Online Crisis Communication & The Impact of Social Media

With the continued growth of online mediums, from social media to blogs to forums and search engines, any crisis communications plan that doesn’t address the connected conversations and information online is at a disadvantage.  The degree to which you engage in those channels varies from brand to brand, industry to industry and depends on how interested your customers are in getting information there.  But, at a minimum, online channels should be accounted for.  And, for most brands, specific tactics should be included that address the proliferation of these online mediums among media and consumers.

The following outlines an approach to addressing the needs of a modern organization in managing the interaction that is enabled through and perpetuated by new communications channels and technologies.

Crisis Communication Readiness & Social Media

As a brand, you are a target online.  You can own it, or it will own you.  Gone are the days when a message traveled in a single direction.  The change that social mediums have brought is the ability of the channel to talk back.  For those with a deliberate approach to social media, this is an advantage.  As in traditional communications, a company’s message can’t be heard and important information can’t be shared without a channel to put the message through.  The same rule applies in social mediums.  The opportunity that social media brings is an unfiltered, immediate and direct channel to the public.  A deliberate, dedicated and integrated approach to social media increases a brand’s ability to communicate, manage and mitigate the impact of a crisis on a brand.

A viable brand presence in times of crisis includes:

  • A dedicated presence in social and online media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, company blog)
  • A pre-crisis presence that includes regular content posts and discussions with those who follow, post and engage there
  • An understanding of the most influential channels and individuals relevant to the brand and a way to instantly interact with them about the business of the brand (requiring relationships and understanding before a crisis hits)
  • A listening and monitoring program used to understand the volume, tone and level of engagement in social channels before, during and after a crisis
  • A fully staffed presence that includes a cross section of the organization to speed the information flow
  • An integration plan to address the speed at which information travels online – outlining the roles and responsibilities of each area of the business responsible for addressing a crisis
  • An executive-level understanding of the impact of social channels on the brand and a commitment to integrating social and online media into the brand’s response during a crisis

 

Taking it to the Next Level

For companies with an existing presence in social media, here are a few things to consider in crisis planning:

  • Consistency: The existence of a social presence also creates the expectation that the company will use social channels during a crisis.  The company has an opportunity and obligationto use these channels for the entire discussion about the brand, including during a crisis.
  • Staffing: During times of crisis, the brand should have resources to staff the discussion in these channels, providing regular updates and responses based on approved messaging. Delay in getting a message in the channel should be a result of anything other than the ability to get the message out.
  • Integration: Social media channels should enhance and support dissemination of information that is also happening through traditional channels.
  • Coordination: Close coordination between all channels will make engagement in social media an effective strategy to manage crisis situations. Other areas of the business should understand and be prepared to support the continuous, real-time needs of communicating in social media.

As consumers grow to expect more from the brands they do business with, a deliberate approach to managing the entire brand conversation online is fundamental to a healthy social presence.

Social Media: It’s Not Just for Marketing, PR or Advertising Anymore

There’s no doubt that social media is one of the more confounding things for marketers in recent memory.  Even the Internet itself wasn’t as disruptive for marketers as the open, connected consumer-controlled conversations of the social Web.  It’s a challenge that most companies will consider and reconsider for the foreseeable future.

One area that is challenging a company’s effectiveness in social media is answering the question, “who owns social media?”  It’s understandable that ownership is causing so much trouble.  On the surface, social media just is another channel.  Traditionally, channels of information flow in one direction – from the brand to people.  How, when and why a message gets out has an established set of rules. And, creating a message and paying for its dissemination is applied to someone’s budget.  If you own the budget, you own the decision about what happens with that budget, the message, the channel and so on along long-established corporate assumptions and expectations.

It’s comfortable to put social media into this structure, and it’s easier to assign it to a specific department to “figure out” or to “handle.”  But, some of those companies that have put social media into a silo are beginning to reconsider that approach.

The truth is, when determining who “owns” social media, you have to ask who “owns” the customer, or the public, or the stakeholder – because social media isn’t a mass medium.  It involves interacting with individuals in aggregate. And, chances are, this type of interaction involves more than just marketing, PR, advertising, IT or yes, even legal.

