January/February 2012

Interested in Dodging Social Media Bullets?

There are wonderful things to be said about Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and their many rivals. But, without careful management, they also have the potential to make a minor happenstance into a major problem, and a major problem into a life-threatening crisis. And that’s bad news for every business going through restructuring or reorganization, trying its darnedest to avoid those alternatives. The somewhat good news is that there are things a business can do to dodge some of the social media bullets.

Company XYZ had some major issues to deal with. The CEO had a “harsh medicine” plan. The plan was rolled out to a large roomful of investors and industry gurus. Ten minutes into the presentation, the viewers began texting and tweeting each other and colleagues outside the room, first with skepticism, then with outrage, and finally with ridicule.

Minute by minute, slide by slide, XYZ’s stock price declined. The clincher tweet: “Stock in free fall. He’s panicking.” The “harsh medicine” plan was effectively dead within a couple of weeks, and the CEO’s career hit the skids not long thereafter.

Compare this with Company ABC, which had similar issues, a similar CEO plan and a similar rollout presentation. But their session took place 3,000 miles away at a theater where cell phones and other mobile devices couldn’t work. With no alternatives, the audience sat and listened. The stock declined moderately, the CEO kept his job, the plan got a fair shot — and maybe the harsh medicine will have a chance to work.

What we are seeing here is social media at its most toxic. There are wonderful things to be said about Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and their many rivals. But, without careful management, they also have the potential to make a minor happenstance into a major problem, and a major problem into a life-threatening crisis.

This is bad news for every business going through restructuring or reorganization — or trying its darnedest to avoid those alternatives. Maintaining or rebuilding confidence of customers, lenders, investors and employees is vital. Bad news, bad opinions and bad rumors — all can be disastrous. Customers sit on pending deals. Shareholders agitate. Vendors tighten payment terms. Employees update their resumés. And now, social media can move all the bad stuff farther, faster and more indelibly than ever before.

The somewhat good news is that there are things a business can do to dodge some of the social media bullets and the limit the damage from the ones that do hit their targets. As always, preparation and prevention are easier and less costly than after-the-fact remediation. We offer here a few suggestions:

Let’s Get Specific About the Threat

Twitter means everyone else knows about the problem before you do. YouTube means they not only know about it, they’ve seen the unedited video. Blogs allow “citizen-journalists” to drown out mainstream media, in part because blogs come without obligations (self-imposed or otherwise) to accuracy or fairness in their reporting.

Google and Yahoo! mean every past misdeed will be retrieved for public scrutiny. Facebook means your own embarrassing statements will be out there too, along with those of family and friends. And e-mail not only helps speed all of the above on its way, it also means that your own internal communications will leak almost instantly to nearly everyone.

There’s a corresponding litany of things you can do to prevent or deal with all this: Learn how and when to tweet yourself. Make and post your own videos. Hire a social media monitoring service. Hire a search engine optimizer. Tell everyone to scrub their Facebook accounts. Use telephones and faxes and even snail-mail instead of e-mail.

Some of this stuff works pretty well. Some of it doesn’t. Here are our general recommendations:

Check Yourself Out

Anyone who wants to say something about you, or to check out what’s been said, will go to the Web for information. You need to know what’s out there about you on the Web and in the social media. There are thousands of ways people do this. No one way is best. Here are two paths we like:

First, hire the amateurs: Most people who attack through the social media aren’t paid diggers for buried facts. They cruise the social media and use whatever they come up with. To see what that might be, gather half a dozen geeky college students for an afternoon. Give the basic facts about the company and perhaps its top executives and any customers or business partners with which the company is publicly linked. Turn them loose. End of the day, the results are inexpensive, always surprising and generally instructive.

Second, hire the pros: Plaintiff’s attorneys, corporate raiders and other with deep pockets or deep motivations will hire detectives or researchers who know how to dig into courthouse records and obscure data bases. If there’s the possibility of something really ugly buried somewhere, the Wall Street detective firms and similar services have expertise the college kids lack, and will find the obscure but juicy items with legal, regulatory, criminal or scandalous overtones. This can sometimes be expensive.

Effective vulnerability assessment includes the Facebook and other social media pages of executives and their family members (who might innocently discuss what family money is being spent on). It includes blog or YouTube posts by members of management or people identified as company employees. It most especially includes e-mails, which leak with astonishing frequency. If the company’s general counsel hasn’t read everyone the riot act about e-mail security, it’s time to do so. It also includes security of non-e-mail documents and records. Former employees are particularly pernicious leakers.

