Handling Crisis: Advantages of Social Media

This morning, thousands of people in Florida and Georgia awoke to “SOS Only” service on their AT&T cell phones. While only a minor annoyance for some, for others (like me) who use the phones to run their businesses and/or have gotten rid of their land lines, this constitutes a major problem.

I called AT&T and sat on hold for fifteen minutes. A customer service representative told me they were aware of the outage and it would be fixed within 24 hours. 24 hours?! That is a long time to be without cell service. I asked if this service interruption would be eflected in my bill.  I was put on hold again, and then was told I would be given a 48-hour credit ($4.79). That’s good, but doesn’t really address the larger business problem I’m encountering by being without cell service!

I began searching Twitter to see whether others were having this problem. Many were. Soon local station Central Florida News 13 was talking about it on Twitter, getting lots of responses and starting a hashtag for the event: #attfail. The Orlando Sentinel picked up on the story too, and began live blogging the updates they received from AT&T’s spokeswoman.

Facebook isn’t searchable in the same way, but news about it has definitely been going around my newsfeed.

AT&T was nowhere to be found. As far as I can tell there was no acknowledgement of the problem on their website (although the system was so clogged I couldn’t log in to my account online), and no use was made of their Twitter account to respond to the growing number of people making this problem very public.

Etan Horowitz, an Orlando Sentinel technology journalist, wrote a blog that the outage had been confirmed by AT&T and began actively updating the blog entry and Twitter (even @-replying to each complainant he found via a Twitter search) to keep people informed of AT&T’s official response. In short, he was doing precisely what AT&T ought to have been doing!

If your company ever has a service crisis like this, how are you equipped to respond? Will you rely on a local newspaper reporter to assure your customers that something is being done? (Are you willing to trust the media to communicate as well as Etan did with your customers?)

If you are not active in social media (especially Twitter), you are not set up to control your own message through a crisis. That’s a dangerous place to be.

The New PR

Don’t worry – traditional PR is not dead… yet. And traditional PR agencies will not die if they adapt new methodologies. PR will always be built on relationships and good content, regardless of how the media changes. There are just new ways to build those relationships now!

Say you’re a  small- or micro business and you want to “start doing some PR”. Where do you start? Do you hire a PR agency? Maybe, but first you should try doing a few things yourself.

  1.  Write a press release.
    If you’re not an excellent writer, hire someone who is– preferably someone with specific experience writing press releases. If you haven’t written them before, even if you put the main content together yourself make sure to have someone look over it before you send it. A traditional press release will include information about the newsworthy event, a few quotes from relevant people, and a final paragraph or two about the subject of the release (you and/or your company).
  2. Submit it to the traditional channels.
    You can use paid methods like PRNewswire, especially if you’re looking for international attention. If you’re launching a groundbreaking technology product this might be the way to go, but for most purposes this route would be an expensive waste. Instead, think more personally. You should have a contact at your local newspaper (perhaps from a Chamber of Commerce networking function, a nonprofit organization you are involved in, or another special event). If not, leverage the network you do have to find out if they have an “in” with any editor or reporter relevant to your subject matter. It doesn’t have to be a major deal, but email the press release directly to them. Don’t call to ask if they got your press release. This will peg you instantly as an amateur! In addition to the local paper and television news stations, use the same method to submit the release to relevant industry journals, alumni magazines, and other traditional media. (Best if you’re a subscriber to these already and/or involved in the organization from which they come.)
  3. Submit it to non-traditional (new media) channels.
    HARO (Help A Reporter Out) is a site where you can sign up to get a few emails per day from reporters asking for specific things. They may be looking for stories about a certain kind of business, people in a certain category to interview, or any variety of other things. By signing up at the site you agree not to send the reporters anything they didn’t ask for. Obviously the timing might not work out precisely on your schedule, but it’s a great way to build media relationships and get your content visible when relevant pieces are being created. (Urgent requests go out often on Twitter, so be sure to follow skydiver when you subscribe to the emails.)
    Another valuable resource is PitchEngine, which helps turn your press release into a social media release. (Make sure to also become a fan on Facebook, because they often share new features or other news with Facebook fans first.)
    Recently a collaborative effort was started to list all the Media on Twitter. Following the people on this list relevant to your audience should be an early step in your Twitter usage. Once you’ve been interacting meaningfully with and around these people, you can submit content to them directly too.
  4. Share it in social media.
    Important caveat: You are only allowed to share your own content via social media if you have already spent time building relationships, contributing content, and generally getting involved in two-plus-way communication in a helpful, social way. If you know there are people to whom your are connected who will be interested in this content (especially if they’re interested in passing it on), go for it. If, however, you use social media only to broadcast press release-y content, you’ll never get anywhere; it will actually hurt you and your brand.

