Social media is an opportunity, not something to fear

Engaging with social media to head off a PR crisis

With the rise of networking sites like Facebook and Twitter over the last few years, social media has completely transformed the way businesses interact with their customers and key stakeholders. They can now talk directly to the people using their products or services, enabling them to deliver targeted, almost instant communications campaigns for a bigger impact on their bottom line. It also presents an exciting opportunity for businesses to talk directly to their customers when a problem occurs and mitigate any negative coverage.

However, social media also allows customers to talk back to businesses and to each other – allowing them to express their dissatisfaction with a product or service and to spread the word among other end-users. This means that these customer complaints, as well as news of a crisis like a workplace injury or product recall, can travel faster and further than ever before. If handled incorrectly – like any other form of crisis communication – all of this can cause a major headache for any brand keen to manage its image in the eyes of the public.

It is understandable how this can put businesses off engaging with social media in the event of a problem, but this reluctance won’t stop the conversations taking place, with or without the company’s input. Engaging with customers when an issue crops up can help to head off a PR crisis before it happens.

There are three things that all businesses need to bear in mind when trying to tackle a problem on social media to ensure they maintain control.

1. Never be afraid to engage

There are plenty of real world examples of companies that have avoided engaging with their customers on social media when an issue has occurred. A delayed response, or no reaction at all, often results in an online backlash against the brand, as it can make it can make it seem unprepared, uncaring or arrogant. All too often, the backlash can spread from Twitter and Facebook into more traditional communication channels, such as mainstream media, aggravating the problem.

Key to avoiding this issue is to engage with social media as quickly as possible in a proportionate manner. This is precisely what Asda did when a customer post condemning its Halloween costume of a ‘mental patient’ began trending on Twitter. Rather than batten down the hatches, or defend its product, the retailer chose to address the complaint head on, apologising unreservedly and donating money to a mental health charity. In responding quickly, Asda was able to minimise the backlash against the brand and reduce the negative coverage in the newspapers. By tackling the issue head on, the business neutralised any ill-feeling among its customer base, protecting its image and its market share.

2. Ensure customers know how to contact you

Many companies have multiple social media accounts, across a number of channels as well as on each individual website. While this might help them reach out to as many customers as possible, it can become confusing in the event of a problem, such as a product recall, or a delayed train. In such cases, customers might struggle to find useful, up-to-date information about the issue, leading them to feel frustrated and ill-disposed toward the brand.

By having one dedicated online channel representing the voice of the business, on which all information about the issue in question is published as and when it happens, businesses can make it easier for their customers to find the information they need. This can prevent any confusion about events and help customers to stay informed, and help to ensure that they feel the business cares about them and their experience.

3. Plan your recovery

In the middle of a crisis it can be difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it is important for businesses to consider how they will rehabilitate their brand online and elsewhere after the problem has blown over.

Developing a comprehensive strategy for the business’s social media communications, carefully balanced with positive news stories about new product launches, promotions and business development news, may help to mitigate and repair the reputational damage caused by the crisis. It can also help to rebuild the business’s relationship with customers and stakeholders.

The earlier this strategy is put into action the sooner the brand’s rehabilitation can begin, so businesses shouldn’t be afraid to continue releasing positive stories even in the middle of a PR crisis – they just need to apply caution and common sense.

Getting to grips with social media

The rise of social media has increased the risk of damage to a business’s reputation when things go wrong. Nevertheless, the positive impact of increased engagement between brands and customers far outweighs the negatives.

By keeping the three tips above in mind, businesses can ensure they handle any issue correctly and help them head off a crisis before it spirals out of control.

By Tangerine PR

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

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Steffan Groch

Partner and Head of Regulatory - Head of Sectors

I head up DWF's national Regulatory team as well as leading the firm’s ‘go to market’ sector expertise. I am also Chair of the UK Health and Safety Lawyers Association.