By Chris Gilmour

There is no doubt that social media has revolutionised the way in which many businesses communicate with their customers.

It has enabled brands to cut out the middleman – those pesky journalists who ask difficult, probing questions – and deliver messages directly to their target audiences.

And for customers, there’s genuine two way interaction with the companies who receive their hard-earned cash.

When it’s all going well, the interaction is wonderful and both sides glow with their collective love for each other.

But when it goes wrong and those conversations take on a sharper edge or turn downright nasty, that’s when the threat of reputational damage looms large.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had a panicked phone call or LinkedIn message (never a DM on Twitter, incidentally) from a client who has found themselves in the midst of a social media crisis.

The key as a crisis management consultant is to ensure you keep a level-head and stay calm whilst others may be losing their cool. You’ve got to quickly appraise what you’re dealing with, and decide on your immediate strategy.

Much of the time, this so-called ‘crisis’ is nothing more than a customer service enquiry being played out in the public domain. The advice is always to take the person offline or into a private forum, and deal with them in a sensible way to ensure their issue goes away or is at least mitigated.

There have, however, been a few really challenging moments when we’ve had to step in to prevent something truly damaging going viral. And plenty of times when we’ve been left to play catch up when the only branding going on is the mark left on a company’s reputation by the red hot hashtag burning its way across the web.

I’ve also had loads of “you did / said what?!” moments, where people have potentially left their organisation’s reputation in the gutter through sheer stupidity, negligence or crass indifference. All played out in front of an audience transfixed at what’s appearing on their screen.

It’s not for us to judge or apportion blame – that may come later when the immediate crisis has subsided. Our role is simply to fix it.

I’d love to tell you how we did it in many of these cases, but client confidentiality prevents that. And if you want our advice then email me on chris.gilmour@beattiegroup.com or give me a call on 0800 612 9890.

Of course, the internet is populated by keyboard warriors – some with a genuine grievance, some who just want to vent about an actual or perceived grievance, and some who are, quite simply, nutters. These are the most challenging for any crisis manager to deal with because they really have no end game other than causing you maximum aggravation and reputational damage.

Regardless of the situation and whether it’s a real crisis or just a bit of drama, there’s a common theme. The people involved always want to do something, anything.

And yet our most common advice is: do nothing.

The speed at which social media moves isn’t the same speed at which you have to react. Find out the facts, and then react. A quick, wrong response is dangerous – so watch from afar and see how the situation develops.

Social media has a very short attention span. You can be in full crisis management mode, ready to react if the temperature rises and then “look, there’s a squirrel!” – and attention turns elsewhere.

There is also the echo-chamber effect. That’s when something looks as if it has become a huge issue that the whole world seems to be interested in, but when you take a look it’s only like-minded individuals sharing their views and patting each other on the back, with your brand caught up in the middle. Again, the best advice is stay out of the room and starve them of oxygen.

There can be times when senior individuals are desperate to engage in a social media discussion, particularly when they are the subject of personal bile or vitriol, without giving any thought to the fact that their involvement will lead to an actual crisis situation.

I often tell the story of an embattled chief executive who was desperate to wade into a social media group that was being less than complimentary about his abilities and how thin-skinned he was. Without a hint of irony, he wanted to jump in and give them a piece of his mind and he wasn’t for listening to his in-house team.

With a full-scale crisis looming, I asked him what he would do if he heard those people (there were fewer than 20 in the group) saying the same things about him in the pub. Would he go over, argue and throw his pint over them, or maintain a dignified silence and walk away?

Thankfully, he chose the latter option because he understood what was being said was nothing more than glorified pub chat.

We’re often asked how we can bring greater balance to social media discussions. The answer is: you can’t.

If you want a neutral adjudicator to listen to both sides and present the facts in a calm, rational manner, there’s this age-old profession called journalism that does exactly that. And that’s a completely different can of worms…

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