Surviving a Social Networking Crisis

Cyberspace is a duplicitous place—full of information both sweet and scathing. It is the Internet people seek out when they have something to share about a brand or service. And what they say can sound hostile or melodious or anything in between. In this age of social networking, brand images rise and fall at lightning speed, and just how quickly and strategically a company responds to a Twitter, Facebook or assault makes all the difference.

Whether a company has 300 clients or 3 million, the power of social networking to grow or crush that business simply cannot be denied. Educating clients on social networking is vital to protecting their hard-earned images. Given the right training and tools, a client can be ready when bad PR arrives by blog or Web site or cell phone. And one of the biggest things to remember is that just because the buzz words are new, some of the best practices through time still apply in the new information age.

Don’t ignore
the bad news, hoping it will go away. If someone has something bad to say about your company, find out why. Every second that you waste in denial means more customers or potential customers lost.

Address the problem
by responding to the issue in the same media in which the bad news arrived and look for other appropriate places to get the word out. The people who read the initial comments may come back to look for more. You have to be ready. If there is a problem, fix it or explain that you are looking into it. Do not go beyond what you know. Is it something systemic that needs to be changed or is it simply an unfortunate set of circumstances that will blow over quickly?

is critical, so make sure you know how the best contacts in the media prefer to be contacted with information so you can quickly get a response in their hands if you are going to take your message to more traditional forms of media.

Keep the hot language out
of your response, even though the temptation to flame may be high. Flaming back will only escalate the conversation and may inspire more people to join in. Be calm and clear in you response.

Stay focused
on the issue at hand and ignore the temptation to use cyberspace time to talk extensively about your company or introduce other issues that might spark an entirely new line of attack.

Gauge response
by monitoring the point of information and other places you think discussion might erupt. Google alerts or various listservs can keep you in-the-know about what people are saying. If it takes assigning people to monitor particular Web sites or blogs, do it.

Be honest
when you answer the criticism. People will know if you are evading the issue, stalling for time or lying. When seconds count, wasting time being disingenuous is dangerous. Keep in mind that the public tends to believe even anonymous members of the public before it believes officials or company spokespeople.

Respond quickly
but not until you understand the attack and its implications and are sure what to say. Then open those lines of communication. Breathing the wrong message into cyberspace is almost always worse than saying nothing at all.

Assign a point person
to handle the matter until it drops off the radar screen so that there is consistency in the message. The time-sensitive nature of social networking does not leave room for extensive conversations to get others up to speed on a topic. And this means a time commitment, because cyberspace operates 24/7. He or she may need help handling the message volume.

The speed and scope of communication these days raises the stakes for even a small business trying to maneuver the social networking quagmire. Making a good choice of point person, keeping a level head and staying ahead of the crisis are sure ways to increase survival odds in the event of a social networking attack. As public relations professionals, we must train our clients to tread gracefully despite the murkiness beneath.  
Lydia Henry is the owner of Executive Business Affairs (EBA), a boutique marketing and public relations firm that serves businesses in the Washington Metropolitan and surrounding areas.