Listen To This: Why So Mad? from This American Life
Listen To This: Why So Mad? from This American Life
Listen To This: Why So Mad? from This American Life

You’re garbage. Such incompetence. You suck at your job. Fail.

This week’s “Listen to This” took me to a dark place in my professional career. A place that didn’t really exist before the adoption of social media. My guess? You’ve been to this place, too. Or you’ve at least seen it.

This American Life Episode 545 (“If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS”) is quite dark, full of tough language, subject matter, and personal stories that might not sit well with everyone. But it’s an important hour, and one that I want to put a spotlight on today. There’s not a singular moment this week that grabbed my attention, more of an overall feeling. If you take the hour to listen in, you’ll understand.

“Communication crisis”; are you familiar with the term? It could go by so many other names, but essentially it’s the period of time directly after you have screwed up, particularly in social media. There is a mistimed post, an unfulfilled promise, a hashtag gone wrong, a bad attempt at a joke, or simply poor communication, followed quickly by a releasing of the hounds.

[An important sidenote here: I’m going to talk about my personal communication crisis experience and what I learned from it. It was a bad day, and there are important lessons to write about. But it was a day. Just one day. Many, many (many) people experience online attacks every single day because of their gender, beliefs, race, or other affiliations. It breaks my heart that it’s the norm for so many; I’ll let Lindy West say it in her own words (@6:30 in the podcast): “It went on like that for weeks. It’s something I’m used to. I have to be. Being insulted and threatened online is part of my job”. Me? I’m lucky, and I consider myself such. So take my story for what it is. A day. A hard day, but only a day.]

Are You Prepared?

What are we, as brands, to do when our communication is in crisis? How do we respond when we no longer have control of the message? What is your escalation plan? These are great questions, but ones that came too late for my day in the trenches facing the angry mob.AngryMob

Some context. Rewind to January of 2012. I was at a previous company, and we were launching an updated version of a marketing program; we saw nothing but success on the horizon. We had listened to our audience feedback, worked out some minor bugs, and had all hands on deck. The countdown was on. The day had arrived. And…launch!

Uh-oh. A confused post to Facebook, another curious post to Facebook, a handful more, many handfuls more, and it was obvious that there was trouble. More posts, more posts, and more and more and more.

The posts started out as curious: Hey, what’s going on with the site?
Then, they turned to helpful: I tried X but there was an error that said Y.
It didn’t take long for the mob (numbering in the hundreds at this point) to turn angry: Hey! It isn’t working!
After anger came humor (not the good kind): memes, images, punchlines, making fun of us to our face (well, logo).
Then, the attacks poured in. Personal, mean-spirited, borderline-offensive attacks.

There’s nothing like a promise unfulfilled or a promotion gone wrong to bring out the vitriol, and nothing seems to produce vitriol more than the social web.

And what were we doing to calm the crowd? Scrambling. Behind the scenes, there was a flurry of chatter; however in public, we were largely silent. To put it mildly, we were not prepared. At all. Certainly not for the aggressive rate at which things escalated, for everyone to see.

In the end, we struggled but we survived. It was a very long day, perhaps the hardest of my career. Only one bad day but a day that I wouldn’t wish on any of you. (If you are interested in reading more about how it all went down, hit me up on Twitter, and I’ll send you a link to the news article.)

Why do I share all of this with you? Because there were lessons learned. And I hope you can take something away from my experience.

Have a plan, for Pete’s sake.

Here at SME, we love to create response models. These documents are built with the specific intent of instructing any employee using social what to do and when to do it. Happy social post? Awesome; follow this path. Really pissed off social post? Uh-oh; here is the escalation procedures. Confused social post? No problem; here’s how to handle it.

Sure, playing social on the fly can be perfectly fine…for a while. But the day will come when the social point-person will be stumped; that day is too late to start thinking about a plan. Ensure that everyone is aware of the procedures, signs off on the procedures, and follows the procedures. It’s better for you, better for management, and much better for your customers. If you don’t already have a response model for social, I’d recommend starting on that today. And if you need help, just holler (we’re good at those).

Be really, really, really honest.

Well, maybe just really honest; it’s unwise to publicize the emotionally-heated conversation you are having behind-the-scenes during a crisis. However, you will need to explain the situation, possibly apologize (perhaps multiple times), and make people aware of the progress to rectify whatever has gone wrong. Silence is a really bad idea when your customers are restless. Be honest with your audience, and take your cues from them. Do they need more information? What information do they want? They’ll let you know whether you’re succeeding or floundering, so listen, be honest, be mindful, and be transparent.

Be immediate, but be smart.

Timing is very important during a communication crisis. You need to get ahead of the crisis as quickly as possible. But be careful not to jump the gun. This is where a response model comes into play. The last thing that you want is for an employee to speak too candidly, too quickly, or out of turn. Make sure that your procedures are followed, and follow them quickly. Meet your customers’ needs before the spark turns into a flame. Public silence and internal confusion are the quickest way for a fire to get out of control.

Have so much empathy.

Yes, speak with authority; yes, speak with clarity; yes, speak with sympathy. But absolutely prioritize empathy. You are on the wrong side of the fence during a communication crisis. And even if you aren’t on the wrong side, your audience believes that you are. You need to be able to jump that fence, see things from their point of view, and speak to their needs, wants, and feelings. Understand where they are coming from, and they might just understand where you are coming from, as well. Empathy is the secret sauce of social; use it wisely.

Turn your unfortunate situation into a WOW.

It’s not always possible to turn the tide, but rarely is there an opportunity to make such a lasting impact as during a crisis. If you can view the storm as an opportunity, stop at nothing to capitalize on the event. Reach into your budget, go (way) above and beyond, extend offers of value or communication, find the pain points and solve them with passion, etc. Yes, you might take a hit financially or otherwise, but the opportunities to gain in customer loyalty, customer advocacy, and overall good will should not be taken lightly. Do what it takes to WOW because that WOW will last and last and last.

It is no fun to face angry customers, and that is especially true when it comes to something as public and complex as social media. However, if social is part of your job, you will face angry customers at some point. Know the plan before that day comes, and you can survive, even thrive, through the crisis.

Have you faced your own communication crisis? Let us and our readers know how you survived and what you learned. Hit up the comment section below with your experience and learnings.

Huge props to This American Life for tackling such a difficult subject. I highly recommend you check out the whole episode; you can do so here. It’s rough, full of tough language, violence, and heartache. But so is the internet.

And so is life. *Shanti*

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About the Author

Matt Hollowell
Matt is a lifelong student of design, marketing, publishing, and content creation. His passion sits at the intersection of content and design; in fact, you can often find him there with a cup of coffee in one hand and a notepad in the other. As SME's Creative Director, he supports both the brand and clients, which helps to satisfy his lifelong love of never knowing what's coming next. When not at his desk, you'll find Matt serenading his two amazing daughters, reading gritty British poetry, or obsessively listening to podcasts. Send him your podcast reccs here: @mhollowell.

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