Testing your social media issues management strategy without posting a single tweet

Issues management, crisis communication, disaster management – all these have been helped and hindered by social media. If you’ve ever had the “pleasure” of being the organization embroiled in the issue, sometimes it can seem like a lot more of a hindrance then a help. 

How do we prepare to help our organizations through these times? 

To tell you how, I’ve got a bit of a story, then a bit of a case study, and then finally, some ways you can bring this back to your day jobs. 

First, the story. About two years ago, I was in charge of a large utility’s social media when a bit of an issue hit us. Some customers were using social media to try to pressure us by instigating a social smear campaign. It was both fascinating and spirit-crushing to monitor and watch in real time as tweets were re-tweeted, support for the customers piled on, and very occasionally, one or two people attempted to be the voices of reason and, if not exactly come to our defence, at least raise questions about the validity of the customer’s complaints. 

Over the course of a couple of days, we monitored, conferred within our corporate communications department, met with our lawyers, our privacy officer, customer service managers, coming together to decide—as quickly as possible because of social media’s timelines—if and when to reply, and with what and on what channels. We were also by now dealing with media inquiries and our hands were pretty tied due to privacy regulations. We had the data from monitoring, we had our side of the story, and we couldn’t tell it. It was, as I imagine you can guess, incredibly frustrating. 

The monitoring helped: I began to notice patterns—archetypes of participants, if you will. The “wronged party” and the party’s supporters, mostly friends and family. The bandwagoners—those people who just joined the cause because they could and perhaps because they thought it might bring them some credibility. There were the “Pass-it-on-ers”—those whose only contribution to the conversation was a re-post. There were even one or two voices of reason—a level-headed “let’s look at the facts, people” contributor or even, a loyal customer who refused to believe we were evil … usually I printed their posts out and posted them prominently to look at when the spirit-crushing outweighed the fascination. 

For the most part, we were able to resolve the issue without too much damage to the organization’s reputation, but it was a harrowing few days that took many people’s all days worth of effort. 

So, after everything had calmed down, and had some wine, I started thinking. 

In another corner of my career, I work on making websites not suck as much. One of the ways I do that is to test them before they go live. Another tool I use is called a persona, which is a way of putting a face on the facts and stats that make up that thing we call “Target Audience.” And, as a public relations professional, I’ve had my share of experience with media relations -- the key message prep as well as the “figure out the answer to all the questions and then practice them in front of a camera” training. 

I was also involved in helping a colleague with an emergency operations centre preparation exercise – we were prepping web pages and messaging for the media so that it could be used during the exercise. And, I was also planning another year of teaching PR and digital media for MacEwan University’s PR diploma, and I needed an assignment, and I couldn’t use tech.  

In the martini shaker that is my mind, all these things came together, the result is a way to test what would happen on social media when an organization is faced with a crisis, without posting a single tweet or waiting for the bloggers to tell us what we did wrong afterwards.

How do you do this? Post it notes and sharpies. And a wall or bigger post-it sheets. 

It’s pretty simple: You assign some people the task of being members of your publics, and you use stickies to stand in for social media. And then, just as you would in an emergency preparedness exercise or a new website design or a media interview, you run a test. Afterwards, you debrief and see what went wrong, so you can fix it for when you have a real live social-mediated issue. 

Depending on where on the wall it's posted, you’d know if a conversation is happening on “Twitter”, “Facebook”, or the organization’s “Blog”. And, depending on the colour of the stickie, you'd know who was saying it. 

I run this exercise using case studies in my class on PR & Digital Media at MacEwan University, as well as for clients, with their own issues. Just a couple weeks ago we tried it as a workshop at another Canadian PR Conference in Banff. Let me show you some highlights: 

How can you put this to work for your own organization? I have a few pointers: 

1. Prepare Messaging

Prepare yourself in advance. Best practices in communication departments are to have messaging prepared around hot-button issues. If you don’t, do so. If you don’t know where to get started, brainstorm all the things that could go wrong, then plot them on a risk matrix, like this one. Those both most likely to occur and cause the most risk to the organization’s reputation are where you start. 

Remember to craft messages for all digital platforms. If you’re on twitter, having Twitter-sized messaging is vital. It’s really hard to cram the press release into 140 characters when it counts. If you have a news or blog section on your website, have that content written in broad strokes as well. In this way, your messages can be pre-approved so that you don’t have to wait for approvals in the crisis. 

2. Run a Stickie Test.

But then don’t just leave them in a crisis binder in the hopes that they work when you need them; run your own scenarios using this method. Bring in some staff or stakeholders to play audience, and decimate some post-it notes. You can also assign some people the role of observer. They don’t participate as either members of the comm team or the audience; they just watch what happens. 

3. Debrief and Tweak

Here are some debrief questions. 

In past workshops, participants have had the following learning outcomes and insights:

Those involved as the organization understood how even the most benign of issues could go pear-shaped, and quickly. 

An unexpected learning was how teamwork may interfere with the quick decisions that are needed in these scenarios. Groups who either appointed a leader or who had one emerge did better than groups who tried for consensus. This isn’t surprising: emergency management and organizational behavioural research shows that consensus doesn’t work in a crisis. I watched as one group member started barking orders: “You: watch and respond on Facebook; You: Twitter; You: the blog,” and her group seemed relieved to have someone in charge. Those groups that insisted on consensus rarely responded in a timely manner. It took them way too long to get their blog posts up, and things went sideways for them much faster. 

There were learning outcomes around the audience, too. In the debrief, I heard several participants say how they really felt personally affronted when organizations didn’t reply to their satisfaction. The idea was to have them understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of key messages that don’t sound human. 

Another discovery was, as one participant put it, “how easy it was to channel her inner crazy.” The mob mentality that arises in a crisis doesn’t help things, and organizations need to recognize that it’s at play as well. 

Remember, the more prepared you are in the case of a social-media-fuelled crisis, the more smoothly things will go. 

But don’t doubt that it won’t go sideways, anyways. 

If you think this type of exercise can help your organization improve its social media strategy, NikComm can run the workshop for you, developing your issues, audiences and messaging and then tweaking based on the data. Contact us for a quote today.