Bad News Travels Fast in Social: A Framework for Social Issues Management

…It’s 3:00am and your mobile phone has been ringing incessantly for the last five minutes. You finally wake up enough to reach over and answer the phone. It’s your CMO. She’s calling to notify you of a DDoS attack that has hit your brand’s networks, effectively knocking down your corporate site, e-commerce site, mobile app and other services.

Although the full effects of the attack are still unclear, your CMO has alerted the entire Corporate Communications department, which plans to release a statement to the media at 9:00am…

…Before a statement can be released, at 6:37am concerned consumers receive DNS errors when attempting to access their online accounts, prompting questions on your brand’s Facebook page and on Twitter…

…By 8:15am, digital media outlets have started releasing short posts based on consumer Tweets, speculating that personally identifiable information may have been compromised. This news prompts a spike in social conversation, as concerned consumers fear their accounts may have been accessed…

…to further compound the issue, at 10:06am, your community manager flags a Tweet from @justinbieber, who up until now, served as a vocal brand advocate, but is now asking his 52 million Beliebers to avoid your brand at all costs…

What Do You Do?

While this may be an extreme example of how quickly issues can escalate and turn into a full-on crisis for your brand on social, the challenges associated with managing issues, and as a result, your brand’s reputation, are very real. The time that it takes for negative and damaging news to spread is infinitely faster, the audience much broader, and the record of the issue can persist much longer (the internet is forever).

For most brands, protecting brand reputation on social may be the biggest challenge, and opportunity, they face. Even the smallest issue has the potential to turn into a complete firestorm on social. How brands plan for, manage and engage their audiences throughout the issue can determine the length and severity of the issue and the success of the brand and reputation moving forward.

A colleague once told me “failing to prepare is preparing to fail…” And nowhere is that idiom more relevant than in issues and crisis management. The “shotgun” approach to social issues management, where you cross your fingers and hope that the issue will eventually fizzle out on its own, just doesn’t work. If your brand is not out there telling your story, someone else will be…and it will likely be the wrong story.

So where do you start? Developing a framework and a process for social issues management should start and end with planning. Preparing for social issues early, and consistently reviewing processes, plans, roles and response efforts around previous issues will help set you up for future success.

The following framework provides a roadmap for shaping your social issues management approach:

Plan

Just as any brand should have a crisis plan, every brand needs to have a social media issues management plan in place before an issue arises. Having a plan in place can reduce the length, scope and severity of a social media issue. A solid social issues management plan will directly align with the brand’s traditional crisis and operations plan and include elements such as:

  • A playbook mapping out specific scenarios that your brand may face, and the process for handling each (i.e. – if your crisis coordinator is on a plane, who is the backup? Who is communicating messaging and flagging issues to the call center?)
  • Guidance and protocols on utilizing listening and engagement tools like a social marketing platform
  • Organizational chart with contact info of key internal stakeholders and clearly defined roles and responsibilities for the social and issues management team
  • Issues severity matrices (a document mapping out all known and potential issues, the severity, along with suggested response, associated assets or content, and response owner) and response protocols by social channel
  • Frequently asked questions around anticipated issues and pre-approved responses
  • Governance around legal and regulatory requirements for your brand and industry

Monitor

Whether you are paying attention or not, the conversations are happening. So how do you identify conversations before they become issues? Having the tools in place to quickly identify issues across social can be your greatest asset in an issue scenario. Set up listening posts around brand keywords, products, executives and create influencer lists of the sites, forums, communities, review sites and social influencers discussing your brand. Having an effective listening and monitoring program in place will help you spot issues before they escalate and become much harder to turn around.

Assess

Tools like issues severity matrices, response protocols and Q&A docs should be developed in the PLAN stage to help provide guidance on the issues that do, and do not require a response.

Not all negative comments or issues require a response, and not all critics, cynics and brand detractors are worth trying to win over. Some people just don’t want to be helped, and some issues just can’t be resolved by the brand. In these instances, even though it can be tough, the best course of action is to simply move on.

For those issues that do require action, get the right people in place early, and map out the process for approvals so that responses are timely.

Engage

Now that you’ve reviewed the issues management plan, you’ve identified and fully assessed the issue, stop. Take a deep breath and think before you hit the “Share” button. While you want to be timely with your response, you also want to make sure it is accurate, thoughtful and aligns with all of your brands values.

Be attentive and show your audience that you are there, you are listening, and that the brand is committed to doing whatever it takes to make things right. Be authentic, transparent and reinforce the brand goals, but also act like a human. Depending on the severity of the issue, people’s lives can literally be at stake, so take a tone that’s empathetic and appropriate for the issue.

Review

Once the issue has hopefully been resolved by your brand, it is vital to conduct a review of how the situation was handled, from an operational, process and messaging angle. Were there any holes in your issues plan and playbook? Are there additional resources or tools that need to be brought on to prepare for future events? Did new questions from our audiences crop up that we hadn’t originally anticipated?

Many of these questions can be answered, in advance of an active issue by conducting crisis simulations and table-top exercises as part of the PLAN stage. So don’t wait for an issue to blow up before reviewing your current plans and processes.

Social Never Sleeps

While you may never look forward to that middle of the night phone call from a colleague alerting you about a social crisis, you can counteract the cold sweats with a solid plan of action.

We used to live in a world where the producers of content determined the channels of distribution. But we now live in a world where the consumers of content are the ones determining the channels of distribution and consumption. 

If your brand plans to be active on social, you need to be prepared for issues to arise. And if you happen to be one of those brands that has been avoiding social, you are no longer immune to issues that may crop up or escalate on social. If you are not there, or are choosing to ignore the issues, the conversations will still go on. Someone else will just be telling the story…

Ray Rahmati's picture

Ray Rahmati

@Ray_Rahmati
Ray Rahmati is Spredfast’s lead social business consultant in the Mid-Atlantic region, serving our customers’ needs with everything from strategic guidance to planning and training. He is also a professional and college sports fanatic and second-screener who can be found tailgating on any given Saturday or Sunday.