In competitive markets, the products and brands that stand out are community-driven. They bring customers on a journey based on continuous interaction and listening to feedback, creating an environment where collaboration and opportunity are not only key words, they are promises fulfilled.
Having moderated many sessions on engaging detractors with diverse groups -- from corporate peers to community and social media managers at BarCamp Philadelphia, I found while there are many situations, there are common themes. Some people are just plain cranky and determined to be contrarian -- there's little we can do for them.
When a brand has been open and honest with the community, and the interaction remains positive and civil, a member of the community might intervene at some point on behalf of the brand to address discrepancies. Because the detractor has created animosity in a shared environment. Public dissent needs addressing. Whether we do it internally, externally, or with a combination of the two determines outcomes.
Crisis in Social Media
We don't need to reinvent communication for the social web, but we need to take a deeper look at our processes. Crises may happen overnight, they develop over time. In most cases they build from small issues, complaints, even unanswered questions.
Many companies are not proactive in their approach to customer service, for example. They don't set up listening posts in social, and when they have channels, they lack processes for responding or the processes are too rigid. Which contributes to the poor level of authority of the people responding and reflects poorly on the brand.
Finding an issue does no good when the brand watches the story spread and build steam and support as a meme. It doesn't have to be that way.
In most instances, the people who initiate a negative conversation about a product or service (or even a brand's advertising practices/message) do not do it because they're hellbent on hurting. They do it because they are frustrated or upset about poor service or a defective product and they already tried going through normal channels.
Storms before the light
Chances are nobody was listening. Not on purpose or out of malice, sometimes out of process -- the company is a place where people serve the process instead of the other way around. Or maybe someone was listening but not participating, as in the famous case of Comcast with the sleeping tech video. It's important be as real time as feasible, find a way to take action and get resolution quickly.
What does the decision tree look like? Is there one?
In some instances, the negative talk is about issues. An example of that is what Coca-Cola and other companies and brands faced with the sponsorship of the 2008 Olympic Games in China. The WSJ blog covered the protest and response. The red in the promotional theme for the games can also be the red of a Coke can. But it's hard to think straight when on the defensive. Issues are important, they are what tell us apart from other species, they engage us in higher causes.
How do the business values come into play?
In the Exxon-Valdez case, a product problem spilled over to a conversation around issues -- the environment. In J&J's Tylenol case, a product hazard was handled by connecting with the company core values -- as an issue to be taken seriously. As evident in the Wikipedia page about Tylenol linked above, information on the situation may be missing, or stories about the case may already be coloring public perception. A company representative can complete the picture by participating.
There's business decision and then there's the issue/value equation to consider. Today they may be one and the same, but it's helpful when they are both addressed. It can be a very challenging experience -- with or without the social web -- to have a public debate when the backup and support from the business are ambiguous.
For example, when Dell staff faced critics and how the company turned around the spreading the Dell hell meme.
It didn't happen in one day
A company's culture is the single determinant of its responsiveness and ability to address concerns -- whether they are business problems or accidents. That is built over time. Training a good team, retaining a great crisis communications firm do not help when the culture poisons the response. It needs to be genuine.
Peter Sandman, an expert in risk communication who sees himself as an extension agent, defined as popularizer and integrator, says risk equals hazard + outrage.
He notes that communicators are used to scare tactics when they want to persuade people to do something -- use condoms, quit smoking, test your home for radon. But they need to employ ways to calm people down when they are scared -- in these cases, people don't believe the expert when he says that hazard isn't serious. They want to hear from the company. Both are part of risk communication: alerting people and reassuring them.
The truth is that most of the time we are quite apathetic when it comes to risk, yet we quickly turn to outrage when we perceive danger. Skiers know they could break a leg (hazard). Because they opt to ski anyway, they don't think about it that way -- they assume the risk voluntarily.
One of the examples Sandman gives in his work is the very Exxon-Valdez spill. The Exxon pavilion at Disney World's Epcot Center had a show on Exxon's record of environmental protection, and not a word about Valdez. As a result, perfect strangers were murmuring to each other about Exxon's gall in ignoring Valdez. Nothing the company could have said about the accident would have been as damaging as ignoring it.
There's a lesson in there for us -- even when the storm hits before the lightning, building and valuing an ongoing dialogue with the community can help navigate the uncharted waters of a crisis.
Credibility springs from three main characteristics, in addition to having a track record: expertise, altruism, and homophily. In other words, “I believe you to the extent that you seem to know what you are doing, care about my welfare, and be like me,” says Sandman.
The topic of handling detractors is a difficult one for business owners. It's often the single most pressing concern after that of finding the time to create valuable information and package it for consumption. How can one tell whether it's better to answer or to let it go?
Some detractors can be single-minded and powerful. The company may not be able to do anything about them directly. The first reaction is very human, but upset gets us nowhere. The charitable thing to do might be empathy -- emotion does get the best of us, however. But not when we focus on the community and taking care of them.
Community is built (or joined)
Just like we build teams and company culture over time, we can build a community. It's within our reach even as it's not our complete control. It doesn't come from monitoring and measured responses. The determining factors in the success of building community is our track record, credibility, and participation.
While one could handle ihateyourcompany.com this way, the best chance to open a dialogue with the community is to have a community in the first place. For brands that already have a community of fans or evangelists this means finding ways to support them.
For brands that may think they don't have one, employees are a community. Chances are they have not had enough opportunities to advocate on behalf of the brand, or maybe they have and it has gone unrecognized. That kind of passion is gold and should be more visible within the company.
When businesses think about building a community, they should learn to recognize they will attract a mix of people -- from allies or evangelists to skeptics. A community owns itself, as do customers. And that is a good thing.
A company may be too big to fail, in that case people figure out that they need to help it help itself -- their livelihood and that of their physical communities depend on it. In that case, why not take advantage of the opportunity to begin a more open dialogue with the community?
Perception is reality. If a company's business is risk, like AIG (linked above), that is a known quantity, or it should be. Talk, especially in times of crisis, is important. Language changes our brain and occasionally it can also change our mind.