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How To Fly Your Business Through A Social Media Storm

United Airlines, Pepsi, failure to mark a public holiday the 'right' way...
Dr David Dao, who declined to give up his seat on a United Airlines flight, recently sued the carrier.
Dr David Dao, who declined to give up his seat on a United Airlines flight, recently sued the carrier.

United Airlines, Pepsi, failure to mark a public holiday the 'right' way... Outrage culture is in its prime, and if you're a business trying to navigate online engagement, it can feel paralysing. But it doesn't have to.

Have a plan and the power to deploy it

If you don't have a crisis management plan for social media, stop and create one. Even if your business is the least controversy prone on the planet, you're still a target and you need clarity on the what, who, where and how if social media bites back. This goes for individuals, too. If you're a public figure you need a game plan for what you'll do if you're suddenly a bullseye. This plan is your primary buttress for an oncoming storm.

It needs to include clear direction on who's involved, at what levels, and any approvals or input needed. To spell out acceptable response times (no more than a few hours), and offer guidance and support for those doing the responding. It should incorporate social listening -- beyond your own channels and communities. It should be legally watertight. And if you're running a campaign, that needs its own plan, encompassing Q&As and scenario mapping.

Most of all, you need executive buy-in. The best laid plans mean nothing if no one's allowed to act on them. Your people need the power to engage and change minds.

Pop your bubble before you begin

Poor choices that lead to social media backlash, like Pepsi's now notorious Kendall Jenner ad, can often be avoided before they blow up via good-ol' real-world feedback. If you're creating content (or products, or anything else) for a wide audience, you better be validating your assumptions beyond your echo chamber.

Assemble a group of trustworthy people (on or offline) who don't work for you to feed back. Ask a diverse group -- not just those you're targeting. Unconscious bias is inherent to us all. Make sure someone who doesn't see the world the same way hasn't raised any red flags. If you're part of the designated social 'clean-up crew', get in front of those creating the campaign before it's in the wild and make sure they've applied your insights about their audiences.

Don't play hide and seek

The Internet is forever, and everything out there associated with your business is discoverable and shareable. If you're in hot water because of something you said or did, don't ever pretend it didn't happen. Own your mistakes and your history. You've been given a chance to address and reframe whatever that thing was, so seize it.

United Airlines took days to meaningfully respond to its latest reputational crisis (dragging a paying customer off a flight). Meanwhile the vivid, live-streamed images of the incident shot around the world and into everyone's feeds. By the time the airline came forward, lines were drawn and the war was well underway.

If you're not immediately responsive, the issue might jump to traditional media and magnify your woes. Don't hide, and don't make people hunt to find your response in a timely manner.

All voices aren't equal

Shock, horror, the heresy. Social networks have empowered many who didn't have a voice to raise theirs. This is awesome. But it also means everyone has a feel-pinion, including about things outside their experience or understanding.

Get things in perspective and honestly assess the weight of the voices rising against you. Is it a drive-by troll squadron, or a more nuanced wave of genuine backlash? How you respond will differ based on the characteristics of the voices speaking up.

If you're an environmentally focused publisher or brand dealing with an anti-science outrage tide, or a community of women facing a misogynistic keyboard assault, you might block, ban, report and defend, rather than welcoming debate with considered responses.

If you're in a position to correct misinformation, do so. But do it in a way that doesn't stoop to the tactics of haters, or stray from the ground rules of the platforms the drama is unfolding upon.

Invest in community defence

Community advocacy remains one of your best defences against a storm of hate. You've heard that you should build your community before you need them -- this is one of those times you need them.

If you've done the work to nurture relationships, build trust and transparency, keep the conversation productive, and reward desired behaviour, your community members are much more likely to defend you and your efforts. That doesn't mean you can get away with anything, but it does increase the chance of civil debate and multiplies champions in your corner willing to give the benefit of the doubt.

If you've built an owned community outside of social networks like Facebook (such as your own forums), you're in an even stronger position to mobilise your promotors and explain your position.

Yes, it's a teachable moment

The most important (and most overlooked) aspect of joining the social outrage club is what you do next. A long string of brands who've survived a baptism of social fire return to business as usual, including the dubious products, practices or behaviour that sparked the heat to begin with.

Be honest internally and learn from your mistakes. If your culture isn't the type to permit self-reflection, you've got a bigger problem, and you'll likely face more trouble on social media until you sort that out.

It's easy to dismiss online firestorms as noisy fury, signifying nothing. To be fair, many are. People need to relearn how to pick their battles and get a life. But occasionally an outpouring has serious weight, and can make the kind of difference your business can't afford.

One of the sadder truths about outrage culture is that another controversy inevitably erupts to distract and dominate. This bears remembering if you're in the eye of the storm. If you survive your uncomfortable 15 minutes -- and take action based on what you learned -- you'll be fine.

Professional community and social media management is worth its weight in gold when things hit the fan. Done well, it tends to nip things in the bud before they explode. In 2017, if you're not taking always-on social media seriously as both a vulnerability and an opportunity... get ready to duck and cover.


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