Answer: they’ve all got tread marks on their backs from social media protests.
The last six months have provided an amazing string of case studies on how protests movements are being changed forever by the speed and reach of social media.
Forget about organizing workers to gather signatures on a petition, or emails calling for a boycott of some company’s product. Those are your grandfather’s protest tools. Today’s protests take shape in a matter of days, and the battles can pivot in a matter of minutes. Gone are colorful posters with catch slogans. Today the canvases are short emotional messages with hash tags or links.
So every company that deals with the general public, makes large donations to causes, or has a line of business that can be considered even remotely politically influenced needs to rethink its communications plan. If you don’t have a disaster plan already on the shelf then this is your chance to prepare for being hit by a runaway train.
Let’s use the events surrounding Komen for our example. If you’ve been living under a rock you can find a good summary of the controversy here (under the heading Relationship With Planned Parenthood). If we pick apart the past seven days we come away with six critical lessons.
1) No decision can be viewed in isolation. We live in a politically charged world with the extremes on both sides of the spectrum sitting on hair triggers ready to pounce on anything that will advance their cause. If you think your company, your products or your leadership is apolitical then you haven’t looked closely enough.
Find someone, either inside your company or from a communications firm, who can see a grey cloud where you see a silver lining. Listen carefully to their scenarios for disaster. If you’re lucky, time will prove these people wrong. But if they are right, you’d rather think through the threat now instead of when Brian Williams is talking about your company on the evening news. Which brings us to the next lesson.
2) Plan now for the worst. There will be no time to think later. Those people you see boarding up their windows ahead of a hurricane, that’s not you. There’s no forecast tool that will tell you that a storm will be on your door step in three days. If you have a good social media monitoring program you might get a couple hours notice. But no more than that.
You have to know what you’ll do when all hell is breaking loose and there are protest pages popping up all over Facebook. Who will post online? Who is talking to the media? Who is authorized to post online? Are your employees clear on this, or do you have to worry about some well-intentioned staff member making things worse by attacking your critics?
3) React quickly, but deliberately. Now is not the time to disappear. This isn’t going away if you ignore it. Remember the key to successfully participating in social media is that you are part of the conversation, and not just when it’s good news.
Tell people you’re sorry they’re angry. You don’t have to respond to every comment, but under no circumstances do you start deleting the comments you don’t like. The only things that get deleted are comments with profanity or libelous language. And even then you explain why you hit the delete button.
4) Get simple and be consistent. This is probably the most important lesson of all.
If you can’t summarize your position in 140 characters then go back and try again. The reality of this new environment is that speed=emotion. Logic gets left on the curb when messages are passed along in tweets and status updates. The only reason you’re now in this crisis is because someone framed the issues in concise argument that appeals to the heart, not the mind.
Press releases and videos posted on YouTube are useful only if they provide simple, easy to digest context for your message. Part of the problem for the Komen foundation was that once it did respond, it tried to ignore the politics of the situation and attempted to defuse the situation by advancing several arguments defending its actions. Instead their actions amplified the rage by allowing critics to accuse the foundation of constantly shifting their argument, like a child caught in a lie.
5) Never counter attack. This should go without saying. But when you’re watching your company, your good intentions, your life’s ambition being savaged by thousands of strangers it’s tempting to rally your supporters for a counter-assault. Stop. Open the windows and find a friend who will talk you off the ledge.
The absolutely last thing you brand needs is to become the rope in a tug of war between extremists. That will only prolong your suffering and assure destruction of everything you’ve worked hard to achieve.
Make sure every communication is devoid of emotionally charged words that characterize your attackers in a negative light. After all, when this is over you want them to come back and once again be your happy customers.
6) Remember your friends. This is the really frightening part of the new protest movement. When Komen came under fire, it tried to portray business as usual by highlighting its partnership with Energizer on its Facebook page. Critics seized on that to go attack Energizer for its support of Komen.
When you’re in the storm make sure someone is talking early and often to your partners, affiliates and other friends. Don’t let them learn what you’re doing from the news or social media. In Komen’s case Ford stepped forward on Twitter with perhaps the best message possible:
“We understand the emotions raised by the #Komen decision. Our desire is to focus on defeating breast cancer rather than on politics.”
Ford even paid to make that a trending topic on Twitter, assuring that everyone talking about Komen saw the message. Friends like that are hard to find. Make sure you take care of them.
The rules are still being written for how to survive and thrive in this social-media driven world. But the past few months provide more than enough evidence that you can’t wait for a text book to be published. Nor can you presume you’re immune from the risks.
But it’s not all bad news. For every controversy that’s ripping apart a brand, there are hundreds of brands thriving from all that social media offers. The opportunities are too rich to live in fear of the new online environment.