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McLellan: How businesses can avoid the social media storm


For the last two weeks, this column has dug into the details of two very different but very visible social media blow-ups and how the brands (Crock-Pot and Old Navy) dealt with the unexpected spotlight.

Don’t think for a minute that your local business is immune to the same sort of trouble. The good and the bad part of social media is that it is an equalizer. If the story is good, bad or salacious enough, it can quickly get national or international attention.

The web is filled with examples of how small, local companies are hit with an unfavorable review, Facebook post or photo and suddenly the world knows about the dishonest mechanic, lousy pumpkin pie or whatever the complaint is about.

Whether you work for a Fortune 500 company or own a small retail shop, you need to be ready to handle the unexpected, the unwanted, and sometimes the unwarranted wrath of social media.

Here are some best practices for protecting yourself and handling any social media crisis so that you come out on top.

Listen: There is not a business on the planet that can afford to ignore what is being said about them online today. At the very least, set up a Google Alert for your business name and the names of anyone in an ownership or leadership position. If you want to elevate above Google Alerts, there are a plethora of tools available. Be sure you are also monitoring ratings and review sites.

Have a plan in place: You won’t have time to put together a comprehensive plan once the crisis is in motion. You need to know how you’re going to react long before you have to react. If you own the organization or are the chief marketing officer, this is not just a plan for you. Your entire team needs to understand the plan and be trained to react quickly and appropriately.

Be human: Before you rebut, correct, sympathize or deflect — take a minute and try to understand the emotion behind the attack. That was Old Navy’s biggest mistake. There was no empathy after a customer reported being racially profiled. No heartfelt apology. Just corporate speak. On the flip side, Crock-Pot’s condolences for Jack from “This Is Us” were perfect. It didn’t matter that he is a fictional character. What mattered was that people were hurting and Crock-Pot acknowledged that.

Decide online or offline: Just because someone says something about you online does not mean you have to deal with it in that same environment. In some cases, if you deal with sensitive customer data or privacy concerns, you have no choice — you had to take it offline. But even if you don’t have that restriction, you can acknowledge the complaint, show your humanity around being sorry that they are disappointed (or whatever emotion they’re expressing) and then invite the attacker to reach you by phone, email or in person so you can have a detailed conversation and resolve their issue.

Keep your emotions in check: They’re going to say things that you find insulting, inflammatory and in many cases, inaccurate. It’s human nature to defend your honor and intentions. Don’t. In many cases, it’s a good idea to have someone by your side that is not as emotionally invested. Have them read your responses before you hit send and their job is to make sure you come off as caring, competent and in control.

Whether it’s a little local flare-up on Facebook or under the nation’s microscope, every organization needs to be ready to deal with a crisis before it arrives at the front door.

The good news is that the audience’s attention span is short. The bad news is that Google forgets nothing so how you handle that moment in time can last a lifetime.

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