Coping with social media crises

Helen Dunne reviews a lively morning discussion

Nicola Green, head of communications and reputation at Telefónica 

I don't know if any of you were aware of the small crisis that 02 experienced this year? 11 July is etched in my memory; but a year before that I took my team offsite where we thought What is the worst thing that could possibly ever happen to us? And we actually came up with our network going down! We did a crisis simulation and everybody got really involved, and lo and behold a year later we were actually doing it for real. I was actually on holiday, and got a call at lunchtime telling me that one third of our network had gone down. Within minutes social media went absolutely crazy. I won't share some of the wonderful tweets we got but they were pretty blue.
 
We had to respond because the last thing that we could do from a crisis perspective was not say anything. One thing that we had established was a tone of voice. It was about being fun. It was about being human but also about being functional. The fun bit came first. It has been widely reported that our social media team did a great job at humanising some of the horrible tweets coming in, but you can't do that without being helpful at the same time. There is a very fine balance. I said to them Keep it up, the tone is right, but make sure you don't go too far because one quick and glib comment could turn into another crisis. We had 200,000 social media mentions within 24 hours and 200 press calls within about six hours. This is not a normal day!
 
You have to trust in your team, and everyone needs to know what their role is. This is not about glory hunters. It wasn't just the PR and social team dealing with this; everybody had a role to play. It's about keeping communications up. There were about four hours where we didn't actually know why the network was going down.
 
In that time we were probably a little too quiet. We should have put out some kind of content just to keep the communications channels open. We should have said We have 250 people working on this at the moment just to show to people that we cared about what was going on. 
 
Don't stay silent because while you're doing that, everyone else is writing your story and writing your crisis for you. 
 
All my team knew what to do but when we needed messages put on the website, the person who usually did that was on holiday and nobody else knew what to do. We spent a long time working out who had responsibility for one of the key channels that people were going to for information, but it was not there. Make sure you know who owns all of your content channels. A crisis will come to you when you least expect it so do make sure you plan and take your team through a crisis simulation so they know what to do otherwise for the first couple of hours you are actually going round in circles not doing what you need to do. There was so much noise out there [during our crisis which disrupted the flow] of information. We needed to get rid of that so that we could actually communicate and people could hear what we needed to tell them. People saw [our tweets] and our customers actually became our champions. They helped communicate the messages for us by retweeting stuff and getting information out there as quickly as possible.
 
[Our customers have become advocates] who follow us and love us whatever happens, and support us through thick and thin. That's what a true fan is. If you can get customers to be your fans, that's really important. [You do that through] engaging with them. Our tone of voice has been around forever. One of our social media guys responded to somebody, who upset with our service had written a poem about how much he hated us, comparing himself to a jilted boyfriend. Our guy responded in the same manner, and the poem kept going on as they responded back and forth. That kind of engagement makes people think that we care. It shows we listen to them and that we show empathy as well. If you start a new tone of voice just when a crisis happens and try to be funny, that's when you will fall down. It's not something you can turn off and turn on. You must be consistent. Our chief executive [Ronan Dunne] uses social media as almost like going on the shop floor and hearing what customers are saying. He personally reacts to tweets directed to him. He actively engages and is interested in what people have to say. He understands what people are saying about his company. It makes him so knowledgeable about everything that is going on. It is impressive.
 
Never take for granted that you are a likeable company. That is something you have to work at day in, day out. That is why we have a social media team dedicated to getting content out there and engaging with customers because they can like you one minute and dislike you the next. We all know people will say things on Twitter that would never dream of saying to someone's face. We invited a group of people unfriendly to O2 to have a face-to-face conversation with Ronan which defused the situation. They were like pussycats. We also use direct messages to defuse situations.
 
Mark Flanagan, partner, Portland Communications  
 
The most critical thing in the first day or hours is to be out there, otherwise others are defining you. If you can't give a time frame of when a problem is going to be solved, is there other content which you can be putting out there, such as videos, photos of a nerve centre, that kind of process stuff?
 
When you are in crisis mode you have to collapse all your silos and bring everything together and have a war book, a plan and someone in charge. However, I think, we need much closer collaboration between teams all the time, not just when a crisis breaks. In a world of social media, corporates understand that, increasingly, their reputation is shaped by customer experience. That means corporate communications and consumer marketing need to work hand-in-hand, both in-house and at agency level, as a matter of course. A lot of the steps and preparation put in place for a crisis need to become the norm.
 
You have to build up loyalty, trust and goodwill in the good times to be able to employ that in the tougher times.
 
An issue is something that bobs along and maybe engages your stakeholders and consumers who've got a vested interest. A crisis is something that is unexpected and potentially harmful to your reputation, your share price, your health and safety. There is a difference.
 
