Social Media Is Not Always the Right Fit for Reaching Your Audience in Every Crisis

By Gerard Braud

Social Media Site down Gerard Braud crisisWhen I mentioned on a blog and BraudCast video recently that sometimes in a crisis, taking your brand Facebook page dark may be the best option, I expected a lot of pushback or differing points of view. Crisis colleague Melissa Agnes posted the observations below and I want to share them with you and tell you where we agree and where we disagree. In her blog she quoted some of my points and then posted her observations. So to make things easy, below I’ve quoted her entire blog and I’m inserting my observations.

Before writing this, I called Agnes and had a pleasant conversation by phone.

It troubles me, however, that Agnes would take my advice about one type of crisis communications response and lay it over another crisis with completely different facts and circumstances. I would never say or imply that every crisis is the same or that the way to respond to every crisis is the same.

My first blanket observation would be that in some crises, I would certainly tell a client that social media is an important channel and that they should keep the site alive and active. In other cases, taking it dark is a viable action to consider. Failing to consider this option or any options in a crisis is a fatal flaw. When you’ve been in as many boardrooms and war rooms around the world as I have, you realize that is is also a strong possibility that a CEO might demand that the public relations team take the social media site dark. What then, especially if you selected a consultant who never considered this as a possibility because they have made the fatal flaw of building their crisis strategy around social media, rather than the tried and true options.

One size does not fit all when it comes to social media. It really depends upon the type of company involved and the type of crisis involved. My original post involved Emory University Hospital when people attacked their Facebook page because those individuals did not like the hospital bringing Ebola patients to the U.S. for treatment.

However, upon reading Agnes’ post, it is clear that the types of crises I have in mind when presenting my options and blog are different than what Agnes has in mind.

Below is her blog with her text and headlines in blue and my reply to her points in black italics. Enjoy.

agnes1Fear of Confrontation in a Crisis is Not a Reason to “Go Dark” on Social Media

Agreed. But fear of confrontation is not why I propose taking a site dark. When Facebook comments degrade into rude, inappropriate remarks, the ability to effectively communicate with your core and intended audiences is lost. If effective communications in critical times is your crisis communications goal, it is important that your communications channels are not jammed. A vocal minority on your social media site can skew public opinion in ways you do not want. My goal in crisis communications is to spread the truth faster than opponents can spread lies. Vocal groups of activists can post lies all over your Facebook page. Do you want that? I don’t. If the page is mine, I want to control the message. I’m happy to let them post their lies on their own Facebook page, which I can monitor to know what my opponent is thinking and saying. But no, they don’t have permission to pollute my site and I will take it away from them if I have to.

It worries me when crisis communication professionals are still advising their clients to avoid social media in a crisis. I never advise clients to avoid social media nor did I assert that in my blog. However, I do advise them to make sure social media is the RIGHT FIT for their audience and their brand. One size does not fit all. This article by Gerard Braud was brought to my attention on Twitter and I was left speechless as I read it.

It surprised me because I’ve seen other articles of his that provided sound advice. I agree. This article, in my opinion, did the opposite and I wanted to respectfully address why here today. This blog post isn’t meant to pick on anyone, it’s meant to take one professional’s point of view and rebut it with my own. Gerard, I welcome your feedback and our difference of opinions may make for an interesting podcast episode… consider this an open-ended invitation I agree. It’s a date. ;-) back at ‘ya. Shel Holtz has agreed to have us both on his podcast For Immediate Release (FIR).

Fear will be your downfall, not social media

Social media presents so many powerful opportunities to communicate and build trusting relationships with your audiences. I agree that sometimes this is true for some brands and some audiences, but not all. Just because people may vent and lash out against your organization is not a reason to hide and refuse to communicate on the channels that demand communication these days. I agree, but it depends upon the brand, the crisis and other factors. Not every audience uses social media, nor do they expect this to be their channel of communications. Often my clients find their best channel of communications is a face-to-face town hall meeting or a telephone call. Doing so will only hurt your organization’s reputation. I agree.

