Every new technology brings with it the capacity to screw things up in an entirely new way. With social media, it's now become possible to turn what was once a verbal gaffe behind closed doors into a public peccadillo.
Social media mistakes -- a tweet published accidentally, an ungracious response to a Facebook wall post -- are bad enough in a personal context, although they can usually be straightened out. But when such things happen with a corporate Twitter account or some other branded outlet, they can be messier by orders of magnitude.
It's not just that the wrong message gets out to that many more people, or that said message is associated with a multimillion-dollar name, or that it might well be enshrined forever in some digital archive you can't erase. It's that, on top of all those things, a mistake speaks volumes about your (in)ability to manage social media effectively.
It's best to think of such accidents as a "when," not an "if," situation. At some point, someone's going to say the wrong thing on your behalf -- maybe it'll even be you -- and you're going to have to clean it up, fast. How you do that, and how you guard more vigilantly against future mistakes, is a process that should be made part and parcel of the way you handle social media.
First step: Recognition
The first stage is to know when there's a social media issue that needs immediate attention. Consider a few examples of things that can go wrong:
The external PR firm you've hired to tweet on behalf of your company posts an extremely undiplomatic reply to someone with a mild piece of criticism.
A blog post from your CEO about a change in policy attracts a barrage of vituperation from readers.
An overzealous social media manager summarily deletes negative comments from your company's Facebook page, causing a frenzy of ever-nastier comments and widespread blogging about the deletions.
Looking at these examples, you should keep two things in mind. First, sometimes the hard part is recognizing that you have a problem in the first place. The sheer natural volatility of the Internet makes it easy to assume that things will blow over in short order. But it's best to assume that they won't.
Second, the source of the crisis matters. If this is something that came directly from within your organization, courtesy of someone sporting your corporate identity, then you definitely need to spring into action. "In my experience, about 60% of the points of conflict around social media are driven by internally misinformed moves," says Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of Leader Networks, which specializes in online community management for other companies. "From what I've seen, internal missteps tend to be more common and more impactful."
This isn't to say that outside issues (such as someone raising a complaint) aren't worth your attention. In fact, if it looks like an unhappy customer or ex-employee has posted damaging information (whether true or false), it is just as important to handle that quickly and effectively.
Second step: Action (and apology)
So now that you know something needs to be done, what do you do?
First, you have to publicly acknowledge that there's an issue. Don't try to come up with a perfect answer at first; a speedy reply that indicates you've heard and understood is better than a detailed one that's a week late.
Create a space for the reply that is easy to get to and easy to pass around and that has at least some degree of permanence. A blog post is the best default choice, but make sure the post is on a blog that is clearly an official mouthpiece for your organization. Don't create a blog just for the reply.
If the explosion was on Twitter itself, use Twitter to draw attention to your follow-up, but don't use Twitter to issue the apology or clarification. Let's face it -- 140 characters are not enough for something so nuanced, even if it's just your initial reply.
After your first acknowledgement, take time (not too much, though) to craft a more detailed response. It doesn't have to be exponentially longer than your original note, but it should contain three things:
1. Your understanding and acknowledgment of the problem.
2. Affirmation that you have learned from the situation.
3. The steps you're taking to correct it now and prevent it from happening in the future.
Nivea did something interesting with social media as a way to address a gaffe that occurred in conventional media. When its "Uncivilized" print ad campaign that ran in the September 2011 issue of Esquire drew ire for being racially insensitive, Nivea publicly apologized, withdrew the campaign and created a page on its official Facebook site to call attention to the company's response, which read in part, "The advertisement offended many and for this we are deeply sorry. After realizing this, we acted immediately to remove the advertisement from all marketing activities."
The page was retired not long after the campaign itself receded from public notice. That serves as one example of how the longevity of the medium you use for your apology also matters. Social media can be ephemeral -- in other words, if the controversy has completely died down or become seriously outdated and if you don't need the public-facing response to be archived perpetually, you can remove it.
The Nivea response also underlines that how you say something is nearly as important as what you say. Stick to the subject at hand, address it directly and don't get too far afield. Save any speculation or philosophizing about the subject for another venue -- that can smack of trying to change the subject. Most importantly, be transparent. Talk directly about what you did; don't just allude to it.
"Transparency is a derivative of the company's culture," says Brian Solis, principal at Altimeter Group and author of The End of Business as Usual. "As such, processes for admitting a mistake and attempting to fix it, as well as the openness required to instill trust and believability, will differ from company to company. What is consistent regardless of case is that transparency and sincerity always win."
Note also that your tone is only as good as the substance of your message. Netflix found itself in a public relations mess last July after briskly announcing radical changes to its pricing plan. Two months later, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings tried to use a folksy, personal tone to apologize for the brevity of the previous message and break the news about the reorganization of Netflix into two separate companies (one for streaming video and one for DVD rental).
