Social media is a blessing and a curse. These new technologies are hugely useful and potentially profitable – but they can also cause headaches of enormous proportions.
Last week, retailer WH Smiths learned about the wrath of social media. A Twitter user in Leamington Spa tweeted a photograph appearing to show that the retailer had moved its copies of Gay Times and Attitude, apparently in an attempt to keep them out of sight.
The Twittersphere was outraged, with hundreds of users retweeting the picture and accusing the retailer of homophobia.
The storm occurred over the weekend, while WH Smiths’ Twitter account was unmanned. On the Monday, the retailer issued a statement explaining that the action had, in fact, been taken for perfectly reasonable reasons – but by that time the damage had been done.
WH Smiths’ difficulties demonstrate the potential dangers of social media, and the importance of dealing with problems quickly and decisively. So, if you find yourself in the middle of a social media crisis, how should you cope?
1. Take it seriously
All too frequently, businesses fail to understand the importance and impact of social media. It is very easy to dismiss Twitter or Facebook as ‘just another fad’, but in reality these are the tools through which your potential and current customers are communicating. If you want to survive, you need to take them seriously. Your first step, therefore, should be to recognise the importance of social media, and dedicate resources to it accordingly.
2. Don't ignore it
The very worst thing you can do is to carry on as if nothing has happened. You need to tackle social media crises head on, and with a sense of urgency. Remember that information travels incredibly quickly, and that silence on your part will look like an attempt to ‘whitewash’ the problem. Don’t be afraid of tackling the comments. While it might be immediately difficult, it can save you from far worse problems in the longer term.
3. Remember all the channels
Remember that social media is not just Twitter. Twitter might be one of the easiest channels to monitor, but it is certainly not the only place that people might be talking about your brand. Build strategies to help you engage with a number of different platforms. You might, for example, set up Google Alerts to keep you abreast of mentions of your company on blogs.
You should also remember that social media tends to provide a ripple effect. Increasingly, problems begin on Twitter before fanning out onto Facebook, then onto blogs, and finally into the mainstream media. You need to engage on all these fronts.
Indeed, engagement is a key word here. Amongst the businesses that do choose to pay attention to social media, a remarkable number still presume that it is a form of one-way communication. This is not sufficient. You need to recognise that all social media involves two-way dialogue, and you need to be prepared to actually have a conversation. WH Smith chose to simply release a statement in response to the allegations. But you should be ready to engage in a meaningful way with your detractors, in public, about the things that concern them.
5. Act on complaints
As well as listening, you need to demonstrate that you are acting on the complaints that are raised. Consider ways that you can show you are taking the suggestions seriously, and that you are changing your working practices in order to make sure that mistakes don’t happen again.
6. Develop a plan
Finally, it is important to think ahead when it comes to social media. It pays to develop a plan, particularly if you think that you could be susceptible to problems. Think about assigning the task of crisis management to a specific individual or team. Consider things like how you will respond if something needs your attention out of office hours. Make sure that your plans are written down, and that they are reviewed on a regular basis.