By Robbin Goodman
Collectively, the social media -- including blogs, social networks, RSS feeds, podcasts, wikis, reviews, bulletin boards and newsgroups -- have the power to support or destroy a brand or reputation. Transparency is key; but it's risky business and requires a new mind-set and toolkit.
Here are the top 10 best practices for crisis management in the social media.
1. Keep your ears open.
With the limitless choices available to them on the Web, people tend to gravitate toward the niches that best satisfy their interests. Take the time to learn which media are respected by your key stakeholders -- by asking them. Then, find out who's talking about you on the Web. At a minimum, set up the most basic tools, including "persistent search," RSS feeds and Google Alerts.
Companies like Attensa, Bloglines, BuzzLogic, NewsGator, Nielsen BuzzMetrics, Particls, RelevantNoise and Visible Technologies can provide more sophisticated tools for tracking what's being said about you on the Web.
2. Sift the wheat from the chaff.
In the best of all possible worlds, you would find and respond to every comment about your company. Unfortunately, we all live in the real world, where resources are limited, so you must triage online coverage. To identify the most important comments, ask yourself:
Is the attack true?
Will an escalation have a negative impact on our brand or reputation?
Will it have a negative impact on sales?
If we respond, will it help reduce future complaints?
3. Get your feet wet.
"You'll never be able to manage your blog coverage like you manage the press. Don't even try," says Andy Sernovitz, CEO of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. He says that "what you can do is participate, earn respect and tell your story. Jump in, join the conversation and be a part of it."
When you read something you like, post a note. When you hear a complaint, post an offer of help. When you see unfair criticism, post a reply. Always identify your affiliation with your company and offer to solve any problems.
4. Run, don't walk.
The Internet operates at the speed of a mouse click. Once you've determined that a problem exists, don't let it fester. Act smart and act fast. Remember that blogs are posted in reverse order -- newest first -- and blog search engines (such as Technorati, Feedster and BlogPulse) sort their search results with the newest posts first. That means that newer posts are more visible than older posts ... so you always want the last word to be a good word.
5. Don't "market"; engage in a dialogue.
When it comes to the social media, you must listen thoughtfully and communicate with your stakeholders in an authentic, humble, human voice. When there's a problem, show that the problem is being taken seriously by the person at the top. Statements should come from an individual with a face, a name, a voice and an e-mail address ... not from some corporate monolith.
6. Be prepared to take the gloves off.
When it's clear that attacks are inaccurate and unfairly damaging your company or client's reputation--and those attacks have achieved sufficient amplitude to shape opinion in key sectors--you should fight back ... hard. Never get ugly right off the bat, but you can challenge critics to cite their sources and ask them to debate in a neutral format.
Usually, the best way to respond to a negative comment is by posting the response on your own blog, not the blog where it appeared, where people who will read your comments are likely to be fans of the blogger and, as such, are predisposed to adopt and defend the blogger's point of view.
7. Keep on the right side of the law.
This applies to both employee bloggers and those outside the company. A corporate blogging policy can help employees avoid violating practical, ethical and legal restrictions. So when do you bring in the lawyers to deal with bloggers? According to Visible Technologies' Mike Spataro, "Only as a last resort." That's when the crisis is affecting your brand's reputation and/or sales.
8. Develop a search engine strategy.
On the Internet, criticism lingers, never completely disappearing, however old it may be. That's another important reason to make sure your side of the story is prominently featured. Defensive search engine optimization (SEO) is the other side of the more familiar promotional SEO. It can be a useful method for dealing with an online attack by helping to minimize the long-term visibility of cringe-worthy results from the initial pages of a Google search.
9. Know when to go offline.
Because some social media are intrinsically hostile to an organization's business or position, the most effective strategy can sometimes be going to the mainstream media--both on and off the Web--to argue your case.
Remember that you always have the option of communicating directly with traditional reporters, customers, employees and shareholders.
10. Don't forget your Web site.
Make sure that your Web site is as up-to-the-minute as it can possibly be. If you're at fault, there should be a letter -- or video -- from the CEO with an apology and details of the changes that are going to happen to prevent recurrence of a problem. If it's difficult to make changes to the existing site, be prepared to set up a special crisis site to deal with your special situation.
Today, just one tech-savvy individual can put your company's products, reputation, brand and market share at grievous risk. But planning ahead, acting swiftly and honoring the culture of the social media can help to prevent an online problem from morphing into a real-world crisis. PRN
Robbin S. Goodman is EVP and partner of Makovsky + Company. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.