Consider these pointers to avoid a social media crisis.
The very public resignation of a Mannings shop assistant in Hong Kong over what she saw as flagrant profiteering by Chinese traders buying infant milk-powder products in Hong Kong and reselling them in mainland China, resulting in local shortages, has led to indignation online and in the mainstream media.
The incident is the latest in a series of high-profile incidents involving retailers that have inflamed already volatile Hong Kong-China relations.
While the Hong Kong government moved swiftly to defuse the situation by limiting sales to two cans or 1.8 kg of formula, Mannings has appeared flat-footed in its response. At the time of writing the pharmacist has yet to issue a response, or at least one that wasn't immediately withdrawn from its website.
It is hardly news that aggrieved employees, customers, and others can nowadays cause immense damage to organizations by talking direct to the media or sharing their views and experiences online.
In addition to ensuring that the appropriate business policies and processes are in place to reduce the likelihood of angry employees or customers taking their grievances public in the first place (on which, here are some thoughts for Hong Kong retailers), firms must also set about actively managing the risks inherent in social media.
Here are some basic pointers on how to avoid losing face via social media:
1. Treat social media as a strategic tool
Many organizations continue to approach social media as an add-on, rather than as a core communications vehicle. Others see it as a one-way street to marketing fame and fortune.Disgruntled employees and customers have a different take - social media is the perfect tool for public shaming and redress. Firms that are seen to be listening and responsive are less likely to suffer at the hands of their detractors than those who appear not to understand or care.
2. Social media is not for juniors
Handling awkward situations on social media in real time demands quick thinking, real sensitivity, and a structured approach to decision-making. This requires staff with good communications skills and judgement, an understanding of the full range of business issues that may be raised, and access to and the confidence of senior management. Manning the social media front-lines is a job for experienced professionals, not for juniors.
3. Develop a comprehensive social media rulebook
4. Control access to and use of social media accounts
Develop a clear policy on who does - and by implication, who does not - have access to your official social media channels, restricting usage to personnel who have had the appropriate social media training. Ban the use of social media management accounts for both professional and personal use. And regularly update your passwords to reduce the likelihood of their getting into the wrong hands, or being hijacked.
5. Influence social media even if you're not there
Many organizations believe that it is ineffective or even impossible to respond to a problem on social media without their own branded social media channels. Neither is true. If a problem surfaces on a third-party channel/community, it is essential to respond on the offending channel itself before the issue escalates. And while it is certainly preferable to have your own social media presence during a crisis, social media does not live in isolation, so using the mainstream and trade media to communicate your point of view once an issue has worsened will very likely lead to its getting picked up in social media.
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Charlie Pownall is a senior communications consultant with twenty-plus years’ experience in Public Relations and Digital Communications. A corporate and social media communications specialist, he started his career in government writing speeches before moving into journalism, in-house corporate communications, digital marketing and, for the past six years, social media. Previous employers include Burson-Marsteller, WPP, Syzygy Group, Reuters London News Radio and the European Commission. Charlie is a member of stakeholder engagement consultancy WATATAWA’s Catalyst Group of independent consultants and experts. He is also a Senior Consultant at communications skills training, coaching and consulting firm Simitri Group and an Associate with VMA Enhance , a specialist corporate communications training firm. Charlie writes extensively on marketing and communications, and has authored white papers and reports on reputation management, stakeholder reporting and investor relations. His Corporate Reputation In the Digital Age white paper was awarded at WPP’s prestigious annual Atticus Awards 2011.
Hong Kong, May 5-6, 2015
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