Nobody owns the knowledge, I know there is best practice but frankly we are learning. We are all evolving our knowledge about how to use social media. If every time a corporate, a government or an institution launches itself on social media it is immediately denounced as a fail that is really damaging.
 
The point about social media is that people are talking about your brand, your issues or you personally. Do you let others define you and your brand? Or do you participate? If you have taken the decision that you have to participate then occasionally that will go wrong; a lot of the time I spend with clients is working out where their pain threshold is. You have to go in with your eyes open prepared for the pain that will come. Equally, be prepared with the right mechanisms to respond to it.
 
I think [successful social media] is about authenticity, but you've also got to have something to say. You must establish what is the persona and the role of a particular social media feed and how it sits within the organisation. What is its purpose? Is it personal? Is it part personal, part corporate?
 
As companies establish credibility [on social media], they can become a little bolder. There are MPs who, on getting a question from a journalist by email or whatever, will tweet their response and deconstruct the story. There are celebrities who now routinely retweet negative or hostile tweets about them.
 
Richard Stokoe, director of communications, London Fire Brigade
 
I don't think there are crises in social media. Donald Rumsfeld said a wonderful phrase in front of the television cameras and got utterly panned for it. He talked about Known knowns, he talked about Known unknowns, he talked about Unknown knowns, but he said the scary things were the Unknown unknowns. The amount of planning that we do means that there are no crises. Today, unknown unknowns are crises. What O2 planned for wasn't a crisis. A phone network going down is the worst thing that could happen; they knew what they were doing. They had those plans in place to do something. It's just using social media as another tool of communications. It's just a bit quicker than we are used to.
 
We plan for riots and terrorist attacks. We have to look for the worst case scenario and plan for that. We have built up our social media so that we now have about 25,000 followers. During a steady state situation, which is what we are in now, when everything's normal and we are just ticking along, its quite boring so sometimes we will try and do some comedy stuff. So if someone is cutting someone out of a penis ring, which happens, we will let you know about it on Twitter. But then if something really goes wrong we are going to turn social media from a two way dialogue into a broadcast tool. At the moment, we're just chatting on social media but if something went really, really wrong, you will be told what to do in no uncertain terms.
 
I will do a quick survey. How many of you use Twitter? Most of the room. Facebook? How many of your chief executive and chairman use Twitter? Wow, that has dropped like a stone. And Facebook? That is even lower. My point is if you are using these things both corporately and personally, your boss is going to wonder what your time is being spent on. You are going to say to them Hey, we have 10,000 'Likes, 20,000 followers and we've done so many Tweets and we now have a Twitter crisis going on. They have no idea what these words mean and what is happening. Your chairman and chief executive are thinking that you spent your time on something that is not a corporate responsibility, not part of the strategy and not part of the vision.
 
Get in to that top room and take them through what Twitter and Facebook are. We as communications people are going Yah, social media is lovely. It's really groovy and fun. But we are not taking our organisations with us. We ave to do that; if if we don't, we really are in trouble.
 
Phil Szomszor, head of digital, Firefly Communications
 
You should make sure you have access to all your channels. Your planning should decide what channels you have and how you use them. Also deciding who has the authority to use them. I have had clients in the past where you had to get tweets approved, and there can be a 48 hour approval time. That is just ridiculous; it is not going to work. I think it's a lot about the preparation side and not just thinking about social media in isolation.
 
I think many people encounter those situations where they do not know if it is a crisis or a real problem. The key skill for communications professionals is judgment, the judgment of knowing when to do something and when to not do anything. Many people deal with things that are a bit awkward. You don't want to necessarily pull the bell that says 'Crisis', when it's just a business-as-usual thing.
 
Understanding when something is really important and needs to be escalated or when it's just business as usual is a key skill. This comes with experience.
 
Social media monitoring helps you have an understanding of what is coming in and what is normal and what is not. If you are doing sentiment monitoring, you will be able to make a judgment as to whether something is going to escalate or not.
A lot of it comes with experience. But when you've got data, you will know how to interpret that data and take the appropriate action.
 
It is sometimes hard for chief executives and senior level executives because they are a bit damned if they do, and damned if they don't. David Cameron got a lot of stick for being on Twitter; people were saying he should be running the country and not tweeting.
 
One of the things that actually make a difference is thinking about the likeability of the brand. You can handle a crisis or a problem so much better when people actually like you. The organisations that struggle to do that have suffered a breakdown in trust. 02 is generally considered a liked brand, so when something goes wrong they are much more able to deal with it. I think there is a general sense of mistrust between consumers and businesses. People often view marketing as an evil thing which is an issue we need to address.
 
When a lot of companies deal with a crisis they actually speak in corporate speak rather than using human language. O2 did well because they used human language. But we should also remember there are a lot of people out there who just want to cause trouble and are just renegades. Certainly there is no problem with taking things offline; it can save a war being played out on Twitter.