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Boom Goes the Social Media Marketing Dynamite

Boom Goes the Social Media Marketing Dynamite

Social media can be a playground for organizations interested in experimenting with new approaches to engaging customers. The fun can quickly come to a grinding halt, however, when a company is shamed on a social site by an unflattering post that makes the rounds. It really doesn't matter if the story is true or false, or if the company was justified or not in whatever action it took. What matters is how it responds.

By Patrick Nelson
04/09/13 5:00 AM PT

Two-way social-media channels, like Twitter and Facebook, have changed forever the methods businesses use to communicate with their customers. Fading into the distance are the days of the one-sided official dispatch.

Social media marketing has been welcomed with open arms into the fold, with corporations determined to make it an effective tool. This has happened partly because its viral nature gives it the appearance of messages coming from trusted parties and partly because it's practically free -- so why not?

It does appear to work. It's cheap, it's word-of-mouth -- which has always been more effective than paid marketing -- and it creates brand engagement. Plus, the customer benefits from transparency. Everybody wins. Or do they?

What happens when things go critically wrong? Is there a corporate price to be paid for the social media revolution?

"The interesting thing about social media and crisis management is that it provides both threat and opportunity. Threat, because it means that in a transparent world, crises are more likely to occur -- it's much harder to hide bad news these days -- and when they do arise, they spread faster and further," Jonathan Hemus, director of Insignia, told TechNewsWorld.

Things Go Bad - Applebee's

One example of a brand that recently got into social media hot water is Applebee's, as documented by Melissa Agnes Crisis Management.

Applebee's came under attack for firing a waitress who posted online a no-tip receipt, on which the customer -- a pastor -- had signed her name and written "I give God 10 percent. Why do you get 18?" Applebee's compliance with the pastor's request that the waitress be fired provoked thousands of negative social network comments.

Applebee's probably thought it was in the right to dismiss the employee because the action complied with customer right-to-privacy rules as stated in the employee's handbook, suggested Melissa Agnes, president of Melissa Agnes Crisis Management.

However, it hadn't considered the "court of public opinion," she told TechNewsWorld.

The restaurant chain should have announced that the waitress made a mistake, but admitted that it hadn't led by good example, Agnes suggested. Applebee's should have acknowledged that it previously had posted a receipt online -- a favorable review written on the back of a receipt -- and promised not to do it again.

Applebee's blew it by failing to respond correctly when faced with the wrath of social media users. It made numerous tactical mistakes -- including trying to block comments, according to blog posts and a radio station's online comments -- that created even more negative media.

When to Start?

At what point should an organization start thinking about social media in crisis communications?

"It is essential that all businesses consider social media and its impact on crisis management in advance of a crisis occurring," said Insignia's Hemus.

The tendency of social media to escalate an incident into a crisis at breakneck speed means that anyone trying to figure out how to deal with it while the event is unfolding is already doomed to failure.

Organizations need to "seize the agenda" and use the organizations' own channels to communicate, Hemus recommended.

Levels of Crisis Management

There are three levels of social media crisis management, said Hemus. The first level is to monitor social networks because organizations need to know what is being said about them online.

"It's a very effective early warning system," he said.

Level two is to establish channels ahead of time. Even if they're not used much proactively, it's critical to have enough staff to gear them up a moment's notice.

"No use having a Twitter feed available but insufficient staff to deal with the torrent of comment that can submerge a business during a crisis," Hemus pointed out.

Level three is to engage fully with social media. It's important that being tuned in to the demands of social media become part of an organization's culture. Also, full engagement will make it possible to draw on the relationships and reputation it has built over time.

Crisis Communications Policy

It's important to have a crisis communications policy in place -- preferably before going live, Nancy Myrland of Myrland Marketing told TechNewsWorld.

"For those companies that are already in the midst of integrating social media into their existing communication efforts, they need to sit down ASAP to discuss how they plan to react should crises arise," she said.

"Whether we plan for them to or not, all of our actions have the potential to create a crisis -- as do all of our reactions to other crises," Myrland pointed out.

Doing It Right - DKNY

DKNY's recent hoo-ha is an example of social networking done right, according to Agnes.

A street photographer wrote in a post on his Facebook fan page that DKNY's Bangkok store window was full of his unpaid-for photographs. DKNY had approached him to purchase the images, he said, but had been too cheap to offer enough money.

The photographer went on to say that he didn't want the money for himself anymore, but instead wanted DKNY to donate to a New York YMCA so impoverished inner-city kids could go to summer camp.

What do you do?

DKNY said it had made a mistake -- the photographs shouldn't have been displayed. It also donated some money to the YMCA.

Within hours, noted Agnes, it was able to resolve a potentially damaging incident that could have gone viral.


Patrick Nelson has been a professional writer since 1992. He was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson studied design at Hornsey Art School and wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism. His introduction to technology was as a nomadic talent scout in the eighties, where regular scrabbling around under hotel room beds was necessary to connect modems with alligator clips to hotel telephone wiring to get a fax out. He tasted down and dirty technology, and never looked back.


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