In Crisis Planning, Emotion is Data

It stands to reason that social media would one day become a perfect vehicle for social and political action. Lately, we’re seeing more online activism in various forms–to fundraise, to organize, and, lately, to protest.

One of the most popular these days is someone calling himself “Leroy Stick,” better known as the force behind the BPGlobalPR Twitter feed. As of this writing, BPGlobalPR has north of 140,000 followers and is the top search result on Google for “BP Twitter.”

If you’re a brand manager, it’s tempting to write off BPGlobalPR–and the legions of fake logos it has spawned–as a distraction, an irritant, and an outlier.

But you’d be wrong.  This is the beginning of a trend–one that you cannot escape.

Like Dave Carroll’s “United Breaks Guitars” video, the BP spill taps into shared emotional experience, one of the most powerful forces around.

Emotion fuels groundswells, whether positive or negative. As we’ve seen many times in life as well as on the social web, a single entity can galvanize a movement–even provoke coordinated attack such as the one conducted a few months ago by Greenpeace on Nestle.

Now read the Leroy Stick post, and screen out the profanity and snark, if they distract you. What you are left with is a sense of sadness and deep, deep outrage.

“This isn’t just your disaster,” he says.  “This is a human tragedy.  Allow us to mourn so that we can stop being angry.”

That sentence contains the blueprint for understanding the nature of an online crisis, whether it is born from or merely accelerated by social media. The key here is not to shy from or discount the emotion, but to seek to understand and address it.

So what can you do to prepare for–if not prevent–a crisis from spiraling out of control on the social web? Here are a few immediate steps:

Before a Crisis Happens

  1. Monitor. You must have a pulse on your community at all times. You can no longer afford to fly blind. Invest now in a social monitoring tool, train your staff and pay attention to what your community is telling you.
  2. Switch perspectives. As in any explosion, the only way to diagnose what really happened is to know what kind of fuel you’re dealing with. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes.  How would you feel if the roles were reversed and you were the customer?
  3. Remember that emotion is data. This is not to be callous, but to understand. If you are seeing 62% negative sentiment on a crisis, you need to know what’s driving it, how intense it is, and whether it’s increasing or decreasing.
  4. Plan. Have a comprehensive, cross-functional crisis plan in place. When emotions are high, you cannot run by the seat of your pants or depend on a returned email or voice mail to tell you what to do next.  This means scenario planning: with legal, product development, customer service–all the groups that could potentially be involved in the event of a crisis.  It is a dead certainty that some or all of these recommendations will conflict with what your legal department recommends. This does not have to be a barrier, but it is a negotiation.  That’s why it’s essential that you work out your rules of engagement before a crisis occurs.

When a Crisis Occurs:

  1. Get help.  Talk to people who have been there before, especially within the last year.
  2. Understand and respect your community’s reaction. Communication must be timely, clear, and respectful. No spin. You cannot expect people to cut you slack for information that, for the sake of complexity or for legal reasons, you cannot fully explain, but you can try to educate them.  Look at what Digg and Toyota did to educate consumers about the Toyota recall.
  3. Influence, not control. You cannot control the flow of information on the social web.  Attempts to do so will inevitably surface and reflect poorly on your brand.  Of course there will be sensitive issues you cannot disclose. Having a clear boundary around what you can and can’t share is paramount.
  4. Be consistent. Don’t disappear if you don’t know what to say. Stay engaged, even if you cannot share much.

I’m beginning research for an upcoming report on crisis on the social web. If you have feedback, case studies or stories to share, please leave a comment, or email me at [susan] [at] altimetergroup [dot] com.

Additional resources:

Jeremiah’s post on the Nestle crisis

Charlene Li, Open Leadership, Chapter 9, “The Failure Imperative.”

About susanetlinger

Industry Analyst at Altimeter Group
This entry was posted in Crisis and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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