In the brave new world of social media, the crowds, not the boardroom control the conversation. It takes just one disgruntled customer to create viral campaign that can reek cyber havoc. So what can the corporates do to stay on the right side of bloggers? Adam Coulter investigates
Imagine you are a boss of a large company. Something goes horribly wrong that may or may not be your fault.
You watch in horror as the story goes viral and you are left scratching your head, thinking how do I contain this?
You could opt for the traditional. Call a press conference. Churn out a press release. Hope it will all die down.
Which is exactly what United did, and what many corporates do (Burger King opted for the press release approach following the video release last year of an employee taking a bath in a kitchen sink).
To be fair to both, when something does go viral on the web it is overwhelming – and not a little bit scary – to watch quite how fast it happens.
For many executives who perhaps are not as au fait with new media as others the default reaction is to revert to what you know.
The problem with this is the original videos will be watched endlessly on YouTube (I bet you clicked on the links above), whereas the press release, though no doubt archived somewhere, will not be.
The alternative is to try and turn the whole disaster to your advantage or at least contain it via social media.
As Augie Ray argues on experiencetheblog about the BK incident:
“By launching an informative and favourable video on YouTube with the appropriate title and tags, people searching for “Burger King sink” could have come across and viewed the company’s own video.”
But for every United Airlines and Burger King there’s a Ford Motor Company, whose approach to an ugly viral campaign last year is often used as a case study of best practice by many corporates when dealing with a social media PR disaster.
In a nutshell, Ford sent a cease and desist letter to a fan site called The Ranger Station demanding the owner Jim Oakes surrender his url and pay $5000 for the privilege.
Oakes immediately posted the letter and within two minutes it went viral.
Ford quickly became the subject of vitriolic attacks for its heavy handed approach.
So what did it do? Their new media man, Scott Monty, spent the day on Twitter sending out Tweets and getting his followers to “Re-tweet” (like forwarding an email to all the people in your address book), and clarifying the incident in a calm and measured manner.
And by the end of the day it was under control (it transpired that there was a lot more to the story and the site was selling counterfeit Ford goods).
Case closed. Well not quite. It might be sobering to look how using social media can sometimes backfire.
Starbucks launched a Twitter campaign last year encouraging people to send in pictures of posters it had put up in six major US cities.
But the campaign was quickly subverted when documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald encouraged people to post pix of themselves outside shops holding placards criticising the company for their alleged anti-union practices.
Starbucks abandoned the campaign that afternoon.
So, should big corporates fight a new media fire with fire or is it a bit embarrassing, like watching your dad dance at a wedding?
Well it may not have escaped your notice that one of the biggest and arguably most unwieldy organisations in the world – the NHS – is being supported via a very effective Twitter campaign to counteract the lies and mistruths coming from the US about our health service.
And although it’s not the NHS doing it, but rather its supporters, the campaign does appear to be working pretty well.
My view is that a corporate may seem big and unwieldy, but it is made up of individuals – many of whom will use social media as second nature.
So instead of wheeling out the CEO to make a tedious speech defending the brand, get someone who is already involved in social media – who perhaps writes a blog or tweets – to put together the response.
One thing to bear in mind though: you have no control of where it will go.
As Paul Anthony, a blogger commenting on the Starbucks debate, said: “It’s time major brands learned that they can’t control the social media conversation – the crowd does.”
You have been warned.