media presence are suddenly thrust into the spotlight, and may feel that their standing has taken a hit. This fear of being blamed can produce a “rabbit in the headlights” effect while the crisis is unfolding.

Why take the risk? Social media isn’t optional any more. People are going to be talking about your business whether you engage with them or not. Brands that are committed to social media understand why they are using it, use it well, and have often built up a foundation of support from their community.

As British Gas’s recent #AskBG Twitter Q&A has shown, decisions that sound reasonable to a customer service or marketing team won’t necessarily be the one that an experienced social media or community manager would make. That’s one reason why we emphasise the importance of taking social media out of the silo, and integrating it fully with other departments within the business.

You don’t know how you’ll react when you are three hours into a social media crisis until you’ve already experienced one. Going through a simulation promotes associative learning in crisis teams, and the emotional reaction individual team members experience during the session lock that learning in.