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Social media strategies in the age of knee-jerk

Social media blowback has become a regular part of corporate communications. Who knows how to walk the line between a serious backlash and a twitter blip?

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Welcome to the age of crisis management for crisis management.

The social media blowback phenomenon is becoming a regular part of corporate communications news, most recently over Labatt’s decision to crack a nut with a legal sledgehammer. Social media needs risk management, but it also needs a healthy dose of common sense.

To some extent it’s about having more integrated response teams that include legal, social media, public relations, public affairs and marketing pros at the table. That’s just obvious. But more than that, it’s about making sure someone at that table has some perspective.

Managing the risk doesn’t need to mean kowtowing to an onslaught of crowd-sourced criticism. Not all blowback is created equal and companies need to be able to properly gauge the meaning of it before responding to it—unless of course you’re going for that whole knee-jerk panic thing.

There’s no doubt that in some cases an about-shift is warranted. Labatt’s decision to back away from a legal fight after the Internet laughed at the brewer and the Pop Chips brown-face debacle are clear cases of legitimate damage control.

But what happens in situations where an exaggerated social media response leads to an unnecessary about-face? Consider the decision by retailer Gap to jettison its new logo. Sometimes a reverse decision is wise and sometimes it’s simply a flip-flop driven by the loudest members of a mob.

The reality is that social media combined with mobile technology make for easy “slacktivism.” A series of re-tweets or “likes” does not an uprising make. There’s a significant danger when using social media to replace market research because there’s a heavy response bias. Social media and mobile expression skew to individuals that wield a higher income, are younger and have more free time on their hands. They can also just plain skew toward complainers. Social media Benthamites would say this is the natural course of events, because they who care the most should win the day, a.k.a. the squeaky wheel argument. But other schools of thought will—and have—called it the tyranny of the minority.

Social media blowback is not amorphous. Looking at online sentiment requires a lot more than measuring volume. Yes, volume of response matters, but so does influence. So does thoughtfulness. So does broad demographic representation. And finally, it matters if any of these people are your darn buyers or brand affiliates. 

It’s easy to get caught in a lather-rinse-repeat response cycle. Especially if everything is being taken seriously and nothing has been given any context. Social media measurement is only growing out of its infancy stage and holds a lot of potential for helping to provide the context needed. Some blowback is serious, but some is just people and companies taking themselves too seriously.

We’re slipping into a point-and-laugh culture of social media criticism that makes it exceptionally easy for company responses or management of online crisis situations to become the story. A real narrative of failure emerges out of these types of gaffes or inappropriate responses. We all need to be more understanding of missteps in this field or risk having the mirror turned on us. Social media commentators are quick to play into this game as well, piling on a sense of “gotcha” criticism. Our parents taught us not to laugh at the misfortunes of others, but we’re often quick to do it on the digital playground.

Denise Brunsdon is a director of social media, GCI Canada @brunsdon