Why your social media strategy should be thought of as an insurance policy

Social media gets a lot of flak because of the undesirable social effects its use triggers in the personal sphere. In the public sphere, however, it can be a valuable tool for crisis communication.  Of course it can also create a crisis, but more of that later.

The immediacy and ubiquity of social media means it can often reach audiences more quickly, and more effectively, than traditional media during a crisis.

A classic example, which has become a template for social media crisis comms, was Dutch airline KLM’s 2010 response to the impact of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud which threw air travel into chaos.

With flights cancelled and an unpredictable time frame for resolution, KLM was inundated with an unmanageable number of telephone and face-to-face queries.

Like many other organisations at the time, KLM’s social media team and crisis strategy was limited, but the airline staff quickly realised its Twitter and Facebook channels would be the best way to ease the logjam of customer enquiries.

Demonstrating great agility, KLM deployed as many resources into social media as possible, seconding volunteers and staff from various other departments to respond online to stranded passengers.

They apologised for the chaos and invited customers to send a request on Twitter, promising to follow up via DM.

Key to the success of this strategy of course was that they not only apologised and offered a simple alternative, but they delivered on their promise.

Since then KLM has continued to develop its reputation for smart social strategy, although not without hiccups. Within minutes of the Netherlands’ 2-1 victory over Mexico in the 2014 World Cup, KLM’s Twitter feed ran a photo of an airport departures sign under the heading “Adios Amigos!”.  Next to the word “Departures” was the image of a man with a moustache wearing a sombrero.

The post immediately went viral, with A-list Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal angrily telling his 2 million-plus followers that he’ll never fly with the carrier again. Amid the widespread protest online, the post was pulled a half-hour later without an explanation.

In contrast to KLM’s style, British Airways last year incurred the wrath of travellers when an IT issue grounded its flights, stranding people at Heathrow. It issued one short apology tweet, offering no alternatives for staff, and after several days of Twitter silence responded to passengers’ furious tweets with comments like “hope you’ve now found your luggage” or “trust you made it to your sister’s wedding”, which just infuriated people even more.

The Roseanne Barr social media incident in May this year illustrated some smart use of Twitter. Not by Barr, the less said about that the better, but by Sanofi, the pharma company behind the Ambien sleeping pill. When Barr blamed her poor judgement on her use of Ambien, Sanofi quickly responded with this tweet:

With a single tweet, Sanofi managed to distance itself from the scandal, present itself positively as made up of real people not just a faceless big pharma and reach more than 12 times the audience it can usually access. By grabbing the social media narrative, Sanofi turned a threat into an opportunity. There was still a bit of #bashtagging from people unhappy with Ambien use, but overall it was a huge win.

Of course it is easier to successfully mitigate a crisis if it is not of your own making, and sometimes you can count on the community to help out. Grassroots social media campaigns during the recent Australian strawberry-tampering incidents demonstrated the power of the people.

The crisis arose when a 21-year-old man in Queensland swallowed a portion of a needle after biting into a strawberry and was reportedly hospitalised for abdominal pain. Since then, needles have been discovered in fruits in all six Australian states, according to police, with more than 100 reports in total.

In response, strawberry producers had to dump their products, major grocery chains like Coles and Aldi pulled them from shelves, and Woolworths stopped selling sewing needles at its stores.

The strawberry industry was reeling, with thousands of workers affected. Product tampering is not uncommon, and there is always significant debate about the value of widely publicising such activities (beyond the duty to protect consumers) because media coverage is said to provide offenders with a thrill and trigger copycat incidents.

Initially, Woolworths was criticised for its tardiness in alerting the public and their pedestrian legal response in withdrawing the product from sale. Although some brands were not available, Woolworths said it had continued to stock unaffected brands throughout the crisis and had run promotional in-store campaigns to reassure customers.

Others were more creative and the #SmashAStrawb viral grassroots social media campaign urged people to get behind the embattled strawberry growers.

Savvy politicians jumped on board, eating strawberries at media opportunities and sharing recipes on social. A bipartisan “Cut ‘em up. Don’t cut ‘em out” campaign featured on Twitter and Facebook.

Social media was used to encourage people to buy direct from the growers and hordes of people flocked to strawberry farms to either buy at the gate or pick their own.

The Courier-Mail ran these images of the public support for strawberry growers:

While the long-term damage of the tampering remains to be seen, the timely and effective mobilisation of consumers via social media was an encouraging response to the crisis.

Crises occur for a variety of reasons, controllable and uncontrollable, and can spiral out of control incredibly quickly. We all know we should have a crisis management plan, and that it must include a crisis communications plan, including guidelines on how to respond both publicly and internally, but we often fail to do so.

To misquote Benjamin Franklin: “by failing to plan, you are planning to fail”. So, what’s needed for a successful social media crisis communications plan?

1. Play the long game and invest in social media now, not when the crisis hits. Effective social media crisis management is not just about how to respond in the short-term, but finding ways to recover reputation after the incident has subsided.

2. Invest in social. Creating quality content is like saving for a rainy day. If you build your Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) you will have a buffer against unexpected withdrawals in your social-licence-to-operate account. SEO leaves a permanent record of your crisis and you need to make sure you consistently produce and disseminate quality content to outrank and outflank any negative coverage of the crisis. Search engines rate content by a range of indicators including popularity, use of organic links, accessibility and the credibility of your URL.

3. Establish guidelines for handling social media comms, including approval processes, during a crisis and practise switching from day-to-day into crisis mode, when volumes of incoming material and media interest will be much greater. This should include preparing holding statements, keeping up-to-date lists of staff and volunteers who can be called on, and making sure that everyone has the training they need to jump straight onboard.

4. Be mindful of the public record. Respond to threats, claims and questions publicly whenever possible. You need to have your side of the story out there.

5. Be timely. Track your social media and get your message out early and keep communicating frequently. Don’t wait to see if traditional media picks it up. By then, you’ve lost control of the narrative.

Managing a successful social media strategy can be time-consuming, however Pesel & Carr can help you formulate and implement an appropriate plan so you won’t be caught on the back foot.