The tone of his post may have been right, but the message it delivered showed the company still hadn't been listening to its own customers, who didn't want to manage two separate product queues across two different outfits. Customers remained upset until the company backed off from the plan in an even terser follow-up post. After that, things calmed down -- but perhaps not enough.
"In many ways, there was an opportunity to stick to message, to acknowledge and leave it be, and not introduce new elements," says DiMauro. "But the idea that he genuinely responded and acknowledged was good." Unfortunately, the Netflix subscriber base continues to suffer.
In cases where you're not specifically at fault -- for example, if your hotel has received a negative Yelp review from a disgruntled visitor -- your best bet is to use, whenever possible, the medium in question to respond directly to the critic. Many services currently allow the verified owner of a business to respond to negative comments, so use that -- it has a higher chance of being discovered by people who need to see it, and it makes you look that much more proactive and engaged. But remember, it's important not to be defensive -- acknowledge the complaint, even if you feel it's unjustified, and explain calmly how you are trying (or have tried) to ameliorate the situation.
Third step: Learn from your mistakes and make future plans
Many social media gaffes illustrate a lack of process -- whether it's a triage process or one for developing a social media strategy in general. If you're currently cleaning up a mess, now is the time to learn from it and develop a solid policy, along with a set of procedures.
One thing that does not work -- or that works at a terrible cost -- is trying to get out of social media entirely. "There has lately been a backlash of regulated organizations taking social media away entirely from their staff," says Sean Corcoran, a senior analyst on the interactive marketing team at Forrester Research. "The impact of that is many millennials are leaving the better companies because they don't have the tools of their trade to share with peers, perform decision-making and so on." Plus, a company that doesn't use social media might soon seem as backwards as one that doesn't use other business tools like CRM or content management systems.
If you have no social media policy in place, develop one. As a starting point, you can look for examples from other companies. Chris Boudreaux's Social Media Governance site has a database of social media policies from a variety of different organizations, some of which could serve as models for your own.
DiMauro makes a point of how a social media policy should be a reflection of each company's individual position and needs. "Social media policies need to reflect the culture and risk tolerance for that company," she says. For example, a plan that has been developed for a medical or financial company will probably be more conservative than one for a software company "since they take regulation into account."
Apart from risk tolerance, she cites corporate culture and technology skills within the company as major influences on policies. She offers as an example a social media response chart developed by the United States Air Force; the chart can also serve as a good model for future response plans.
One way to limit future mistakes is to assign social media to people who have been specifically trained in it, not simply those who seem right for the job because they have a Twitter following or a recognizable public presence. Comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who was a celebrity voice for disability insurer AFLAC, not only appeared in TV spots for the company, but had access to the company's branded Twitter account. When he tweeted a number of crude jokes about the quake in Japan (where AFLAC has a major business presence), Gottfried was let go and the company quickly issued an apology (in this case, as an official press release) and cast for a replacement.
"Just because that comedian worked well as the voice of the duck in a controlled environment doesn't mean giving him free reign to speak on your behalf in social media is a good idea," says Corcoran. "That's why it's so important not to have just anybody, especially people with no PR and/or customer service skills, with access to those things."
If you can spare the effort and personnel, keep an eye on your profile in various social media, especially those where you can provide official responses to negative feedback. Another option is to consider hiring an outside firm to monitor your online reputation. Third-party reputation management firms can provide both early warnings (to let you know when trouble's brewing) and postmortems (to indicate how effective your cleanup was).
A smaller company can work closely with such a firm, as it would with a regular PR agency. A larger company that doesn't yet have an internal social media management division can make use of an outside agency in the interim, "especially with situations that impact market conditions and stock price," DiMauro says. "But there also needs to be an eye towards organizational integration. For example, if a new product launch is catching heat for a defect, product development needs to participate as they will have the most insight into the issue. This helps lend credibility and authenticity to the response."
What matters first with a social media mistake is responding quickly, being transparent and demonstrating sincerity -- all of which should follow a social gaffe committed in person and in public. Social media, though, introduces complications all its own: How you've been using it all along will also affect your ability to clean up after it.
This is why what comes after the mistake is just as important, if not more so: The chance to learn why it happened in the first place and do something about it. You may find better ways to use social media because of this. If you've been spammy or thoughtless, you need to own up to that. If your audience makes good points about your shortcomings (however badly they phrase them), you need to respond to those too.
Your mother probably told you, "You only get one chance to make a first impression." She might not have been thinking about cleaning up after a mistaken tweet or dealing with a rogue post to your Facebook wall, but she's still right. Because, yes, there is such a thing as bad PR.
Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for over 15 years for a variety of publications.