Social Media Crisis: Lessons from the Front Lines. Is Your Brand Prepared?

By Social: IRL principal, Ben Smith. Originally published as a personal post on Google+

Some important social media lessons for both businesses and individuals can be taken from a pretty incredible and somewhat scary series of events that took place on Facebook last week.

DislikeOne of my clients suddenly started receiving a string of angry comments on their Facebook Page over a comment an employee (we’ll call her Jane – not her real name) had posted on her own personal Facebook Profile. The company wasn’t referenced at all in the post, the post wasn’t relevant to them in any way, and the views were in no way held to be those of the company. The only connection was that the company had been tagged as Jane’s employer in the About section of her Facebook Profile.

The comment posted by Jane was provocative and directed at members of the armed forces. She later deleted it. Following is a summary of events that unfolded and five important lessons that apply to us both personally and professionally for the brands we represent.

First, although Jane deleted her post, someone had taken a screen shot of it and posted it in a military support group on Facebook. From there it spread virally at a rapid rate. A screen shot showing her full name, Facebook profile photo and the update itself were very quickly being shared by thousands of Facebook users. More evidence that “delete” doesn’t work and that once you post an update you can never effectively take it back or control who sees it beyond your intended audience.

Second, Jane was one of the many Facebook users who have no privacy controls in place. From seeing her name and profile photo, it had been easy find her personal profile. Her Facebook Timeline, photo albums, and personal information were all public. Her profile was quickly covered in thousands of angry, hateful, threatening, obscene comments – about her, her husband, and even about her young baby. From the information she was publicly sharing and the link back to her husband’s Facebook profile from her About information, it would have been very easy to track them down offline. With the nature of many of the comments made, that was a scary prospect. Again, her comments were offensive to many people, but the response was still shocking in both its speed and ferocity. Facebook gives us privacy controls. Use them. The public nature of Jane’s profile and the personal information shared goes beyond the thousands of angry comments to being a personal safety issue for her and her family. We can’t blame Facebook for giving access to our personal information if we fail to take advantage of the privacy tools they provide us with.

Third, the angry comments on the Facebook Page threatened to have a very real impact on their business. The comments came quickly, and in most instances the company was being held as having the same views as the individual or in some way having responsibility for her actions. Again, the comments Jane posted were on her personal profile, never mentioned the company, and were never implied as being on behalf of the company. Absolutely the only connection was her About information tagging the company as her employer. That alone was enough for the company to be held (in many instances) as responsible for her comments, even an assumption that they shared Jane’s views. What most of those people had failed to pay any attention to was that Jane listed the company as an employer with and end date in 2012. She hadn’t even worked for the company for close to a year. So understand this, when your employees affiliate themselves with your company they are absolutely your brand ambassadors – for good or bad – and will absolutely impact perceptions of your brand. Don’t ignore that fact. Do you have social media guidelines or policies in place? Do you educate employees on digital citizenship risks and responsibilities or online privacy? Of course it won’t magically stop incidents like this one from happening, but education, guidance and accountability are a great first step. An HR Director told me not too long ago that due to the risks that came with social media their company had avoided any social media presence – mitigate risk by shutting it out. My reply to her was simply that if they had any employees who were social media users, then their company had a social media presence. In this particular instance, Jane’s comments were from someone who didn’t even work for the company any more. People simply saw the name and established a connection. It was unfortunate that they came to such quick conclusions about the company from nothing more than that connection, also that they apparently failed to notice or just ignored the fact that the same information that said she worked for the company also said she had left their employment nearly a year earlier, but that’s another discussion entirely.

Fourth, I’ve had plenty of people say to me that having a Facebook Page or any other type of social media presence is a liability due to the risk of negative comments or brand attacks. I’m sure some of those people would use this example to reinforce that viewpoint – the brand came under heavy attack with highly negative and damaging comments posted very publicly on their Facebook Page, including calls to boycott their business. Yet the company was entirely innocent in the situation. If there hadn’t been a Facebook Page, then all those negative comments wouldn’t have been posted, right? Wrong! They would – just in places we wouldn’t have known about them so quickly (if at all) or been able to respond to. I say that having a brand-controlled space for those negative comments to be posted to is beneficial. It meant in this case that we could see the comments happening quickly and were able to respond to and be part of the conversation – not have it take place (and escalate) without us. We could ensure those already in the conversation were acknowledged and their concerns directly addressed, and that those coming to the Page to join the conversation were met with a statement from the company helping them make a more informed decision. As a result the issue was actually able to be resolved relatively quickly as far as the company involvement went. A lot of the anger was able to be diffused relatively easily given the overall scope of the situation, and a lot of damage was avoided. Without the ability to engage quickly and effectively at a central focal point, the attacks against the company could quickly have escalated out of control.

Fifth, be ready. What would you do in a similar situation? It can happen to any company, large or small. Speed of response was critical in this instance and with the right steps taken to respond in the right way and in a timely and proactive fashion, the attacks against the company were relatively short-lived. Many users continued to visit the company’s Page to post comments, but after the response plan was initiated a majority of the comments moved from negative to positive sentiment, even while the incident itself continued to escalate out of control. The statement posted by the company was not negative about Jane. It simply clarified that it was former employee and that her views did not represent the company views, and explained what the company views actually were. Did it stop every negative comment? No, but a majority of them. No spin or PR, just a simple statement of fact. Of course, a few people still were angry with the company, a few clearly didn’t read the statement. But a vast majority acknowledged it and either clicked the “Like” button and went on their way, or left a comment of support. What if it was your business? Do you have a plan – how and when you’ll engage, what you’ll say, who can approve statements being issued on behalf of the company and how quickly can that approval be secured? What if it’s after hours, as happened to be the case in this instance?

Meanwhile the individual who posted the original comments lost her current job as a result, is dealing with literally thousands of very unpleasant comments on her personal Facebook Profile, and is being forever indexed by Google alongside the very negative comments she made – despite having deleted them – and will likely suffer long term consequences for her choice of words.

Some important lessons, and a very scary series of events in terms of the speed of escalation and ferocity of response. As I’ve said several times, the comments Jane posted were considered offensive and were going to generate an angry response, but I don’t think anyone would ever have imagined a situation quite like this. So pause and consider the question: is your brand prepared?

A Collection Of Community Management Advice

To commemorate Community Manager Appreciation Day on January 28, 2013, Marketwire and The Community Manager asked community managers about what they do, how they do it, and where they see the future of community management going. They received more than 600 responses and compiled the top thoughts, tips and advice into the eBook embedded below – a great resource full of valuable insights from a dedicated group of professionals, responsible for serving customers and defining brand experiences daily from the frontlines of digital engagement.

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