Social Media: Friend & Foe in Times of Need

By Helene Solomon, CEO & cofounder, Solomon McCown & Co., Inc.

By now, I hope, it’s clear to all of us that social media is not a passing fad and instead a new and necessary medium for communications. With Facebook boasting over 500 million active monthly users, Twitter over 190 million and LinkedIn more than 75 million, it’s impossible to deny their presence and power. These growing virtual communities are changing the way news travels and how companies communicate with key stakeholders—especially in times of crisis.

When trouble strikes, social media is a two-sided coin. A scan of this summer’s headlines reveals several cases where social media fueled a negative news story, including JetBlue’s Steven Slater. While his animated departure would have been noted in some outlets, social media enabled it to grow into a PR nightmare that earned the ex-employee over 200,000 Facebook “likes” and a shot at a reality TV show. Target also found itself scrutinized in traditional news outlets for its choice in campaign donations, a story that gained attention and credibility because of the buzz on Twitter and Facebook.

For the flipside, we cannot look in the papers or YouTube archives of our favorite news stations. Social media kept several companies out of the mainstream spotlight by serving as an effective, conversational channel for two-way communications between a brand in trouble and its most loyal—and vocal—fans. These success stories, like General Motors (GM), used social media to listen to its consumers and offer a human and immediate response.

The difference in responses between JetBlue, Target and GM are vast. JetBlue took days to acknowledge the Steven Slater situation, and Target callously referred its following on Twitter and Facebook to a canned media statement. GM engaged almost immediately on an informal but brand-conscious level.

On June 10, 2010, a draft memo from GM’s internal marketing team was leaked to the public and created the foundation for a serious crisis. The memo was intended to help the brand clarify its position in international markets by creating consistency around the usage of Chevy vs. Chevrolet. Within hours, however, online news outlets—from automotive blogs to The Huffington Post—were publishing articles on GM’s decision to forbid customers from referring to their cars as “Chevys.” The discussion was heated. USAToday.com alone had almost 700 comments on the story, almost all of which were critical or even cruel. It didn’t matter that all these outlets had the story wrong; the story was out there and GM had lost control of their message.

It was clear that if GM couldn’t offer an appropriate response by the day’s end, the situation would further deteriorate. Less than four hours after the memo leaked, the social media team decided to skip the long legal and bureaucratic approval process, grabbed a Flipcam, found an executive, and shot a two-minute clip for YouTube (promoted through Twitter) acknowledging their customers’ enthusiasm and explaining the situation. Suddenly GM’s message was human, organic, real. Here was a man—an everyday guy, not a “suit”—talking to the people in an amateur video on the outlets the consumers were already using to discuss the issue. Almost immediately after the video’s release, the level of criticism and excitement decreased significantly. The clip was viewed over 11,000 times.

GM didn’t have a formal social media crisis plan, but it did benefit from some important preventative measures. The corporation long had a social media policy in place so employees already knew what they could and could not say when the story broke, which helped contain the issue. Having social media experts represented on the communications team also enabled GM to act fast and ensured the message was in-line with the brand. The legal department had previously worked well with those in communications, giving the team the confidence and training required to respond quickly and correctly. Have you taken any similar precautions?

A recent survey revealed that less than 22 percent of companies worldwide feel prepared to handle a crisis in the age of social media. On Oct. 26, Solomon McCown (SM&) will host a TCI-cosponsored panel discussion exploring how to best protect your reputation and examining the impact of social media on local and regional companies and mission-focused organizations. We will speak with Boston-based brands that are well versed in social media, including Harvard and Boloco, as well as a communications savvy lawyer and Ashley McCown, SM&’s issues management professional. The panel will also feature Jeff Moriarty, the Boston Globe’s new Vice President of Digital Content Development, and will be moderated by the Boston Business Journal’s Lisa van der Pool. Join to learn how, like GM, you can use social media in times of crisis, instead of ignoring it and making matters worse.

Helene Solomon is co-founder and CEO of Solomon McCown & Co. (SM&), a Boston-based firm that provides strategic communications, public affairs and crisis management services to local, regional and national businesses and mission-focused organizations. SM& leverages all of their assets—passion, energy, experience, flexibility, unique insights, vast networks, tactical approach and determination—to help clients achieve the definition, recognition and protection they need to meet their goals. She was recently appointed to TCI’s Board of Directors.