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24 Jul 2017
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The contemporary business landscape can be a treacherous one, to say the least. With far greater access to the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the somewhat concerning dawn of fake news, there are numerous potential pitfalls for any business with an online presence.

But what should you do if you find yourself, and your business, caught up in a social media storm of epic proportions? Do you simply weather it and wait till the hate dissipates?  Do you hire a PR firm to help spin it the right way? Or do you take matters into your own hands and attempt to rescue your sinking ship yourself? Ultimately the choice is yours, but if you’re considering the last of the aforementioned options, we’ve outlined four steps to turn a social media fail into a potential win.

1. Own up and shoulder the blame

Trolls are an unfortunate reality of the internet, and oftentimes you’ll find that these denizens of the web send hate and criticism your way for no valid reason. However, sometimes the outrage is warranted. So, you messed up; a customer had a terrible experience in your store and has decided to vent online about it, sharing their cringeworthy story all over Facebook, which then just so happened to go viral, leaving the social media masses unsurprisingly outraged. The last thing you want to do now is try and shirk responsibility or play the blame game. Even if you’re convinced Sarah Smith is embellishing her story of the 5-hour wait in line at your little store, it’s not a wise move to say as much; the public will invariably side with their fellow shopper, painting you as the bully. Your first step is to take it on the chin, admit responsibility and apologise sincerely.

2. Handle it directly, and publicly

You’ve been called out in public; the trolls are baying for blood and the big bully narrative is quite firmly established. You need to handle this in a personal capacity and show you genuinely care. If you simply post a vague sweeping statement/apology as your Facebook status without directly addressing poor Sarah Smith, you’ll be branded insincere and further entrench the image of an uncaring company. You need to contact Sarah directly and publicly; this is now in the public space and you want to be seen handling it swiftly and appropriately. Don’t try and handle it ‘offline’, as this won’t do much to repair your public image. 

3. Put it into context and endear your brand to the public

You need to handle this one carefully, as you don’t want to be seen to be making excuses or deflecting the blame, but it always helps to put an event into context. Let the public know that you’ve been in business for 10 years, as a hands-on, family-owned small business that genuinely cares about its loyal customers. Subsequently you should emphasise that the 5-hour wait time is not the norm and you will strive to ensure this never happens again. If you can find a way to shine a more lighthearted or humorous light on the whole debacle, this can help to show the public that you are human after all, and as such, mistakes happen. Perhaps mention that you’ll be offering free newspapers to customers standing in line to ease the stress of queuing. Try and gauge the public sentiment and act accordingly, but if you can show your human side and inject some humour into the whole thing, you might just turn a negative into a positive.

4. Repair the burnt bridges

Once you’ve managed to put out the bulk of the blaze and calmed the situation somewhat, you shouldn’t just rest on your laurels; you’ll need to show your commitment to ensuring this sort of thing won’t happen again. Transparency and a candid approach will not only help to endear your brand to the public, but further ensure that you’re prepared for any future incidents (which you can hopefully avoid altogether, but should be prepared for anyway). You could, for example, post a video showing the process of quality checking, meticulously folding and wrapping all the items you sell, accounting for what may be a slightly longer wait in line. Show your customers that each sale is precious to you, rather than a faceless transaction to be completed as quickly as possible. Adopting a policy of transparency will also help you to ensure that all of your processes really are up to scratch and will stand up to customer scrutiny, should it arise.

Don’t wait until disaster strikes

Although these steps might not apply to every situation, this should serve as a basic guideline to handling an unpleasant social media situation and help to reduce the damage to your brand. But remember, a proactive approach, in which you foresee, prepare for, and accordingly avoid any potential risks, is far preferable to the reactionary approach, once the proverbial hits the fan.