Many organisations don’t want start a blog or Facebook fanpage because they’re afraid of people contributing nasty or unwelcome comments. This can be a big issue for many organisations; we only have to look at the whole Greenpeace v KitKat affair of a couple of weeks ago for an excellent example of a corporate fanpage being hijacked.
But, with a little fore thought and advance planning, it doesn’t have to be that way. Have a thoughtful plan of action for all different types of social media feedback before you get started and most headaches can be avoided.
It’s important to remember that traditional organisational communication structures, those with a top – down point of view and are controlled centrally from within the org have pretty much gone out the window, thanks to the social Internet.
Management likes to think it decides who knows what and when they find out, but the truth is , despite how it might seem from inside an organisation, today’s real communications models more closely resemble interdependent star clusters.
Groups of people, staff, customers, stakeholders alike, group together around shared interests, values and concerns. They communicate amongst themselves and between groups using social media. Geography and location don’t come into it. A company CEO could be a participant in any one of these groups or all them. So too can the temp receptionist … or a columnist from the Sunday Times.
Thought leaders on this subject have tried to come up with diagrams to depict this trend, but they really don’t come close to actually capturing a true reflection of the interconnected relationships of any community. This would be very difficult to map, indeed; some would say near impossible.
So it’s best just to accept that everyone will find out about everything and they’ll probably do it very quickly. Once you’ve accepted this, there are some basic principles that will help in handling feedback effectively.
The number one rule when responding to all feedback, even the negative type, is to stay positive. Sound defensive or negative and you’ll fuel the fire. We saw this play out in spades on the KitKat fanpage when the moderator admonished commenters and sarcastically thanked them for ‘the lesson in manners’ before threatening to remove their posts. This spurred one the fastest, global social media backlashes any brand has ever experienced.
Think about categorising feedback to help understand its nature and ensure the appropriate response is taken. For example, negative feedback usually addresses a problem. Or at least the commenter genuinely believes there is something wrong and lays out exactly how they came to the view. This feedback can be damaging in the sense that it paints a business in a poor light, but it can be helpful in exposing real problems that need to be dealt with and is an opportunity to make improvements to products and services.
When dealing with problem, a response is almost certainly necessary. Whether that response is personal or a broad public-facing message depends on how widespread the problem is and how many people reported it.
Regardless, if a real problem exists, steps should be taken to fix it and customers should be notified that those steps are being taken.
For example, recently it was time for me to renew my membership to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). Because I live on a island in the Irish Sea there are few opportunities for me to attend the Institute’s events, I’ve had very few interactions with other members and have not accessed many services. So in wondering if I should make the investment in a renewal I asked the PR Twitter community if anyone found significant value from CIPR membership.
Among the answers was a very thoughtful and detailed email from the Institute itself. Someone there had seen my tweet and within a couple of hours I had nice letter explaining all the specific services and benefits that were relevant to me which I had been ignoring. I was really impressed with the responsiveness of the CIPR I have to admit (and I renewed without hesitation).
Another category of feedback is a comment that comes with a suggestion attached. Many customers — including some of your most loyal — will use social media to suggest ways in which you can improve your product or service. While this type of feedback may point out flaws, and so feels negative, it can be extremely helpful to receive.
Certainly there will be times when a company won’t want to implement the suggestion given— but it’s still an opportunity to build loyalty and trust by responding to with a positive message.
The air craft company Boeing recently learned this lesson. It received a idea for an aircraft design (drawn in crayon) from a eight-year-old boy and responded with a cold, form letter saying unsolicited designs were never accepted. The boy’s father blogged about it and the story went viral on Twitter. Seeing all the negative comments online, the company responded by creating a kids’ design contest and managed to turn the situation around. But it could have been avoided altogether had the original response been appropriate.
Sometimes a company can become the target of a social media firestorm because of an actual screw up – a ‘merited’ attack. While the attack itself may not be merited, the catalyst issue does deserve negative feedback. Essentially, something went wrong, and someone is angry.
We saw this play out when against the American airline Southwest when movie director Kevin Smith, also known as Silent Bob, was allegedly kicked off a flight because he’s too fat to fly. He vented his spleen on Twitter and almost instantly the airline was in the middle of a major PR crisis as the story was retweeted among Smith’s millions of followers, and then made it onto the agenda of most American mainstream media.
‘Merited’ attacks can be tough to deal with. It’s best to to respond promptly with an apology and assurances that steps are being taken to fix the problem. In addition, offering a refund along with some kind of compensation such as free merchandise can help smooth ruffled feathers.
Unwarranted attacks are harder to take. These are often made by ‘trolls’, mean-spirited individuals who have no valid reason for being angry. They just take delight in being mean or want to vent their hatred for all to see. This category also includes spammers, who can clog up your blog with self promotion or who leave negative comments to promote a competitor.
It’s almost always best not to respond to trolls and spammers; it’s better to moderate comments before publication or to just delete them, making a note of the deletion. For example ‘post by Name has been deleted owing to the use of profane language’, or ‘post by name has been deleted owing to non with our site’s Terms & Conditions’.
Planning for feedback is the key to managing this aspect of social media. A plan should encompass discovery, assessment and response considerations including who responses will be handled by and how. The old adage ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’ certainly holds true in social media.