When you take another step back, you can also view ownership through the lens of the conversation.  Who owns the exchange of an idea, the image, or the feedback loop?  These are all part of the social conversation.  So, in the end, asking who owns the conversation gets more to the point than asking who owns the channel.

Unlike traditional channels, these channels are intended to be two-way mediums.  Programs that aren’t set up to expect, encourage, entice and promote that two-way interaction treat social media like any other traditional channel.  Unlike television, a print ad or even a press release, the content in these channels are intended to be consumed, shared, deconstructed, mashed up and responded to.

These are the inherent characteristics of social mediums that make them unlike other channels.  And, it’s why the outcome of using social media is unlike the outcome of using the traditional channels marketers have used for years.

The dynamic nature of the medium calls for all hands on deck to be able to cultivate and manage the one-to-one, two-way conversation that happens directly with individuals in full view of everyone. The people who just saw the billboard you bought can now talk back – not through the billboard, but through social media, and you’ve missed an opportunity if you’re not able to respond. Your new customer who just spent two hours on the phone with your call center but still can’t install their software is Tweeting at you, and your lack of a response is apparent to all of the others watching the social discourse.  Or, you’re experiencing an outage across the western portion of your service area and your customers are lining up on Facebook demanding updates.

These are all real issues.  And, each of them requires coordination across different parts of the business.  The same parts of the business that may have had trouble working together in the timeframes of traditional mediums driven by newspaper deadlines and insertion dates.  Now, with the real real-time pressures of social channels, it’s more important than ever for everyone to understand their role and know that their job now includes helping the company address and meet the expectations of a connected world with connected customers and connected issues.

(From “Unfollowed: Pentagon Deletes Social Media Office” | Danger Room | Wired.com)

There is a path to integration.  It’s not straight, it’s not easy, and it’s different for every brand.  But, it will become increasingly important to brands who want to engage in these channels beyond what they’ve been able to so far.  If you’re still running your social media presence in silos, it’s likely getting harder to:

1) See and show increasing degrees of measurable results

2) Grow your social communities – breadth, depth and reach

3) Manage the entire conversation about the brand – the good, the bad and the unimaginable

4) Create enough new, compelling content to keep the community engaged and interested enough to share with their friends

I’m going to tackle each of these points in another series of posts that will highlight what an increasing number of companies will experience this year, if they haven’t already – that social media isn’t the realm of one particular group or business area, but takes the entire organization to carry on a fruitful and sustainable conversation.

PART 3 – Mine! Mine! Mine! – Who “Owns” Social Media?

Who “Owns” social media? This is a question that keeps people up at night, because the question has a direct impact on who “owns” the conversation, the experience and (in the end) the budget. Ask instead, “Who owns the customer?” and the issue begins to expand and involve more functions along the customer continuum.  This same continuum exists in social media.  While customer service departments may be responsible for the direct interaction with the customer, can they also make a repair, schedule a product upgrade or install a new phone line?  The speed at which information travels in social media puts additional pressure on internal processes.  How quickly can the company respond, and in effect, “turn a complaint around?” How many steps are there along the resolution channel within the company? Can steps be removed?

The answer to each of these issues likely cannot be resolved by a single group; rather it is the responsibility of the entire company to ensure the customer’s experience is a good one.   In an attempt to break out who does what, below is a look at some of the general responsibilities for a social CRM program with a view of both the reactive and proactive functions in the social CRM continuum.

*These roles and responsibilities are generalities used to draw some distinction between functions. Lines can, and do, blur.