We’ve seen so many cases where social media was an asset in crisis communication (see below for links) and so many other cases where the lack of real-time and two-way communication was the organization’s downfall (see below for links). I agree.

Within his article, Braud makes the following statements, and I’d like to address each one and provide a different perspective.

Braud says: “Stop trying to fight the crisis on social media.”

It’s not about fighting the crisis on social. It’s about communicating effectively and in real-time, on the channels and platforms that your stakeholders want to receive (and look to receive) your organization’s crisis communications. Do your stakeholders really want to receive your information via social media? In many cases, the answer is no. Demographics vary per brand or company. Research your audience and know how to reach them through channels they use. Fighting social media will only further your frustration and bring you off-topic and off-focus. It isn’t a question of fighting social media. It is a question of whether social media is a bad fit for a particular brand or company.

Braud says: “It is difficult to Tweet your way out of a crisis. It is difficult to Facebook post your way out of a crisis. It is difficult to get in an online shouting match with idiots.” I agree. (Oh wait, that was a quote was from me… so I still agree with me.)

Firstly, you aren’t supposed to tweet your way, or Facebook your way out of a crisis. I agree. I just said that. So we agree. Yet some in public relations try to do that. That’s not the goal. Social media provides a way to disseminate your key message points to your key stakeholders. Messages, which I agree, need to be hosted on a platform that is owned by the organization, i.e.: the corporate website. I agree. The way you communicate and manage the crisis will be how you get “your way out of a crisis”. I agree.

Secondly, I agree. There should never be a shouting match with your stakeholders or audiences because shouting at people is not communicating with them compassionately. I agree. Social media provides organizations with a means to build relationships, give a voice to and speak with the people who matter most to your business. I agree. Calling your stakeholders idiots is also not something I would advise (to anyone). I agree. Presuming that they’re idiots because they disagree or oppose your organization is not the mindset that will help you overcome a crisis with your reputation in tact. I agree. A person isn’t an idiot because they disagree with you. However, I think we all agree that we know an idiot or bully who spreads lies that may not benefit any of us. This is especially true when it bridges the gap from an opinion to being a confirmed lie. In such a case, it isn’t your stakeholder who is an idiot. An idiot is someone who never will nor ever has been a stakeholder who I refer to in my previous blog.

agnes2It’s true that social media can be a bully, but that’s not a reason to shut it down. I agree sometimes, but depending upon the crises, the bully prolongs the crisis when your goal is to manage it to a resolution. It’s a reason to be prepared and to have a triage system that helps you respond when appropriate and continue to stay on-message. Triage is not needed if I can stop the bleeding through other means of crisis management.

Braud says: “Post your primary message on your website and share that with the mainstream media. Next, e-mail the link to all of your employees. After that, e-mail the link to other stakeholders. These are the core people who need to know your message.”

First of all, where do you think mainstream media is? They’re on Twitter! I agree that they are on Twitter, but my tweet to them will include a link to my primary website in most cases. I have successfully used Twitter to reach the media as part of many crisis communications events that I have managed. But consider this: mainstream media are not more important to my crisis communications strategy than employees of a company. In a crisis, I think all audiences are equally important and I want to first use the communications channels that will guarantee the greatest reach at the fastest speed. A single e-mail blast can reach all of the media I need to reach in my contact folder. A single e-mail blast can reach all of the employees at the same time.

My goal is for a company’s employees to get the official word from the company first and not through side channels such as mainstream media or social media. Relationships and trust are based on truth from reliable sources. Trust is lost when an employee thinks, “Oh great, I had to turn on the TV to find out what is happening at work,” or “Oh great, I had to find out on Facebook or Twitter.”

If important and urgent communications is posted to Facebook or Twitter first, there is a strong chance that most of a company’s employees might not have seen the post because their use of social media varies greatly. However, I can say with confidence that employees are in a habit of checking their corporate e-mail on a frequent basis. Hence… tried and true beats shiny and new. A corporate e-mail blast is tried and true, reaching 100% of the employees. Social media, though maturing, is still shiny and new to many employees who do not even have social media accounts.

