Simon Owens, director of digital content at LEVICK, doesn’t mince words when advising his clients on the approach they should take when proactively engaging their audiences via social media channels. “They have to go into it the same way they would go into an interview with a journalist, especially one who isn’t afraid to ask tough questions,” Owens said.
It’s pretty sound advice, particularly in light of a recent spate of social media snafus involving some of the most recognizable brands:
• NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell got slammed when he hosted a Twitter chat, using the hashtag #AskCommish. Goodell was inundated by snide remarks, tasteless jokes and outright insults. Goodell was able to roll with the punches, but an effort to plug the NFL’s draft (starting a day later) was most likely lost.
• Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit was flooded with tough questions about politics and policy, and the final assessment was that Gov. O’Malley took a beating from his constituents.
• Using the hashtag #mynypd, the New York Police Department’s attempt to engage on Twitterbackfired miserably when the department was deluged with pictures of the NYPD using apparent excessive force. According to the Daily News more than 70,000 people posted negative comments to the Twitter hashtag.
PR execs can enhance their value if they prepare their senior executives for, and then drive, the responses when a Twitter chat or something similar goes off the rails.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘How are we going to conduct ourselves online?’” said Shonali Burke, president-CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting. “Feedback is useless unless you are actually going to use it. Too many brands engage in selective listening.”
If PR managers want to generate more value from social networking, they have to start wedding their social channels to the top and bottom lines.
“Some brands have been skeptical about social media, which makes them ill-prepared,” Burke said. “If you don’t take it seriously, you don’t prepare. And you must prepare for digital events just the way you would for offline events or interviews.”
To its credit, the NYPD released a statement that seemed to acknowledge the backlash. “The NYPD is creating new ways to communicate effectively with the community,” the statement said. “Twitter provides an open forum for an uncensored exchange and this is an open dialogue good for our city.”
TAKE IT OFFLINE
One of the biggest PR lessons from these episodes is to recognize your detractors and what their intentions are, according to Lisa Denten, social media manager at Cision.
“These public Q&As can bring out jokers and trolls, but it’s more important to keep in mind the value: an open forum with your community,” she said. “There are obvious downsides to negative mentions, but the upside is it gives PR managers insight into the public’s perception of their brand, and the ability to use the feedback to guide it in another direction.”
Whether they are social media trolls looking to start trouble or people with a legitimate gripe about your products and/or services, PR managers need (in most cases) to address detractors in a dignified way, one way or another.
“Not all conversations should happen online,” said Laura Kane, VP of corporate communications at Aflac ( and a member of PR News’ Advisory Board).
She added: “If someone is talking about a specific event—and it’s a complicated issue—it’s OK to thank that person for expressing his opinion and ask to take the conversation offline.”
Of course, in a social media setting your brand is not going to please everyone. Social media is designed to be freewheeling, without filters. Yet one way to mitigate the naysayers is to choose the social platform very carefully, rather than feeling the need to have a presence on every single social channel.
“When making these decisions you have to be real clear on what you’re trying to achieve because some people are just trying to be cool,” Kane said. “Do you want to share information? Do you want to engage on certain issues? If you can answer these questions upfront, the effort is easier to manage when things go awry.”
3 PR Tips on How to Use Social Media During a Crisis
Crisis management is complicated and challenging. Throw in some social media platforms with #responserequirednow and the complexity of communicating with your audiences can go from difficult to #thisisinsane. Social media exposes the raw truth in a crisis faster than ever before. This means communication teams can no longer take the time to confer in their command centers, discuss legal implications with their counsel and tweak specific words ad nauseam while crafting a reply. Advanced preparation is essential. Here are a few tips on how to meld social media with crisis management.
▶ Preparing your team. Make sure your team members, those with the “keys to the kingdom,” have good judgment and know when to take a breath before posting content. Falling into a situation similar to US Air’s horrific #pornographyisnoresponse and #epicfail—stemming from an X-rated image posted on the airline’s Tweeter account—will destroy most brands. Make sure you know who has access to all of your social media channels. And be aware of the power they hold.
▶ Controlling your online presence. Consider how your brand is visually reflected during a crisis. For example, images used on Facebook profiles or Twitter backgrounds may need to be changed or removed in respect to a crisis situation. Every aspect of your brand will be critically evaluated online and offline. Don’t neglect anything anywhere. Be clearly transparent about where and when you will be online and monitoring sites. Either post links to your rules of engagement or clearly define them on your social sites home pages. Date and time stamp all of your crisis communications so that postings stay timely and appropriate, especially if your crisis lasts several days.
▶ Managing the media. Know that social media, if used effectively, also allows you to control and manage traditional media. By monitoring online chatter you can better prepare for interviews and the potential upcoming (and critical) questions. You can manage media events, immediately correct inaccurate media information and provide audiences with additional technical information. By using platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, you can increase the reach of your message and manage the media that have access to the information you want to provide. It also enables you to increase your transparency and, therefore, trust, with your audiences.
This sidebar was written by Tracy Weise, president of Weise Communications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shonali Burke, email@example.com; Lisa Denten, firstname.lastname@example.org; Laura Kane, email@example.com; Simon Owens, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the May 19, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.