If you’re interested in “getting your feet wet” in PR, try it out yourself or use an experienced marketing consultant to help you out before  full-out hiring a PR firm. If nothing else, you will learn precisely what you want out of a PR firm and not pay for something they can’t provide!

Blog Comments

The first thing companies often want to do to “jump in” to social media is start a company blog. They put together a nice-looking page, build a sidebar of links to their site (ahem, perhaps try linking to other sites too), and write a few helpful posts. Within a few weeks, I usually hear ‘Why aren’t we getting any comments?’

Well, let’s see. Do you read blogs? (I hope the answer is Yes, because if not we have a lot to talk about!) Assuming you read blogs, and quite a few because there is lots of great content (get thee an RSS reader!), do you comment on blogs? How often? What kind of comments? (ie, are you actually contributing to the conversation or saying things like ‘Hey yeah, me too’?)

In order to “do” social media, you have to interact. And no matter how good your SEO or how big your brand, no one is going to know you’re available to interact until you find the people already in the space and initiate a conversation.

Assuming you’ve done a basic social technographics profile and determined that blogging is a good way to reach your audience and that your target base contains a decent percentage of Creators and Critics, the only reason you’re not getting comments should be that the people you’re trying to reach haven’t found you yet (unless commenting is unduly difficult on your blog—such as requiring a registration. Try leaving a comment on the blog from a computer outside your office and make sure it’s super simple.). Reach out a little, and the people you touch will help more people find you along the line. I believe in inbound marketing, but I never promised you could literally just sit back on your butt and watch the sales roll in!

(If the first part of the last paragraph sounded like scary gibberish to you, you haven’t read Groundswell yet! I recommend you do that before embarking on any of this, especially if you think you’re just going to “get your feet wet” and don’t really understand how social media can help build your business.)

If you don’t know where exactly to jump in—or worse, read very few (or no!) blogs— start by asking existing customers, coworkers, your marketing team, your friends, and anyone you can get ahold of what they read online. Most of those sites will lead you to other places… and then you’re off!

An additional great tip for learning about improving your blog: listen to or particpate in #blogchat on Twitter, which happens every Sunday night at 8:00pm CST. If you have no idea what I just said, shoot me an email and I’ll introduce you to some Twitter basics. 🙂

You Can’t Use Every Platform the Same Way

One of my early clients said he wanted to get involved in marketing his business through social media… but he wanted to know if there was a way he could update just one place and have it hit every platform on which he had a presence. Well, sure (Ping.fm and others), but if broadcasting is what you want to do on social media, you won’t get far.

Social media has the word social in it for a reason. It’s about building real relationships with real people; but even more boiled down it’s about communicating. Be careful, though, because as the lovely Amber Naslund pointed out, “to some, communication is talking, not conversing”. Social media is all about conversing.

If you’re still unclear about how to converse on Twitter, go to Twitter Search and click on one of the “trending topics”, preferably one with a hashtag (#). You will see a multi-person conversation taking place, many of them beginning with @ replies that signify essentially an instant-message conversation. Check out the Twitterstreams of the people you follow and see how many of their tweets begin with @. This means they are conversing with that one particular person. For the millionth time, Twitter is not about “I just had a sandwich.”

This brings me to Facebook. The “new Facebook” is a platform with a lot more opportunity to communicate and see how others are communicating. The new front page basically just makes this information easier to see – we already had features like commenting on items/statuses, “Like”ing things, etc. on the “old new Facebook”. A lot of people (including me) say Facebook is becoming more like Twitter. It is. This does not mean it is actually Twitter. You should not have your Twitter status updates become Facebook status updates.

