How Twitter should really be used to manage reputation

The corporate rush to install Twitter monitoring services could damage the credibility of social media channels for customer communications, David Bowen says.

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I was at a conference recently where a presenter started by showing a YouTube video of a man singing a song about how United Airlines had broken his guitar and failed to help him afterwards. The video went viral, the presenter said, which showed the power of social media and how companies ignore it at their peril.
It seems to have had an effect. Many companies, especially in the US, have pretty much replaced their normal customer service channels with a Twitter monitoring service. Mention that you have a problem to your followers on the social messaging network, and more likely or not the offending company will be in touch with you within minutes.
This is quite impressive, but also worrying. First, do they now completely (as opposed to usually) ignore you if you complain by e-mail or even pen and ink? Second, the reliance on a handful of anecdotes is no substitute for a business case. You have probably seen the video. I have, dozens of times, always accompanied by the same message. Which I have to say makes me a bit suspicious. The guitar video is one of a handful of examples of reputation damage by social media. It is more than two years old. Maybe social media isn’t that damaging after all?
And that is my concern. Senior managers may start to think like that, and decide the whole social media thing is yet another bandwagon heading for the sidings. That would be dangerous.

Once hyped twice shy

Imagine you are a senior manager who is no kind of expert on online communications – but, as you have the United Airlines video played at you for the third time, alarm bells are ringing in your head. Back in 1999 you were carried along by gurus who told you the secret to everything lay in the internet. Your company lost a packet on that. So did you. Of course, the internet came good in the end, but the fact was that you were carried away by the hype.
When was this video made, you ask? Summer of 2009. Any stories of how social media has ruined reputations since? Um, well there was the video of Domino’s employees doing disgusting things with pizzas, then there’s the Arab Spring… that was about social media, wasn’t it? But you now learn that the United Airlines victim seems to have turned his story into a mini-industry (have a look at the website), and you are getting seriously suspicious. When your corporate web manager comes and says she thinks we need a social media response policy you know you will take much persuading. The hype merchants have made sure of that.

The plan’s the thing

But you should of course be listening to the web manager. She understands what social media channels are capable of and why every company should have a ‘reputation reaction plan’. Don’t call it a social media plan – I hope I’ve explained why. But be aware that social media channels increase risks and that these need to be understood, countered and harnessed. It’s a bit to do with technology; it is everything to do with organisation.
The key technology bit is Twitter. Bad things can be created and spread on YouTube, Facebook, blogs or even old-fashioned websites, but Twitter is the one you need to concentrate on, for three reasons.

Why Twitter above all

First, Twitter is the ultimate connector. It makes stories spread at astonishing speed and it doesn’t care if they are true or not. As it is so often linked into other social media channels, it has become an unprecedentedly high-speed viral channel. Be scared, and be prepared to react much faster than you have ever had to.
Second, as customer service departments have discovered, it is a brilliant monitoring device. If anything interesting is going on anywhere on the web (including web-based versions of print publications), someone will pick it up and tweet it. It is easy to set up a keyword monitoring system – either yourself or using an agency – so you can be pretty sure you won’t miss anything important.
Third, Twitter could conceivably be your saviour if things do go wrong. There is – United Airlines like – only one documented story about how that could work. But it does sound plausible and useful, so here it is.
Scott Monty, Ford’s social media manager, started getting tweets about how a fan site call the Ranger Station had had a letter from Ford demanding it be closed down. Hostile tweets were spreading fast. Mr Monty got in touch with the carmaker’s legal department to find out what was going on and also sent out tweets saying he was in touch with the department, and please hold on. When he got an answer from the lawyers – counterfeit decals were sold on the site and this was an attempt to stop that – he was able to tweet that and watch it being spread around. The effect was to pour buckets of water on the fire which, while not putting it out, must have slowed the spread.

Process requirements

The Ford story is different from the customer service monitoring that has become so popular. Customer complaints can be fed into an established response system. Mr Monty had to work hard himself to slow the spread of a story, while scrabbling internally to find the truth.
It would have been much easier if Ford had had a process in place to deal with such crises. It probably does now, as do many other groups. What do you need for this?
•A team that can monitor Twitter every hour of the day – could be members of the communications department on rotation or an agency.
•An agreement with legal that it will respond at unheard of speed – ideally it will have created boilerplate releases that can be adapted, to avoid the traditional word-by-word crafting of a statement.
•And behind these the process: a clear plan of action (a flow chart can work) showing just what should happen in each type of situation.
Returning to the senior executive persona, I would be impressed by this. It is based on common sense, not anecdote, and is not driven by any sense of hype. Best of all, it should not cost much if any money. Just some careful planning, cross-departmental collaboration and lawyers moving faster than they ever have before.

First published 05 October, 2011
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