Secondly, imagine if KitchenAid refused to communicate on social media immediately after their employee’s rogue tweet left them vulnerable to a defamation lawsuit. This KitchenAid case study is not comparable to the case study I wrote about in my blog. In the case of KitchenAid, the crisis was caused by a dumb tweet by an employee. Of course the right action is to immediately use Twitter to send an apology tweet. I’m not advocating a refusal to use Twitter. My suggestion is to use the right channel at the right time to the right audience. If a direct tweet to one reporter is most effective, then use it. If a tweet to the entire KitchenAid audience is most effective, then do so. One size does not fit all. However, I would still suggest that official information be posted to the KitchenAid website with a message sent to all employees via email. I would never want the employees learning about the incident through the rumor mill or unofficial sources. Imagine if they had, instead, communicated as Braud advises above. You are misleading your readers to imply that my example fits your example. They would have been left with a far different – and far worse – outcome. The key audiences, who were communicating on and monitoring Twitter, would have not been included in those emails. I never said what you imply here. How and where you communicate depends upon thYouTube Flicker Dominos Videoe crisis. If the crisis happened on social media and because of social media, then responding on the same channel is exactly what I have advocated for many years. The Dominos Pizza cheese in the nose video in 2009 is a perfect example of where I suggested that Dominos immediately post their own video to YouTube. They should have posted their own video as soon as they found out about the offending video, rather than waiting several days to post a really poor response on YouTube.

I advocate social media as a useful channel if it is the right fit at the right time. I would advocate communications via Twitter because the crisis for KitchenAid happened on Twitter. It was a crisis of their own making. However, if the brand had to issue a recall of all of the mixers made in the past 10 years, would Twitter be their first and only choice? It would not be my first choice nor would it be my only choice for communications in a crisis of this nature.

Expert crisis communications is when you get accurate and truthful information to all audiences as fast as possible with the intent to get the same messages to all audiences simultaneously. To this point, I stand by the principle and practice that a corporate website and email are a high priority and part of a mix of communications channels, with links back to the official statement posted via social media. In some crises a news conference is necessary. In others it is not. ;the important messages communicated by KitchenAid in real-time would have been missed by nearly everyone had they published them to their website rather than Twitter; I never asserted this position in my blog and the outcome would have been negative publicity which would have lasted quite a long time. Negative publicity that would have put a huge mark on KitchenAid’s reputation for the long-term. Imagine. They would have been referred to as “the company that defamed the President of the United States”, rather than “the company who knows how to communicate in a crisis.” This tweet reached an important audience, but it did not reach all of the important stakeholder audiences. My statements above explain it all.

Though it’s important to identify who your stakeholders are and how you will communicate with them in a crisis, you need to meet them on their turf. If they prefer email, great! But there will be others (including the general public and the media) who will prefer to have your organization’s communications disseminated via social media and we can’t deny them this. Doing so will only end up hurting the organization. I have never suggested denying them this channel.

Let’s continue…

Braud says: “If you post the link to social media, avoid comments such as, “We appreciate your support and understanding.” Such remarks encourage negative comments from the cynics who don’t understand your actions and who don’t support you.”

It isn’t about the cynics. They aren’t who you’re communicating with and they aren’t who should dictate your communications. Yet if you irritate the cynics with how you word your statement, they begin to dictate your communications and your communications team spends more time replying to the detractors than they do getting accurate and timely information to the most important stakeholders.

Your customers, your clients, your members, the victims of the crisis, your employees, your supporters, the general public, the media – and the list goes on – are the people who deserve your sympathy, your compassion and the respect of your appropriate communications. Sympathy and empathy are appropriate and needed for certain crises… and stop me if I’ve said this before… but one size doesn’t fit all. Let us take a hypothetical food recall that has been botched by a company resulting in illness and in death of customer. It is impossible to defend a statement such as, “We appreciate your support and understanding.” In fact, I pulled that line off of a Facebook page from a food company with a food recall. It is a fool-hardy statement to make when customers have been wronged and feel angry, hurt and betrayed. Such a statement is an insult to the customers and it draws ugly posts to your social media. The appropriate statement would be, “What has happened here is tragic and we extend our deepest sympathy to those who have been affected. Our goal is to find out what happened, how it happened, and how we can keep it from happening again.”

