Thursday, August 6, 2009

Social Media: Good News, Bad News

Why It's Important to Have a Policy for Handling Bad News

David Meerman Scott, author of the international best-seller The New Rules of Marketing & PR and World Wide Rave, has a great interview in the Oneicity blog about how the new rules can help nonprofits. This statement caught my eye:

“DMS: Many company executives and public relations people trace their worries about social media to their belief that ‘people will say bad things about our company.’ This fear leads them to ignore blogs and online forums and to prohibit employees from participating in social media. In every discussion that I’ve had with employees who freely participate in social media, I’ve confirmed that this fear is significantly overblown. Sure, an occasional person might vent frustrations online, and now and then a dissatisfied customer might complain (unless you’re in the airline industry and then it might be more than a few).”

I agree with David.

But you know what? People will say bad things about your company. It is inevitable. So why not be prepared for this, by creating a policy?

This policy doesn’t have to be complicated, but it should be written down and shared with everyone who represents your business in social media. Of course, if you work for a large or multi-division company, you will probably want to check with corporate legal counsel — you know your company culture. And if you’ve got a corporate crisis communications plan, you should update it (if you haven’t already) to incorporate the Social Web.

I’ve created simple bad-news-handling policies for several clients. My policies typically have three guidelines, or areas of “best practices”:

Tone: What is our demeanor in answering negative criticism or comments that appear in public (such as in a public Twitter feed or on Facebook)?

Example practice: “Always thank people for their comments. Acknowledge them. Be humble.”

Escalation: What do we do with negative comments or problems?

Example practice: “Tell the customer that we always want to make things right. Request an email address so we can contact him personally. Escalate to the General Manager for resolution.”

Resolution: How do we know how and when the problem has been resolved?

Example practice: “Follow up with the General Manager a day after the escalation. When the problem has been fixed, post a public message: 'Thanks to XXX for bringing this to our attention. We’ve fixed the problem.'”

Of course, it’s impossible to anticipate every bad-news situation, so your policy by definition will always be a work-in-progress — just as it was before the era of social media. And, like everything else in social media, you will learn by doing, as you go along.

The worst thing you can do is prescribe behavior so tightly that your social media ambassadors’ personalities and initiative are stifled. Making good public use of your employees' personalities and expertise is a big part of social media — and why it's so powerful.

But a few basic guidelines can help prevent most little problems from becoming big problems, and can ensure a consistent experience with your brand.

Here’s a real-life example of what I mean.

Recently, one of my clients saw someone post a public comment on Twitter about a bad experience with the business. The tone of her comment was snide (we sensed that there was something more going on here, and probably nothing to do with the business).

As individuals, we might have been tempted to ignore the comment because of its tone, or to respond defensively. But because we had a policy about how to respond – thank, acknowledge, and take offline – the business was able to make things right with the customer, to everyone’s satisfaction.

And we observed an interesting phenomenon: immediately in the wake of her negative comment, several other customers jumped right in with positive comments.

That’s the power of the Social Web. People have a heightened, more-personal connection with your brand – which can help spread good news and defuse bad news.

As another client put it: “In social media, you can’t be a wimp. You just have to put yourself out there, and be prepared for both the good and the bad.”

That’s wise counsel.


  1. Nice succinct explanation of what I see as a real problem for businesses experiencing social networking strife. is another example of a site that terrifies and delights business owners, who would benefit there from the wise counsel you lay out above.

  2. Baze: Thanks for the comment. Yes, I didn't mention consumer-rating sites in my post, but you are dead on: they are a very important part of social media -- particularly for small, local businesses.