Lean-back & Lean-forward

Business Group Reactive Activity Proactive Activity
Customer Care  

(community-facing)

Monitoring and addressing messages sent directly to the brand through social media Proactively searching and addressing messages about the brand in social media; identifying systemic issues
PR/Community Manager  

(community-facing)

Monitoring and addressing direct messages from influencers Delivering information specific to broad company initiatives, messages specific to issues, and official company views; identifying systemic issues
Marketing  

Responding to the needs of customer care and the community manager team’s request for content Proactively engaging community managers to bring better, more frequent content to the channel; assessing systemic issues and operationalizing change
Advertising Bringing compelling paid opportunities in support and defense of the brand, including paid search, sponsored Tweets/trends, etc. Coordinating with the community managers & marketing to dial in advertising and search efforts to lead to the brand’s social channels when appropriate
IT Giving teams access to the tools necessary to monitor and engage in social media Becoming part of the process by advising on best-in-class tools for monitoring, tracking and engagement
Leadership Assessing the bottom-line imperative of social CRM; empowering teams to explore community needs Supporting the overall social CRM effort; approving operational changes; ensuring cross-business integration and cooperation

 

PART 2: SocialCRM Foundations – An Operational View

In the previous post, I mentioned that, of the changes impacting brands on the Web, few will have greater impact than the ability for customers to share their opinions online about the companies they do business with — from discussion forums to Twitter to Facebook, and the new breadth of conversations opening up through searchable Facebook discussions. And that’s not to mention the emergence of geo-location check-ins through cell phones. With all of these tools, the capacity for customers to talk about your brand is significant.  And, if you need more fuel for the hype of socialCRM (sCRM), just do a search on the term or look here.  The good news is that those channels consumers choose to talk to companies through are the same ones companies can use to talk back.

Brand, Reputation, Marketing & Influence – The Basics

 

Identifying and engaging with customers in social media must be the foundation of any long-term strategy.  Thepoint of social media is enabling that closer connection with individuals.  And, an important extension of that connection is addressing the totality of the discussion.

If a company is unable to address customers’ needs online, then its activities there run the risk of being undermined. Companies with a social media program in place already, however, are likely seeing  the challenge presented by customers raising issues.

Addressing that challenge starts with a strategy. As the space heats up, and as technologies begin to flood the market, it’s important to understand the role of technology and the role of strategy.  Because of the broad implications delivering customer service in social channels has on a company, these programs must be rooted in strategy.  This is true not only because social software is still early in development, but also because of how responding in near real-time to these public exchanges between the customer and the brand fundamentally changes the approach and business processes necessary to function effectively in social media.

Planting the Seed

Interacting with customers through social channels requires a few foundational pieces:

Philosophical Foundations

  • An inherent interest in improving relationships with customers
  • An understanding of social context and how discussions evolve in social channels
  • The willingness to take criticism seriously and act on it
  • A business-wide, agreed-upon social framework (or at least someone willing to stick their neck out far enough to identify and document the need and develop a plan to address the social conversation)

Operational Foundations

  • An official presence on the social Web (Twitter for a start, but also Facebook, and others as the social discussion continues to expand to other platforms)
  • Cross-team collaboration and coordination
  • Flexibility of internal processes to help facilitate and not impede issue resolution
  • Executive buy-in and support (this can grow over time)

Taking the First Step
The first step is rarely the easiest. Confronting the unknown can be daunting if you don’t have perspective on what the universe of possibilities and options is.  Like many things in this space, for socialCRM, it’s better to take things slow, gain an understanding of what people are saying about your company, and really dive into the cause and effect relationship between a customer’s experience and their expression of that experience. This first step is more commonly known as, “Listening,” — and while it does involve finding what people are saying about the brand online, it also involves more than just passively gathering intelligence. Companies must develop the ability to both listen and take action based on the ongoing conversations. Since listening alone can become an exercise of increased paranoia that doesn’t lead anywhere, successful companies build listening into an overall process that eventually leads to action and resolution.