Telling them that they aren’t worth of your appreciation because of the cynics who don’t understand or who are angry at your organization is not the right approach. I never said what you imply here. What I do advocate is public relations people being better writers and writing in a way that does not draw criticism. Great writers must have their own cynic filters and understand how the cynics will react to each word. Parsing words and selecting the most perfect word is an art. Slapping clichés up as a statement is the work of an amateur. Compassion is needed in a crisis. In fact, it’s one of the ten commandments of crisis communications!

Braud says: “In a crisis, people can talk about you on your social media site and they can talk about you via hashtags on other sites. Given a choice, I’d rather not have a history of negative comments on my own social media site.”

Way to hide and attempt to cover up… which has never resulted in good crisis management. No cover up is intended – and stop me if I’m repeating myself – never did I imply this in my blog. The company’s official statement can be on a secure corporate website that has search engine optimization, rather than letting liars and detractors hijack the brand social media site.

First, people don’t just use hashtags. They use blogs, news sites, Facebook campaigns, etc. all of which get indexed in the search engines and all of which have a heavy impact on your online reputation. Secondly, denying people their voice on your platform is not the solution. It really depends upon the brand and the audience. Sometimes, it is the right thing to do to go dark. On this we agree to disagree. They will come back louder and with a vengeance. This is not always true. But the fact is that Braud is missing the biggest importance of them all. In a crisis, it isn’t about YOU. I never said what you implied. It is about the TRUTH of facts in a crisis; it is about protecting the brand’s reputation and revenue. It’s about the victims and your stakeholders. Not every crisis has a victim. Talking to important stakeholders requires you to find the channel where the stakeholders can be found, which isn’t always on a brand page. Don’t assume the entire world goes to their smart phone or computer for the latest update on Facebook or Twitter. It’s about giving them a voice and actively listening to them, validating them and righting your wrong in order to continue to build a relationship with them and be forgiven. Shutting down your platform will compromise this important objective.

I disagree again. Sometimes you can be a platform to give them a voice. Sometimes they deserve no voice on your social media site if what they say is Trump Ebola1wrong or an outright lie that obscures the truth. Note that I’m not talking about a crisis in which people have differing opinions, but, for example, a crisis where your opponents are making outright incorrect statements. In many crises, there is no need to validate what they say if what they are saying is factually incorrect. When a crisis is moving rapidly, my first priority is not to be a therapist who listens to loud mouth detractors. My first priority is to communicate the truth as quickly as possible to all of my audiences.

If the sky is blue and the company in question makes blue skies, yet one batch turned out gray, it is a lie for one person to say all of his or her skies have been orange for the past year. It simply isn’t true and it doesn’t need to be validated and no apology, empathy or sympathy is required. If that person organizes the Society of People Against Orange Skies, I don’t want them organizing a campaign against the Blue Sky Company and taking over the Blue Sky Facebook page with trash talk and falsehoods, especially if the Blue Sky Company can scientifically prove they have never made an orange sky.

At this point, Agnes clearly has only a certain spectrum of crises in mind and I have a much broader spectrum of crises in mind. Furthermore, a company has many ways to listen. One includes picking up the phone and calling the person who has posted something negative, rather than fighting it out online and pushing a negative discussion higher in everyone’s news feed. An offline phone call provides empathy, validation, listening and two-way communications in ways a Tweet or Facebook post never can and never will. Case in point: I called Melissa Agnes personally before writing this response. In addition to a call that I made to her, I sent her a message via her blog and via twitter. Now I’m posting a blog on my official site. I’m adding a video to YouTube. I will be posting links to this blog to social media. I’m using multiple communications channels, but the phone call was by far the most personal and best channel to reach Agnes. The other channels are how I reach anyone else in our audience who cares to know my response to her post.