Learn the Ropes

If an attack might come via social media, it’s best to know the battleground before having to fight on it. Most corporate communications departments now monitor these media periodically. Only a minority do so as often or as well as they should. Most corporations now use various forms of social media for sales, customer relations and the like. Again, only a minority have set up the machinery and practiced the procedures needed if there’s a direct attack on the credibility or viability of the corporation itself.

Getting prepared is easy to do — and useful — in peacetime. Twitter is an excellent as an audience alert mechanism. YouTube is a universal video forum, regardless of what software in a viewer’s computer. Facebook is a go-to site for all sorts of people pursuing all sorts of interests. They should be in everyone’s toolkit. In addition, every industry has its own crop of blogs and websites that demand and sometime reward attention.

Understand Search Engine Optimization

Everyone looking for dirt goes to Google or Yahoo! or another more specialized search engine or database. When something bad happens to a company that has consciously kept a very low profile, that bad-something will be pretty much all that the looker will find. This is not good. A search engine optimizer (SEO) helps companies to manage digital communications so that bad-somethings appear to a searcher within a broader context of information.

At its heart, optimization is nothing more than aggressive digital public relations. Do something positive. Say something positive. Push the positives aggressively out into the media and social media. The search engines will dutifully record these positives in its search results. There is, though, another side to optimization, which involves attempts to manipulate or confuse the search engines into over-emphasizing the good stuff and under-emphasizing the bad stuff. A few of the practices used raise ethical issues. When engaging an optimizer, companies should be clear about the specific practices that will be employed on their behalf.

Search engine optimization takes time; figure two to six months to see positive movement, which means the time to meet an SEO is before the need for his services becomes urgent. For companies that have little to no public profile of any sort, we sometimes recommend the creation of a “default persona,” a collection of routine, healthy, positive actions and statements, none of which are headline-makers, but nonetheless lodge in the databases and provide a context of normalcy (rather than mystery or secretiveness) when searches are made.

Explore Social Media Monitoring Services,

These services vary widely in both cost and orientation. The best ones give their clients a clear sense of the ebbs and flows of their media presence, compare those levels of activity to broader benchmarks, assess favorable and unfavorable mentions, identify recurring and “trigger” topics of interest. There are also a small number of predictive media monitoring service that will provide real-time warning if the preconditions of a “viral” social media outbreak have been reached.

More extreme preparations are also possible. These include: intervention to remove inaccurate and aged negatives from the databases and search engines (difficult, but not completely impossible); and shutting down the most exploitable social media activity by executives and their family members.

Bad Things Do Happen

No matter how well prepared a company may be, negative content (intentional or accidental) can still happen. What then? Here are the three broad categories of response. One of them will be right is almost every situation:

First, just ignore it. Most social media flurries disappear as quickly as they arise. They get no traction in the mainstream media, and are quickly forgotten. Have a clear, direct answer ready if anyone calls with a question, but take no public initiative that will prolong the life of the discussion, or — worse — promote to a higher level of public consciousness.

Second, fight fire with fact. This only works in two narrow circumstances: A negative can be factually proven to be wrong, with validation from an independent third-party authority if needed; or, a complaint can be remedied, with absolute certainty “while you’re on the phone.” In these cases, it can make sense to respond to an attack in the same venue where it was made. But in most other cases, a lesser response will most likely just ratchet up the level of antagonistic discourse.

Third, take it to a higher level. You cannot fight tweets with more tweets. One-on-one, face-to-face is the most credible and persuasive form of communication — and other the most difficult to carry off. Social media are among the least credible and persuasive, but they are incomparably convenient, instantaneous and inexpensive. In any crisis or lesser difficult situation, there are usually one or two audiences that matter most. Communicate with them directly, in the most personal manner possible in the circumstances. You’ll have far more credibility than the digital gossip. And if you get your messages across, let your new, renewed converts be the ones to pass the word along, or leak it, to other audiences.

We are all still exploring the potential of the social media — what it can and can’t do, how to use it well, how to react to it and when ignore it. Herewith, the most heretical suggestion of all. In this world, our children are blazing the trails. So when in need of a fresh perspective, ask a 19-year-old.

James T. MacGregor is the co-founder and vice chairman of The Abernathy MacGregor Group, Inc., a strategic communications firm. He advises clients across a broad spectrum of the firm’s client base, primarily in crisis management and in the strategic planning stages of transaction and investor relations projects.