Four Tips for Squelching Negative Social Media Backlash

By Ashley Verrill, CRM Analyst for Software Advice and Managing Editor for the Customer Service Investigator

Customer service expert, consultant and author Micah Solomon told me recently about one question that consistently dominates group discussion at his public speaking events:

“Isn’t my brand and company in danger out there in the social media universe?”

The truth is, you can’t guarantee safety when any teenager with a grudge can share their angst online to a broad network – fast. It behooves any business to prepare for this possibly. This is particularly true for convenience stores and other retailers that experience hundreds of customer interactions everyday. Whether it’s your fault or not, every one of those consumers is a potential online detractor.

Unfortunately, you can’t simply bury your head in the sand and avoid social media altogether.

“I guarantee your customers are already using [social media], and they’re probably already talking about your brand,” Fergus Griffin told me a few months ago. He serves as the senior vice president of solutions marketing for SalesForce.com, a CRM and social media service provider.

So what can you do? Here’s four tips Solomon shared with us recently for managing your response under social media assault.

Know You Can Always Turn a Negative to a Positive
So let’s say you wake up one morning to a flood of tweets about your store’s decision to carry a certain controversial product.

“Boycott [@Store_Twitter]! They carry [product x]! Unacceptable! Total #FAIL”

Stop. Breathe. Then reach out to sender directly. It’s important not to be defensive, or contentious in your response. Be thoughtful and sincere. I’ve taken this approach again and again, and most of the time these online critics are so surprised they actually convert and become an advocate. Even if they don’t, at least you have a better chance at mitigating the backlash.

When you do respond directly, be sure to post publicly first so the customer’s following, and yours, can see in writing that you listen and respond if there’s an issue. You want your social media network to know that you care. This might be something general that thanks them for the feedback and expresses your desire to address the concern. Then, take the conversation “backchannel,” or in a direct message or email. Include an email address and phone number you have immediate access to. And of course express sincere regret and concern when you do connect with them directly.

Respond Fast or Face the Fiasco Formula
Solomon said the social “fiasco formula” goes a little something like this:

Small Error + Slow Response Time = Colossal PR Disaster

In other words, the force of social media embarrassment is proportional to how much you delay your response. I’m sure you’ve heard of things “going viral.” Social media mentions have enormous velocity online, particularly negative ones. Even an afternoon’s lag in responding to a less-than-flattering message can be catastrophic.

To avoid this potential, be sure your social media team has clear standards for response time. More than half of Twitter users expect a response within two hours of tweeting a company, according to a recent Oracle report. So, that’s a good benchmark. Additionally, devise a placeholder response if your community manager gets stuck and wants to converse about a more strategic reply. This template shouldn’t be copied and pasted every time. Make sure your team knows to add their own personality and variation to make it conversational. For example:

Right: “Thanks so much for the feedback! I’m so sorry to hear we’ve disappointed you. We will get this handled for you right away! (-: – AF”

Wrong: “We are handling this issue now. Please call 1-800-xxx-xxxx.”

Don’t Fall Victim to the Streisand Effect
Even in cases where a social media user exaggerates the truth, or maybe they even lie, you need to repress the immediate inclination to sic lawyers on them, or get defensive online.

This brings us to Barbara Streisand. In 2003, the singer and actress experienced a windfall of negative publicity after a failed attempt to sue the California Coastal Records Project for posting a photography of her oceanside mansion. Her aggressive response to free expression offended some and excited others. The image showed up in everything from a dedicated Wikipedia page, to coffee mugs and T-shirts. The worst part, however, was the permanent damage to her public reputation.

Consider another example. Canadian musician Dave Carroll turned his negative customer experience with United Airlines into a viral YouTube video. He sings that he “alerted three employees who showed complete indifference towards me.” The airline could have avoided the situation entirely with a better social response.

Solomon says, “Any public, digital argument with a customer is an exponentially greater risk for your company than the old-fashioned kind of argument that didn’t involve social media. Make sure everybody who represents your company online has taken the time to learn how to slow down, breathe, and bite their tongue—consistently. Train them to think of the big picture. The future of your company could depend on it.”

Prevention Before Mitigation
As mentioned in the United example, the company could have avoided the situation altogether by expressing more empathy to the customer. They should have apologized emphatically and replaced his $3,500 guitar, instead of incurring the much more expensive cost of damaged brand reputation. They could have even responded with their own apology music video.

“Unhappy customers are unlikely to complain through public methods if they know they can efficiently use email, phone, or a feedback form to reach you directly—and if they feel sure that their problem will be addressed immediately,” Solomon argues.

A lot can be accomplished by making yourself available – make contact information obvious. Provide comment boxes, chat online and reply to feedback. You can even chime in on online forums. Provide an easy way to respond directly at the bottom of every corporate email you send out. Become known for your response track record.

  • Sarah Mitchell

    Nice roundup of social media basics. One thing convenience stores – or anyone – need to keep in mind is they should NEVER delete a negative comment or post. It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire and if you’re caught doing it, the backlash is severe.

    Also, it’s not only teenagers who are vocal on social media. Any business who thinks it’s only disgruntled teens making waves on social media is going to be in for a surprise. The demographics for social media encompass just about everyone – especially on Facebook.

  • http://www.signiq.com/ Sarah Mitchell

    Nice roundup of social media basics. One thing convenience stores – or anyone – need to keep in mind is they should NEVER delete a negative comment or post. It’s like pouring gasoline on a fire and if you’re caught doing it, the backlash is severe.

    Also, it’s not only teenagers who are vocal on social media. Any business who thinks it’s only disgruntled teens making waves on social media is going to be in for a surprise. The demographics for social media encompass just about everyone – especially on Facebook.

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