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Live at #SXSWi: Coping with a social media disaster

5 min read

Brands & Campaigns

A packed house at SXSW Interactive 2014 came for tips on how to survive a #smfiasco – coping with the dreaded social media meltdown, with experts Neal Mann,multimedia innovations director at The Wall Street Journal, Wendy Harman, director of management & situational awareness at the American Red Cross, and Chapin Clark, managing director at R/GA, all moderated by Kristen Joy Watts, associate creative director at R/GA. This informative panel gave participants a lot to think about, but four themes seemed to predominate:

1) Social media meltdowns will happen – react well when they do

All panelists agreed that it’s not a question of if; rather, it is when a social media meltdown will occur for your company, so don’t make it worse. Since brands are now in publishing, as Mann observed, some with greater followings than traditional media, you must be listening closely to social media and cannot be tone-deaf.  Chapin urged the audience to react quickly when a fiasco occurs, with a straightforward, truthful and simple response.  All panelist urged a fast response, as meltdowns seem to multiply faster on social than just about any other occurrence besides real tragedy. Moreover, even local and regional social media brands need 24-hour monitoring, as Harman observed, social has 24-hour reach beyond your time zones, and meltdowns have a bad habit of occurring outside of traditional work hours

2) Social media entities must have a personality, and that personality must and can come through for you in a fiasco

Mann urged brands to adopt a personality, such as Taco Bell’s irreverent and friendly tone, not just because that drives followers and viewership, but also because it inspires loyalty that gets you through a meltdown and should be factored into your response.  Mann also said any responses be a social response, not a PR response — PR apologies can seem too surface and without the personality that built the social media entity loyalty. Chapin recalled that Burger King’s personality got it through being hacked, as its response was engaging and not robotic, and the loyal audience more forgiving and loyal.  You should be transparent and responsive while developing a feel for the rhythm of your social medium account — you need to know your community!

3) Best practices blunt a social meltdown

Harman said all companies should develop social disaster policies, spelling out the recommended process for responding to a fiasco, and that all employees be given social media training and know what to do in a social emergency – wise advice from the Red Cross!  Chapin aid a playbook should be developed: What to do when it occurs, what tone should be adopted, should we engage and when — but be flexible because meltdowns often force you to throw the playbook out the window.  Mann said that brands should take a page from traditional media and edit, edit, edit! Not only be careful, of course, but really listen so that you understand the root and scope of the problem you must address.  Be certain to involve senior management in a meltdown response, or at the very least, empower the social team with authority to respond in a timely and appropriate fashion.  Practical advice was also offered — change your social passwords regularly, and always before layoffs; keep separate business and personal social devices if you can; and if not, at least keep separate apps so that the dreaded personal tweet on the company account does not occur.

4) There are social media meltdown happy endings!

Harman offered her abject lesson in meltdowns, an errant personal tweet mistakenly sent on the Red Cross business account about scoring rare craft beer, drinking right, and #gettingslizzered.  Of course it happened after hours, and luckily “best practices” required Harman to be called, and her team swung into action. Their response was measured, but with some humor, apologizing and explaining while assuring tongue in cheek that “we’ve confiscated the keys!”  Not only did the Red Cross receive props for this “disaster” response, but it also opened up new donation channels as the Red Cross partnered with craft beer brewers and drinkers to raise money for true disaster relief.  Other panelists chimed in with stories how fiascoes can also be opportunities to engage and build your community while responding appropriately.

Mann ended with sage counsel on how to avoid meltdowns in the first place: Don’t try to capitalize and make money when tragedy strikes, the single greatest source of fiascoes, but rather engage your following with compassion and assistance to the victims, and this eventually will be the greatest benefit to your brand, humanizing it and developing its personality.

Stephen J. Easley is vice president for government affairs and general counsel of F2 Technologies, LLC, a wireless data and software company, and an entertainment attorney representing clients such as the Buddy Holly Educational Foundation on Corporate and Intellectual Property Issues.  Mr. Easley is attending his 28th SXSW conference.