Braud continues to say: “It may be better to take your social media sites down completely until the crisis is over. If people need information, they are smart enough to find it on your primary website.”

It’s not about being “smart enough to find it on your primary website”. It’s about being smart enough to provide the necessary information where your most important audiences are looking for it. Don’t assume that when you take down your Facebook page, people will instinctively go to your website. Again, Agnes clearly has a certain type of crisis in mind. I have clients in crises today for whom no one would notice if they took their Facebook page dark. Yep, no one would notice. You must question whether a company’s detractors actively sought out the corporate brand page to say nasty things or if they just stumbled across it because they clicked “like” 5 years ago and it popped up in their news feed.

Instead, assume that when you take down your Facebook page, you look like a coward. It isn’t about being a coward. The issue should be about effective communications and as though you don’t care enough to communicate with your audiences or to own your mistake; Again, there are many ways and many places to say you are sorry. that your fear dictates your crisis management This has nothing to do with fear. This has everything to do with finding the right strategy for each crisis and each brand and not assuming there is a one-size-fits-all answer. and rest assured that people will not navigate to your website before they post, publish and share how your crisis management was to remove your social media channels in hopes that the crisis would go away on its own. Removing social media doesn’t make the crisis go away. Losing control of the message and truth on social media does make the crisis worse.

As crisis pro, Patrice Cloutier, says “Public confidence is built on trust and trust is a result of dialogue.” Social media enables that dialogue. In some crises, social media is a dialogue outlet. In other crises, a town hall meeting is the right tool for dialogue. In other crises, a phone call to an online detractor is the best way to have a dialogue and build trust. Social media isn’t the only place or the best place for every dialogue.

In the Emory FB wide 1case of the Ebola crisis and Emory University Hospital, which I first blogged about and which caught your attention, there is no one for Emory to apologize to. To date, the hospital has not harmed anyone. Yet they have online detractors making crazy accusations and interrupting their ability to share medical facts about Ebola.

Braud says: “You may find that it is in your best interest to rely on conventional crisis communications tools.”

I’m sure that he’s referring to news releases, website postings, press statements – all of those one way communications that organizations used to be able to hide behind in a crisis. Note my use of the word “may” in my statement. The reality is that those days are gone, whether you’re happy about it or not. Those days are not gone and anyone who would tell a client there is only one way to manage and communicate in a crisis – only through social media — is giving that client bad advice. But the point remains that two-way communication presents so many positive opportunities and advantages to organizations in a crisis. I agree that two-way communications is important and never said it wasn’t. Opportunities and advantages that you’re denying your organization (or your clients) by sticking with this old and dated mentality. No two crises are the same. Pick the communications methods that work for the crisis at hand. Failing to pick the right option and trying to force a specific option is giving your organization or your clients bad advice.

Braud uses a rhyme: “tried and true beats shiny and new”

But social media, though once shiny and new, is now tried and true. I strongly disagree. I have clients in very rural areas, with very elderly customers who do not live their lives on their computers or mobile devices. Many of their customers don’t even use computers. The company may have a Facebook page, but it may have only 300 followers who may have once clicked “like,” but who are not prolific Facebook users. Likewise, their customers are not Twitter savvy. Heck, to be honest, most of their employees and their leaders don’t even have social media accounts. Some of their executives do not use computers at all and only read emails that have been printed by an assistant. These people get their news from a weekly newspaper or from the friends they speak with at the barbershop or at church.

To many people in the world, social media is still very shiny and new and I strongly stand by my rhyme. A company such as the one I reference here will more effectively communicate by having an interview with the weekly newspaper, by emailing employees, and by hosting a town hall meeting that is advertised in the weekly newspaper. It is a fatal flaw for anyone in public relations to believe that just because you use social media all day and night that everyone else in the world does the same. Especially for effective crisis management. Don’t believe me? Check out the below posts… which are just the tip of the iceberg.

Again, many of the case studies listed by Agnes are not a crisis equal or like the crisis I referenced in my blog.

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