This week we're discussing community-driven or -centered conversations - we talked about customer discussions as newsletters and brand as movement that brings customers forward on a journey, where collaboration and opportunity are not only key words, they are promises fulfilled.
I have now moderated a total of four sessions on engaging detractors - last one being this past Saturday at BarCamp Philadelphia - and I'm quite certain we'd find more material to discuss each new time. The way we left it on Saturday is that there are some people who are just cranky and determined to be contrarian - there is little you may be able to do for them, they will not accept your actions.
If you have been open and honest with the community, and remain positive and productive, the community might intervene at some point to address the situation and animosity created by the detractor. Which puts you squarely in the midst of community relations - an aspect of public relations - and in the communicator's seat.
Crisis on Social Media
Brian Solis beat me to the punch with a very complete and useful post on reinventing crisis communications for the social web. In it, he highlights how a crisis often does not happen overnight. In fact, in most cases it builds from small issues, complaints, even questions that go unanswered. As Brian points out:
[...] More often than not, we miss the very things that provide insight into a future response simply because we're not conditioned or trained to proactively discover and diffuse threats or negative experiences. [...]
[... ] In the era of the Social Web, a story, and the ensuing public recruitment, rallying, and support, can rapidly spread unlike any crisis wildfire witnessed or experienced in previous generations. [...]
In most instances, the people who initiate a negative conversation about your product or service (or even your advertising practices/message) do not do it with the intent to hurt you. They do it because they are frustrated or upset about poor service or a defective product and they already tried going through the normal channels.
Storms Before the Light
Chances are you were not listening. Not on purpose or out of malice, sometimes out of procedure - you are in a place where your people serve your process instead of the other way around. Or maybe you were listening but not participating, like in the case of Comcast with the sleeping tech video. It's important you join that conversation at the time it happens, find a way to take action and get resolution. This is a business conversation that involves business decisions.
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. 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. This is a conversation around values.
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. You (the company representative) need to complete the picture by participating.
What I'm doing here with these examples is drawing out the differences between the two different situations - the business decision and the issue/value. Try and put yourself in the shoes of the communicators who need to address one, and then those who need to address the other. Today they may be one and the same, too. At various points in my career I was walking in those shoes and it can be a very challenging human experience - with or without Web 2.0.
Think about what Dell faced and what the company was able to do.
It did not Happen in one Day
A company's culture will be the single determinant of its responsiveness and ability to address concerns whether they be business problems or accidents. That is built over time. You can train a good team, retain a great crisis communications firm. The culture piece helps tremendously with how you come across when you respond.
Peter Sandman, an expert in risk communication who sees himself as an extension agent - a popularizer and integrator - defines risk as hazard + outrage.
He notes that communicators use scare tactics to persuade people to do something - use condoms, quit smoking, test your home for radon - on one hand, and need to employ ways to calm them down when they get scared on the other - they do not believe the expert when he says that hazard is not serious, for example. Both activities are called risk communication: alerting people and reassuring them.
The truth is that most of the time we are quite apathetic of risks, but can ignite in outrage when the perception of the hazard moves us. If you ski, you know that you could break a leg (hazard). Because you do it voluntarily, you do not think about it that way - you assume the risk.
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.
Let there be a lesson in there for us. Even when the storm hits before the lightning, building and placing value on 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, to care about my welfare, and to be like me, says Sandman.
When I talk about writing online and sharing thoughts with a human voice, many business owners ask me what they should do about detractors. This is their single most pressing concern after that of finding the time to write thoughtful and valuable information. When I posed the question on Twitter before our session, Marc Meyer responded - don't underestimate the power, the resolve, and the focus of the detractor- the single minded sense of purpose amazed me.
Detractors happen, you may not be able to do anything about them directly. The human reaction might be to get very upset about them, which will take you nowhere. The Christian thing might be to try and be compassionate - wish we were so evolved! Think about your community instead. Take care of them. Talk to the people who want to talk with you.
Community is Built (or Joined)
My point, what I'd like you to remember is that community can be built, just like a team, just like a company culture. They are within your reach - not your control. Big difference. Even with all the monitoring and measured responses, the determining factor in your success is that you are a known entity, have a track record for participating, and are real.
While you can handle ihateyourcompany.com this way (WSJ via Brian Solis), your best chance to a dialogue with the community is to have a community in the first place. If your brand already has a community of fans or evangelists, find it and consider joining it.
If you think you don't, and many of us are probably in that category, consider that your employees are your first community. Chances are that if you ask them, they will tell you that they have been collaborating for years - and many are passionate about your business. That is gold, encourage them.
When you think about building a community, be careful in how you think about the people in it. They can be allies and evangelists, but they are not *your* assets to spend. A community owns itself, as do your customers.
Your company may be too big to fail, in that case people are smart enough to want to help you help yourself - their livelihood and that of their physical communities depend on you. There is an opportunity here to begin a dialogue with the community you serve, directly and indirectly.
Perception is reality. If you are in the risk business like AIG (linked above), you already know that. Talk, especially in times of crisis, is important. Language changes our brain and occasionally it can also change our mind.
[image by .craig]