Activating a Social Engagement Program

1)      Quantify the level of discussion about your brand online by individuals – a Twitter search can give you a baseline of the discussion, but search other platforms as well to get a broader view

2)      Measure the overall sentiment about your brand or product online (there are a number of tools for this)

3)      Identify the top three to five issues people have with your brand each day; keep track of the specific words that are used to express those issues – they’ll come in handy in your SEM work

4)      Take a handful of the issues, making up a representative sample by issue type, from the entire group of issues

5)      Analyze each of the issues and the profile of the person who raised the issue initially

6)      Map an engagement and resolution plan for each issue – don’t engage yet, but map the ideal or probable resolution path

7)      Once you’ve accounted for a clear resolution path within the company to quickly get the issue addressed and resolved, then you can begin to activate a proactive program for addressing these issues on a broader scale

This exercise imparts initial and valuable insight into the realities of the social media sphere – both within the company, regarding its ability to resolve an issue through traditional channels, and outside the company, as it gauges the overall volume and tone of the discussions. With this understanding, companies can begin to map a path forward for the social CRM program.

In the next post, I’ll map the structure of a social media program that’s built to address customer issues in real-time, some of the challenges and how the social customer is the responsibility of the entire organization and should be the basis of any sustainable program.

(Originally posted Sept 2010 on FleishmanDNA blog.)

SocialCRM: Redefining Influence & Building Trust

Few things can undermine a brand’s reputation faster over the next few years than the rolling wave of customer discontent expressed in social channels.  We’re seeing it with routine product launches as well as major corporate missteps — but just as damaging are the unattended, ‘percolating’ individual complaints about a brand, some of which are related, and some of which are only similar complaints about separate incidents.  Regardless of the context, one thing is clear – over time they will erode consumer trust in the brands they do business with.

Influential Shifts – Redefining “Friend”

Reports of peer recommendations and online reviews influencing consumer purchases grow each year.  Something that’s also expanding is the definition of a “friend.”  What used to be considered someone you grew up with, know personally or have at least met in person is now shifting to someone whose updates you get regularly letting you know where they are, what they’re doing or what they’re thinking.  While the definition and channel for connecting has shifted, the value we put in these relationships hasn’t.  Friends in the virtual sense have just as much, and sometimes more, influence as our friends in the traditional sense.  And, the channels of communication (social media enabled by cell phones and free wifi connections) and speed at which those conversations happen has increased exponentially.  Brands that hold on to traditional definitions of friends and influences will continue to find themselves at a disadvantage.  Truly listening to and addressing these customer conversations in social media must become a greater focus of successful companies’ marketing efforts.  Through this three-part series, I’ll outline some of the basic tenants of what’s being called social CRM and our approach to addressing the increased volume we’re seeing about brands in social media.

Making the Case for Social CRM

The challenge of social media is the high degree of visibility and the volume of consumer opinions.  The fleeting advantage brands have today is that many of these conversations aren’t organized, and their searchability is limited to a few datasets – namely Twitter and blogs.  But, even in this limited set, these conversations are having an impact.  The growing disadvantage is that many more of these conversations are becoming searchable, and the growing use of review sites like Yelp and location-based applications will continue to elevate many of these conversations, taking them farther into the social web, and directly into the collective consumer consciousness and perception about brands.

A common argument I hear is that it’s human nature to complain and that most people will see these complaints as one-sided rants that most people will see through.  The truth is that many customers who are drawn in to the negative comment strings are also finding real, relevant information to inform their opinions and purchasing decisions.  For social media-aware brands, these discussions provide an opportunity to become part of the conversation, taking complaints head-on, working to address them and building a closer connection with consumers.   And, if done right, these conversations are also a valuable source of feedback and insight to make tangible operational changes and shifts.

Addressing the Good and the Bad

To take full advantage of this open dialogue, a company must first be willing to address both the negative and the positive.  They must be able to resolve warranty complaints from one set of customers before trying to sell a new washing machine to another.

Can the proactive happen before the reactive?  Yes, and some brands have the right set of assets to start the conversation at the point of sale.  But, for most brands, whether they have a strong base of brand advocates or are struggling to regain a positive brand image, their best approach is to understand the conversation, recognize what customers want from them and begin a plan to address the entirety of the conversation happening about them in social media. What brands will find is that in order to grow their brand in social media and gain the advantages those channels offer, having their house in order and being able to assist customers with legitimate issues is necessary before they can actively engage in promotion or commerce.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll outline our approach to addressing the increased volume we’re seeing about brands in social media.

(Originally posted Aug 2010 on FleishmanDNA blog)