If you are using Twitter correctly (with @ replies and hashtags and retweets), it will be completely out of context on Facebook. Part of the reason is that Facebook doesn’t allow the @ replies and hashtags to be links, so you can’t follow up on an item. The other reason is most people on Twitter have their settings where they can’t see @ replies unless they are following both users. (This encourages conversation and cuts down on total information overload; I recommend it.) Your Facebook status updates, however, will include all those @ replies no one—especially those on Facebook who aren’t on Twitter—needs to see.

If you have to show people on Facebook your Twitterstream, I suggest you do it subtly through a FriendFeed tab on  your profile. Depending on what you’ve connected to your FriendFeed profile, that tab can show your activity on all the social media platforms. Essentially, give interested people the chance to opt-in to the information but let the poor uninterested people be.

This is a good concept to apply to all your marketing: interruptive selling can put a bad taste in the mouths of potential customers, but if you make information easy to find (through SEO, a good website, and a social media presence), people who are ready to buy will come right to you.

Your Customers Will Say Nice Things

One of the most common objections I’ve heard from execs about getting into the social media space or starting a blog is the negative comments. They often want to completely disable blog comments or some other drastic measure to avoid an incensed customer (or devious competitor) ranting and raving about how terrible their experience was. This is a misunderstanding of the purpose of social media.

(Aside:  Why are so worried about extremely upset customers? You should already be taking care of that.) 

It’s likely your customers are already saying something about you online. They may be raving fans, they may be ranting critics, they may be asking for help. It doesn’t matter. If you’re not there to respond with thanks, resolve the issue, or solve the problem, I promise you someone else will.

For example, several days ago I tweeted about how much I liked Google’s photo editing program Picasa, saying it was a good alternative to Photoshop for basic tasks. Within minutes I had three replies—two from people who weren’t even following me—offering suggestions of other programs I should try out: Pixlr, Gimp, and Aviary Phoenix editor. Google didn’t know I’d praised their product, Adobe presumably didn’t notice they’d taken a dig, and thanks to the recommendations I now use a different photo program.

On the other hand, if you are available people will usually call on you for help before ranting. I’ve seen many a tweet that said something like ‘Was about to trash Comcast, but contacted them on Twitter and got issue resolved! Thanks, Comcast!’

The other half of being available is being aware. If you’ve never done so, you should immediately go search Twitter for your company name. If you’re prepared to get involved (ie, have a Twitter account), you should also search industry terms and competitors’ names, offering helpful information or links to solve issues people are having.

I’ve also seen Twitterstreams where the person ranted something about Comcast (a technician not showing up, a price hike, poor service) and a Comcast representative responded within a few minutes. Later that person tweeted—usually more than once—about how great it was that their issue had been resolved. I’ve also seen those same people recommend Comcast’s representatives on Twitter to others who have issues. That’s what social media marketing is all about.

This exchange happened on Twitter this morning—a great example of how the customers who know you are actually listening are much more likely to offer good feedback:

sonnygill: @HomeDepot You have some super personable & helpful ppl over at the Virginia Beach location off VA Beach Blvd. Nice experience this morning.
HomeDepot: @sonnygill Great – I’ll pass that along to our friends in VA Beach. Is it feeling like spring there yet?
sonnygill: @HomeDepot Awesome, thanks! It’s getting close – usually its pretty warm by now but still hovering 50s. Patiently waiting 🙂

Sonny couldn’t spend ten or fifteen extra minutes in the store tracking down a manager to praise the employees. He did, however, have a good enough experience to want to give praise; so knowing Home Depot was active on Twitter, he chose to tweet about it.  Sonny Gill has more than 2,500 followers on Twitter who now know about his positive experience at Home Depot this morning.

It’s also important to note Home Depot’s response. Firstly, she acknowledged his comment immediately. Second, she told him she was taking action on his communication—she didn’t just say Thank you; she told him she was going to pass it directly along to the store he praised (his goal). She also continued the customer service and social part of social media by asking him about spring, and he responded.

These are the kind of interactions you’re not having if you’re not on Twitter!

As this concept regards blog comments, the same principles apply. If your site has an easy way to reach you (commenting on a blog instead of filling out a contact form, sending an email, making a phone call), you’re much more likely to increase your positive feedback. If and when comments are negative you can respond quickly to resolve their issues. People will take notice of this and probably give you the benefit of the doubt the next time they consider ranting.

If you’re not interacting, you’re losing ground every day to your competitors who are!