Three Keys to Avoiding a Social Media Disaster

In my spare time as a martial arts instructor, the students I train often ask what’s the best technique against a punch, a choke, or maybe a knife hold up. Generally, the answer is “run” (also known as Nike-jitsu), but the best answer is “don’t be there in the first place.” In other words, avoidance is the best technique.

Now with social media, it’s clear that it can be a minefield for mishaps and torrents of negativity for your brand. Everyone is watching: your customers, your competitors, your stakeholders, but especially the media at large who needs a news story about the latest social media casualty. Often, the sting of mainstream media coverage is far worse than the actual online damage.

The same self-defense principle applies. If you can avoid known risk factors, then 99 percent of the time, your social media experiences are likely to be relatively smooth and you won’t have to execute a crisis management plan.

Let’s examine the three most dangerous risk factors and how brands have landed in hot water unnecessarily.

1. Timing is everything: be aware of pre-existing negative sentiment.

When Qantas Airways ran a Twitter promotion in November 2011, asking users to tweet an answer to “what is your dream luxury in-flight experience?” with the hashtag #qantasluxury – it sounded like a run of the mill (safe) promotion.

Except that the Qantas PR team was probably in their own little brand bubble, and had “forgotten” that Qantas had just been through more than three preceding months of labor union disputes and safety incidents, resulting in the entire grounding of the Qantas fleet with mass delays. In other words, there were thousands of unhappy customers, as well as thousands of disgruntled union members and their families.

When this pre-existing negative sentiment is coupled with the opportunity to lambast and lampoon the brand, a social media disaster ensued. Badly timed, but most importantly just not thinking about the context of engaging in social media.

2. Use separate tools for corporate and social posting, even to the point of workflow.

You’re not going to be able to stop the social media team from posting personally during “work” time, but when they use the same tools (usually a third-party management tool) to manage their personal accounts and the corporate account, the potential for a momentary lapse in concentration and a wrongly intended post is huge. Never mix personal and corporate accounts in the same tool, and for the totally paranoid, many social media engagement tools now feature profanity filters and workflow approval processes.

3. Do not underestimate socially active constituents.

It’s been well proven that social media can effect change by mobilizing a mass of socially active participants to create a groundswell of momentum that is hard to ignore. When the Singapore Zoo permanently cancelled the Halloween Horrors event in September 2011, less than three weeks before the official start and with 1,000 tickets already sold, the negative social media reaction and subsequent mainstream coverage was unexpected by the acting CEO, Isabella Loh.

The event had run previously for six years, was commercially successful, and delivered by Singapore Polytechnic students as a final year project, working for seven months prior. When the event was cancelled – without consultation and provided with only tenuous explanations from the CEO – these students and their friends turned to the channels they knew to voice their opinion: Facebook, Twitter, forums, and blogs.

Keeping Your Brand Free From Social Media Disasters

If your brand is active in social media (who isn’t?), then you are likely to face a social media crisis eventually. But in the meantime, you can significantly reduce your exposure by applying the simple principle: consider the known risks and plan to avoid them. It’s far better than an unexpected social media assault.

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