Minefield Social Media: How to Avoid and Deal With Viral Maelstroms

In 2020, the so-called “cancel culture” is hitting its high point on social media. The general discussion culture on Facebook and on Twitter in particular reaches new depths almost every week. To put it bluntly: EVERY company is running the risk of becoming entrenched in some way and being drawn into a whirlpool of hatred and indignation. The risk is of course higher for companies that actively expose themselves with their channels on these platforms, but at least this gives you the opportunity to take countermeasures at an early stage and to actively pursue crisis management.

Simulation games in which the comms team plays through examples internally can be a helpful preparation. First, you have to identify where hypothetical viral storms could occur and define specific de-escalating strategies that your company could take. In the areas of life sciences, health and pharmaceuticals/medicine, the usual topics are not far away: genetic engineering, drug warnings, food scandals, ecological problems, or simply a financial or political scandal. No matter which direction the wind is blowing, at least now you realize that you should not blindly leave your corporate communications (and this includes social media channels) to an external agency or, even worse, a marketing intern.

First hint: Avoid “humor” in your corporate communications and particularly on social media. The temptation is sometimes big, but keep in mind: Good humor is the most difficult discipline in entertainment, and you will always offend someone. Take Netflix. It is a great example for entertaining, humorous social media postings. But don’t forget that entertainment is Netflix’s core B2C business. Your core B2B business, on the other hand, is most likely to “deliver precise results efficiently and in the shortest time possible for your customers’ applications with innovative products”. In short: be serious, polite and courteous. Your account managers don’t disguise themselves as Krusty the Clown and kick in the door to your customer with a funny joke — and neither should you.

This is where the second hint comes in: Even if your sales force gets personally insulted by a frustrated user or customer on social media, they always remain professional, polite and factual. They know very well that it’s never about them personally, it’s about their company as an entity, so they will always avoid responding in a personal manner. The tone on social media is getting rougher and a “hater” is simply looking for a valve to vent off some pressure (possibly even justified). So first you actively de-escalate the specific situation with a personal address such as “Hey Tom, sorry to hear this!” followed by taking a deep virtual bow with “Please accept our apologies for the inconveniences you had to experience with our (insert service/product/etc.) ” From here you have several options, depending on your own internal structures and the “hater”. In general, you should avoid the popular mistake of asking for more details. This often only results in a public support conversation which in the worst case provides nice marketing arguments to your competition.

The best way to go from here is to make an entry on your own company’s online contact form (www.company.com/contact) with the expectation that a company specialist will immediately contact the disgruntled customer. If you can identify the customer relatively unambiguously via the social media handle and you have access to your company CRM you could also report the incident to the responsible sales or support representative in parallel, but only do so if you are comfortable with the situation and have sufficient details about the customer.

In my experience, 9 out of 10 communications incidents can immediately be escalated in this way and solved to the full satisfaction of all parties involved. Staying on top of your social media is well worth the effort.


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