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Damage Control in the Digital World

Damage Control in the Digital World

Magnified by the lens of digital media, bad press can quickly become a public relations disaster.

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In a recent blog I wrote about branding in the digital world, and how traditional brand research is becoming less relevant given the speed with which information spreads and the uncontrolled nature of social platforms. This also relates to the way brands and companies need to manage what we used to call “bad press” in a gentler age. Magnified by the lens of digital media, that bad press can quickly become a public relations disaster.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice”
The philosopher Heraclitus recognized that truth 2,500 years ago. Time alters everything; the person you were when you began reading this is different from the person you will be when you finish, regardless of how miniscule the changes might be. Taking the metaphor a bit further, yesterday’s brand research was focused on a lazy, slow-moving stream. Today brands exist in the equivalent of Class 5 whitewater rapids, with turbulence being generated within social media platforms and networks.

Your brand is controlled by your customers. For better or worse, the public perception of a brand is determined in a large part by the digital conversation that evolves on a daily basis. Last year’s Facebook post of a (former) Taco Bell employee licking a stack of shells — or Samsung’s contrived “selfie” with David Ortiz and President Obama — illustrate how quickly brand perceptions can be affected through social media.

These days, it doesn’t matter much where the fecal material gets thrown from; once it hits the digital media fan, downrange is not the place you want to be.

Proactive vs. Reactive
My point is not that social media generates the need for more PR damage control strategies — quite the opposite, actually. Traditional damage control is responsive in nature, with a short-term focus on emergency situations. It’s no accident that it’s traditionally been referred to as “putting out a fire.” Formal statements and public gestures won’t cut it in the social media world, where the accent should be more on prevention and preparation than on response. Credibility is built up over time, along with the relationships that smart brands seek to foster. Once established, those relationships provide “credibility capital” that can go a long way toward muting the effects of some bad postings or social media attacks.

Keep it real and keep it honest
You can’t hide from digital media; you need to engage on the social platforms as a company, and empower your employees to do the same. Unless you work for a major corporation that can afford to have a dedicated social media staff to monitor and engage on the company’s behalf, it needs to become a part-time responsibility for everyone. Given opportunity and encouragement, employees can become your most effective, and credible, brand ambassadors. Take the time to educate your people on what is proper messaging and what is not. If you aren’t sure yourself, bring in a consultant.

The key lesson should be that honesty is the best policy. Being caught in a lie can destroy credibility in a heartbeat. If your company has made a mistake, don’t try to avoid it or “spin” it: accept it, apologize, and only go into why it happened if you think it will be helpful. And doesn’t sound defensive.

When the unthinkable becomes the unavoidable
Face it, bad things happen, and in the digital environment, they happen fast. If yours is a small to midsize company and doesn’t have a digital swat team to handle the crisis, here are a few things you can do to minimize your exposure.

  1. Get everyone on the same page. Stories are like starting quarterbacks: if you have more than one, you don’t have any. When there’s a problem, let everyone know what the message should be. You will have many voices and want to be sure they stay consistent across all media.
  2. Monitor the level of interest. Keep an eye on the relevant social platforms to be sure you aren’t overestimating the situation. Assess whether this is going to be a short-lived issue, or one that has the potential to snowball.
  3. Leverage your social media presence. Once you decide the problem isn’t going to fade quickly, post, tweet, blog and energetically. If you can, don’t wait for the bad news to come to you: head it off with clear, honest and helpful information. The last thing you want is for people to feel that you waited to be flushed out from cover.
  4. Evaluate and re-evaluate the situation. As I said earlier, things change quickly in our digital world. You and your people will need to watch the needle of public opinion to see if it’s tracking in your favor or not, and adapt your messaging to the rapidly changing flow of information.

Depending on the severity of the crisis, this may mean managing the situation on a 24-hour-a-day basis for a day or two, so put together a team of social-media-savvy individuals and break up the responsibilities. It it’s a brief disruption, but it can pay off with big dividends when done well.

Some real-world examples
The virtues of quickly and honestly addressing a potentially harmful situation on social media were provided recently in the article How to Turn Negative Social Media into a Positive, written by Carla Ciccotelli and posted on the marketingprofs.com website. One involved this inadvertent tweet on the American Red Cross Twitter account: “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer…. when we drink we do it right #gettingslizzered.” As soon as they became aware of it, the ARC pulled the tweet. Instead of ignoring it, crossing their collective fingers, and hoping that it hadn’t spread via retweeting, they issued their own response: “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.” They were honest, with a touch of humor regarding drinking and driving. For their part, the folks from the Dogfish Head brewery asked its followers to make a donation to the ARC using the hashtag #gettingslizzerd.

In another instance, Bodyform, a British manufacture of menstrual protective products responded to a Facebook posting in which a man criticizes the unrealistic depiction of a woman’s monthly period in the company’s advertising. The response was a tongue-in-cheek video apology by company’s CEO, Caroline Williams. It ends with a very ladylike breaking of wind, for which Williams also apologizes and then asks, “You did know that we do that, too… didn’t you?”

There are other examples in the article, which I highly recommend, including the full Bodyform video. The point in each case is that the company defuses a situation by responding the way you might with a friend–directly, honestly, and with humor when appropriate.  That’s what relationships are all about, and why companies need to establish them in the first place.

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