Prepare, Not Scare: Weathering the Storm When Social Disaster Strikes

Customer Experience
Customer Experience
Because the social sphere has seen its fair share of PR and brand crises over the last few years, companies must establish the solid strategies necessary for disaster prevention and recovery.

For much of the U.S., this winter has proven quite the struggle, with snowstorm after snowstorm, and cold snap after cold snap. One New Haven, CT-area meteorologist, Matt Scott, does his best to offer his followers nothing but the facts prior to major weather events. "Prepare, not scare," he says, emphasizing that his forecasts are designed to inform and influence smart decisions. Yet, in business, many brands fail to prepare for the myriad social media disasters potentially brewing on the Web.

Over the past few years, the social sphere has seen an increasing number of PR and brand faux pas. Just one wrong remark on Twitter or Facebook can create worldwide backlash and negative sentiment toward the company in questions, for the once one-to-one customer interactions have evolved into one-to-millions. But, as the public witnesses more businesses handle issues of their own, each instance becomes a learning experience for those in the early stages of social development.

"With numerous social media disasters and damaged reputations, it can be a scary move to unchartered territory," says Ann Ruckstuhl, senior vice president and CMO at LiveOps. "Before companies fully integrate social, they must be prepared and armed with the right tools, technology, and properly trained employees. Having a clear social customer service strategy that is unique to a business and industry and the needs of their individual customers is essential to not only match, but hopefully exceed consumer needs and expectations."

Greg Mancusi-Ungaro, CMO of BrandProtect, notes that, although companies may think they aren't active on social, it's likely that they're already participating extensively, as the vast majority of their employees and customers are active, talking about experiences and acting as virtual spokespeople. But, what many companies fail to recognize is that, when negative sentiment becomes the driving force behind such social buzz, disaster may strike if the brand isn't prepared to handle and alleviate any ill will that might be threatening the company's reputation.

"Fundamentally, every social media crisis is powered by emotion, and emotions are hard to predict and measure," Mancusi-Ungaro emphasizes. "This emotion is fueled by broken trust and usually, in those situations, things can get out of hand quickly. Quite often, in a full-scale social media event, you can see two or three constituencies playing out their argument in a kind of online melee, using the social Internet as a battleground. What's worse, some of the participants in the clash are doing so because it is fun to be part of the crowd. Their piling on serves to amplify the event further."

Frequently, when one negative experience goes viral, other customers will come out of hiding to share their less-than-stellar experiences with the crowd. Hence why companies must implement strategies that allow for damage control before such cases snowball out of control.

Ruckstuhl highlights that, to effectively avoid disastrous situations, businesses must establish firm plans and policies that ensure all employees within the organization who touch social media understand the overall strategy for successfully handling complaints or negative comments. But, to do so, brands must practice these six steps for appropriate escalation management to guarantee service flow and the proper path to issue resolution:

1.Listen: Companies can extinguish or prevent social firestorms by remaining aware and tuned into consumer discussions, enabling staff to familiarize themselves with hot button issues and the best ways to respond.

2.Categorize: By classifying complaints into subsets, such as negative comments and urgent requests, brands can actively prioritize which interactions require immediate attention in order to prevent further escalation.

3.Route: Businesses must direct comments, tweets, and inquiries to the correct department, as the appropriate employees will be better equipped with the knowledge and expertise necessary to solve any troubles quickly and effectively.

4.Templatize: Creating templates allows companies that receive numerous inquiries to save time, as such comments are often common FAQs. By scripting responses, managers can focus on more pressing questions to expedite the process.

5.Personalize: Yet, while scripting has its perks in some scenarios, brands must ensure that they don't sound robotic. Simply using the customer's name can make that individual feel cared about and special, boosting both trust and loyalty.

6.Analyze: Each social interaction offers the given brand insight into customer sentiment and the overall experience. Be sure to analyze each instance, assessing response times and emotion to identify areas of weakness and past success.

Companies must also acknowledge that social media platforms operate 24/7, yet most brands only offer assistance from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. within their specific time zone. Many, particularly larger businesses, fail to recognize that their customers are interacting with their brands well past the daily grind.

Royal Mail, the postal service for the United Kingdom has found a workable solution to not staffing for social responses 24/7, and sets a great example for others looking to set social protocol when employees aren't on duty. Although it only operates within one time zone, the company makes customer service agents available via Twitter Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Each day, those in charge alert followers when they've signed on and when they've signed off, noting that any after-hour concerns will be cared for the following business day. Through this simple gesture, Royal Mail assures customers that their inquiries will not go unnoticed.

The Road to Recovery

No matter how hard brands try, and no matter how many safeguards are in place, social media disaster may strike regardless. However, recovery efforts are largely dependent upon the severity of the issue at hand. Regardless, maintaining a history of excellence and professionalism at all times will ensure an easier recovery process, Ruckstuhl notes, as longstanding consumers will know the brand's typical tone and track record.

For those looking to recover from an inappropriate or insensitive post, apologizing or retracting the statement will allow the company to take responsibility, while admitting fault and being honest will humanize the brand, as everyone makes mistakes. Those who are simply looking to correct an accidental early release or misspelling may choose to incorporate humor as they emphasize transparency. But, for those who are battling the aftermath of a data hack, trust and transparency are not only ideal-they're imperative. Because personal information may have been compromised, such companies must assure consumers that their data is safe and keep them abreast of all developments to ensure that they are doing everything in their power to preserve integrity and safety.

In most cases, companies must hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Some awful scenarios can even open up an opportunity for increased engagement and success. For the American Red Cross, one such instance sparked a successful fundraising campaign after an employee accidentally tweeted about Dogfish Head beer from the organization's account, rather than his own. When the Red Cross discovered the tweet, the organization didn't try to cover up the mistake and delete the rogue message, as many may. Instead, it apologized for the issue and assured followers that the employee in question was safe. However, Dogfish Head beer fans launched a subsequent fundraising campaign and blood donation drive via Twitter, turning these subtle damage control efforts into a rallying cause. Even many of the breweries and pubs that serve Dogfish Head beer launched beer-for-blood offers across the country, making this mistweet an ideal lesson in successful recovery and reengagement.

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