There has been a spate of high profile crises involving major companies – including the likes of Toyota and most recently BP – and what many of these cases are highlighting is the fact that these situations can be severely and dramatically aggravated through poor management of social media.
Typically, highly important companies have no social media strategies in place at all, except perhaps a Twitter feed broadcasting out the same press releases to everyone.
This is largely because these organisations are being advised on the whole by established retained media agencies – well known organisations whose position in the market is based on the old power structures of traditional media.
The heads of these established agencies typically don’t understand social media, and they don’t like social media. It is not part of their culture and cannot be controlled or manipulated like traditional journalists.
These established agencies come from the ‘ring them up and pitch a story’ mentality. These old school types – the ones who made a fortune selling ‘Sunday for Monday’ traditional media stories- are letting major companies down.
The perils of social media might make some people nervous, but the fact is, news is no longer a product which you can control in the traditional way. And one size fits all social media communications approaches are completely inadequate.
Engaging with social media through a crisis requires specialist skills by experts who are immersed in the culture of social media and understand the new rules of production, distribution and exchange of news ( sorry if I sound a bit like Karl Marx!)
The current heads of established crisis management agencies have, on the whole, risen to their position largely by knowing key traditional media editors who will always check their stories first before running with them. Not something that bloggers or users of Twitter do!
The techniques that are used for stage managing events for TV and newspapers will not work in social media. And many of the heads of established crisis management agencies don’t appear to understand how to have effective conversations with the many online. They see influence in terms of reaching the few rather than build meaningful relations with the
It will not be long before smart CEOs and smart communications directors begin to question the amounts they are paying to agencies whose mind set is shaped entirely by old media values and practices.
It is time to define new models for engaging with a crisis, and this means leveraging the powerful tools of social media to boost the delivery of messages and this requires fundamentally new approaches and skills.
It is no longer acceptable if you are a serious communications advisor to scoff at Twitter, or to be hesitating about engaging with blogs. When the crisis breaks, that position will be utterly unsustainable.
Journalists are increasingly turning to social media for stories. They simply don’t have the time to research stories in the way they might otherwise choose to do. And investors are researching blogs and forums to gain insights into companies. Why would they trust the official line when there are experts out there who they trust who are already blogging, or discussing points which they find valuable?
Tragically, some highly important companies seem to only recognise this when a crisis erupts. They should be calling in specialists now and putting social media crisis management training and practices in place.
The figures highlighting the growth of social media involvement are staggering, and boards of major companies need to move fast to ensure they are covered properly, and receive new kinds of advice from new kinds of agencies. Otherwise they could find themselves struggling to deal with issues, because they are ill-equipped for the social media age.
Success can no longer be measured solely by an article in the FT, it has to be measured by coverage on blogs, Twitter, forums, Facebook, specialist forums, digg and all the other plethora of social media networks which can potentially affect the reputation of a good company.
And one final thought. Your established PR agencies might be advising you to put the old corporate videos on YouTube, but that will not work. The audience you are addressing online through social media networks is no longer passive. They expect something valuable, useful and interesting and genuinely relevant. Otherwise why should they pay you any attention?
Your ad agencies might promise to buy you space on social networks but that is not effective enough. You need to be embedded. You need to be part of these specialist communities. You need to understand the new rules to gain influence.
It means getting involved in new ways – and it is not simply a case of social media being just another channel. With the spread of mobile devices, we are going to see ubiquitous news spreading fast through social networks, at any time and at any place. This can work to your advantage or disadvantage but now is not the time to be left behind or be playing catch up.
Social media can enable companies to gain competitive advantages and expand their customer bases. Being afraid or clinging to the status quo will not serve anyone’s interests well in the long run.
To be prepared for a crisis, companies need effective, well-thought through, multi-platform strategies. Of course, traditional media has a role, but the approaches to social media require a different mindset and an understanding of a very different culture.