Just re-read my last post, and wanted to expand on it slightly, because I think I make it appear as if the main value in “listening” online is to enable you to respond and engage with users who don’t like your company, product or sector and in this way help shape the online debate in the long-term.

First, it’s not always just the long-term that matters. Something goes terribly wrong, you’ve got a PR calamity on your hands, you’re in crisis communications mode and your online response needs to be very much short-term because the web is where bad news spreads the fastest. What do you do? These are, in short, the steps to take:

  1. You establish your position and what you’re going to say (this is valid for offline as well as online communications.) If you’ve done something where you’re patently in the wrong, admit to it, apologise, and take very tangible action to make amends. If the bad press is actually unrepresentative and you simply want to correct it, try to be nice about it i.e. don’t say that whoever is spreading the news is a so and so, but just correct the mistake.
  2. You set-up an online hub on your website where you publish your apology, rebuttal, immediate response or whatever. All updates should be made here first and all your other communication should point here.
  3. You get the best online monitoring set-up (using a specialised agency) and set up a dedicated team that will deal with follow-up.
  4. When you come across the story in reputable blogs or other sites, fora etc., you respond (being humble and staying on message..) and direct users to your hub. Result? If done well, you’ll slow down the spread of negative press while your response becomes part of the story, rather than just what went wrong.

Second, it’s not just about engaging with naysayers. You want to produce content that educates people beyond the negative press you’re getting, meaning that you don’t just communicate in response to criticism. You also need to proactively produce content that can contribute to the debate. And you want to engage with people who actually support your position too: tell them you appreciate their material and provide them with other content, and over time, build up relationships with them. This is probably the most important element of a long-term approach, as you’re helping to nurture a community of ambassadors who support your position.

UPDATE: just came across this post about online crisis communications (in French.)

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I’ve been reading about how social media is transforming customer service for a while now (came across this article on Econsultancy about this very topic today) and am wondering to what extent the same approach is viable when it comes to regulatory issues and the like in Brussels.

Here’s the gist of how social media has been impacting customer service:

  1. Disgruntled customer complains about a company’s product on Twitter (or whatever.)
  2. Company has a social media monitoring set-up and picks it up.
  3. Company responds to customer in blog comment, directly, on Twitter etc. in calm and measured way, apologising and offering a solution of some sort.
  4. Customer is happy, says so, others who have followed conversation are impressed.

Is this a lot of work on just one customer? It might not have been in the past because people’s word of mouth networks were limited, but now, individuals can potentially reach millions of other online users, so listening and responding to single customers can have a massive positive knock-on effect. A company that is seen to be engaging and looking out for its customers becomes highly valued and the story can spread online. Plus if bad reviews are simply left to fester they too can spread untouched and even reach the top of search rankings so that people who search for a company or its products online might come across a blog entry slating it amongst the first few items. Bottom line is it’s good for the company.

What if the same approach were adopted by companies and other organisations who communicate on issues in Brussels or elsewhere? Online conversations are increasingly shaping public opinion and it’s the job of good communicators to tap into them and try to help to shape and shift the debate. What if, say, company X produces “nasty chemical Y” which people are writing about on Twitter or their blogs, expressing concern, and company X were to respond saying something along the lines of: “We accept and understand your concern. We’re trying to do our bit. The University of Z has issued a report which relates to your concern. Might be of interest? Here’s the link.”

It’s tricky, but I think it could be work as part of a long-term strategy aimed at tapping into the right conversations, nipping concerns at the bud, and slowly shifting the debate online.

However, I’d make sure the following guidelines were adopted and scrupulouslty adhered to:

  • Humility at all times!
  • Don’t use corporate gobbledygook but communicate like you would with a normal person.
  • Always keep in mind that what you say might spread, so make sure it’s appropriate to multiple audiences.
  • If you’re providing material, try to use third-party content whenever possible: far more credible than your pretty brochure.
  • Don’t interact with nutjobs. For some individuals and in particular single-issue pressure groups, their issue goes beyond concern for people and the environment etc. It’s an obsession and they’ll never ever be convinced by your arguments. If you try to communicate with them directly they might use it against you in some way. Do interact with people who are concerned but don’t have all the facts.
  • Be proactive as well as reactive: make it part of broader social media approach i.e. don’t just, say, respond on Twitter to people who are concerned about your issue, but also communicate independently. Otherwise it’ll just look like damage limitation rather than serious engagement.