It’s a testament to the power of Twitter and Facebook in 2016 that, as soon as something big happens in the news, people turn to social media channels to find out what’s happening and discuss it.
And while this topical, real-world context can be exhilarating for users of the platforms, it’s often a period of uncertainty and nervousness for brands.
When tensions and emotions run high during a big event or crisis, even the slightest faux pas can be seized upon and ‘go viral’ for all the wrong reasons.
And if you’re at the centre of the event, it can be even more difficult. Dealing with a stream of queries and replying in a human manner that’s still faithful to your brand can prove a challenge for even the most experienced of staff.
So how do you react correctly to a big news event and remain true to your own organisation’s style?
What’s the big deal?
In the dim-and-distant days of my time in magazines, working on monthlies meant you sometimes had to cross your fingers when it came to your cover star.
On more than one occasion, I can remember someone having died in the intervening period between us sending an issue to press and it hitting the newsstands.
It made us look pretty silly, but it rarely made the news, because people accepted the unforeseeable circumstances.
Fast forward to today and people are far less forgiving. Even though social media runs in real-time – really fast – it’s almost impossible to keep up a lot of the time.
You have to be able to react to events and stories within minutes and hours, not days and weeks.
Why we like to plan
The volatile nature of social media means, if you’re managing your organisation’s channels, planning is vital to achieving any kind of success.
When we know events are coming up, we naturally try to get ahead of the game. We schedule content to appear at timely intervals or key moments, such as 10 minutes before a TV show begins, or during an event to maintain interest.
And 99 times out of 100 this goes without a hitch. But it’s the one time it goes wrong that can wreak havoc and potentially do your brand huge harm.
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Here’s a famous example to show you how easily it can happen.
Back in 2012, Radiohead were on tour, the next stop being Toronto. Unfortunately, there was a tragic accident and the stage collapsed before the show started, killing one person and injuring others.
The local promotor, LiveNation Ontario, was on the case and live-tweeted telling potential concert-goers that the gig had been called off.
Unfortunately, they forgot to cancel the pre-planned tweet asking for people to share their photos of the event.
LiveNation got hammered by lots of people for being insensitive and the tweet stayed up for almost an hour before someone spotted their mistake.
Don’t shoot the messenger
To be fair to LiveNation, there was nothing really wrong with their pre-planned tweet – unfortunately, the person responsible for the scheduling forgot to let the ‘on-call’ team know about it.
In this case, it’s a clear case of poor communication, something that a shared content calendar (as well as all the relevant account login details) can easily rectify.
The fact is that there’s nothing wrong with scheduling content. We’ve all done it and we’ll all continue to do it, because it makes sense.
Part of your Twitter audience checks in at 8.30am on the way to work; another part won’t fire up the network until the mid-afternoon coffee run. Why wouldn’t you set up the same tweet more than once, as a way of catching different segments of your following?
Equally, while we may check in on the weekend to make sure we’re not missing anything major on our feeds, we don’t want to be tied to a certain time to post a specific story, so we schedule it in advance.
What’s important is to make sure you don’t rely on scheduled content too often and remember to see what sort of response it’s had.
Don’t forget it’s a conversation
Where social media goes wrong is when people who run accounts for brands forget that it’s two-way communication and not just a broadcast channel.
Twitter’s oft-forgotten tagline is ‘join the conversation’. And that’s the same whether you’re Josephine Blenkinsop from Great Yarmouth or ACME Products – you only really get anything out of social media if you put the hard yards in.
Despite the rise in bots (and that’s a conversation for another post entirely), the majority of accounts who actually engage on social media are people – even those who run a brand handle or page.
The above example from a much longer conversation between a customer and the Sainsbury’s Twitter account shows the merits of allowing the human face of a brand on social media shine through.
It went viral and gained Sainsbury’s serious kudos for allowing their staff to express themselves freely.
There’s no good putting out content, if you’re not willing to spend the time finding out what people think and then engaging with them.
Choose your tone wisely
This leads me neatly onto the tone that people use on social media. For the most part it’s fairly simple to keep to our established tone, because we tend to put out the same sort of content day-in, day-out.
Where things tend to go awry is at a moment of crisis. That’s the time when – in many organisations – the big cheeses often try to throw their metaphorical weight around and demand that you put out messages that are totally at odds with your finely-honed tone and voice.
Ideally you will have an agreed protocol for what to do and how to respond to a crisis agreed with the Media/PR team.
This will cover how quickly you’ll respond to the events at hand, who you’ll reply to, who you may ignore and the process that gets followed in creating the relevant content.
The example of Mailchimp and their open-source ‘Voice and tone’ guide is a lesson to all.
Obviously they don’t cover every eventuality on there, but you can bet your bottom dollar they’ve got all bases covered in the event of a full-on meltdown.
I’m not suggesting you go to this level of detail, but creating a guide that has been agreed to by your internal stakeholders means you have something to show people when things get potentially heated or stressful.
So, are there any hard-and-fast rules?
If the earlier LiveNation example proved anything, it was the old adage that ‘context’ is just as important as ‘content’.
You might have crafted the perfect piece of content, but if you send it out at a time when everyone else is talking about the death of someone famous (a sadly-frequent occurrence during 2016), it’ll disappear without trace.
But just how do you respond at a time when everything else around you seems to be just a little bit mad?
- Get people to trust the social media manager.
This is the person who lives and dies the brand. They put out countless messages to hundreds of people day-in, day-out. Why would anyone ignore this person’s instincts and experience precisely at a time when they are the person you should rely on
- Don’t shoehorn PR speak into social media.
Whether a news crisis relates specifically to you and your brand, or is far broader, anything that gets put out has to sound natural and totally unscripted. This is the art of writing for social media – don’t mess with it at a time of need.
- Avoid knee-jerk reactions.
There’s a tendency to respond immediately to trolls or deliberate bear-baiting, but that’s exactly what they want. Ignore them. You’ll inevitably find yourself straying from your regular tone.
- Don’t change your winning formula.
If you regularly communicate using video or infographics, then work out how you can create something that reflects what you usually do. Consistency is important, no matter what’s going on in the world.
- Avoid trying to ‘cash in’ on something
The king of ‘foot-in-mouth’ disease is fashion designer Kenneth Cole who famously tried to use the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt to plug his new range. He subsequently denied any malice, but the damage was done.
Cole is not alone. DiGiorno pizza in USA totally misunderstood the hashtag #WhyIStayed in 2014, which was about domestic violence. They made themselves look very, very silly.
So what can we learn?
The rules of social media are really no different to the rules of everyday life: the more hysterical or inconsistent you come across, the less people will trust you and want to engage with you.
- Stay calm: don’t react just because everyone else appears to be. If there’s a genuine frenzy on social media, you don’t need to add to it.
- Be honest: don’t be tempted to bend the truth just to get some publicity or stand out. More often that not it will come back to bite you. And if you’ve done something wrong (or appears to be wrong), fess up.
- Stick to your guns: if your brand has a position, try to avoid the temptation to be knocked off course. Popular opinion isn’t necessarily correct.
- Be quiet: if you’re just feeling overwhelmed by everything else around you, sometimes it pays just to sit it out on the sidelines and wait for the madness to subside – which it will.
So the next time something blows up in front of you – regardless of whether it’s about you and your brand or is something you feel you should be involved in, stop and take a deep breath.