By Alyssa Hurst
In March of 2015, SeaWorld introduced the hashtag #AskSeaWorld, hoping Twitter users would inquire about topics like conservation and training. Instead, SeaWorld received a backlash of criticism from those opposed to its practices. Its response? “Jacking hashtags is so 2014. #bewareoftrolls.” What’s more, SeaWorld publicly dismissed its critics as “bots and bullies,” and refused to respond to their tweets.
For SeaWorld, already facing plenty of bad press at the hands of the documentary Blackfish, this was a major social media flub. When it comes to social media, there is real power to be harnessed, but as they say, with great power comes great responsibility.
The wrong way to respond
Negative comments are a relative inevitability for any company on social media — it’s the way these comments are handled that determines whether a brand will sink or swim. SeaWorld’s vitriolic reaction to negative comments did nothing to bolster the brand, and alienated not only its critics, but also potential fans. “You never want to come out and say to someone [they’re] lying or be accusatory, but you do want to make sure that you offer the proper perspective — not only to the person that posted [a comment], but also to the people that are following the thread,” says Robert W. Weinhold Jr., CEO of Baltimore’s Fallston Group, LLC, an executive advisory firm focused on reputation management.
Though SeaWorld’s reaction only did more damage to the brand’s reputation, the company did get something right — it responded. In the face of poor Facebook reviews, Twitter attacks and angry comments, many companies are tempted to hit the delete button or simply avoid the problem altogether. But, according to experts, this is one of the worst things you can do. “The first thing is to address the issue. Too many companies hide or they ignore bad reviews, and you should not do that. I advise our clients to acknowledge the customer’s frustration,” says Tasha “TC” Cooper, president of Washington, DC-based UpwardAction LLC, which specializes in social media strategy.
In 2012, insurance company Progressive demonstrated another important lesson on how not to respond to negative feedback on social media after Matt Fisher, whose sister was killed in a car crash, wrote a scathing Tumblr post about the company. Progressive insured Fisher’s sister, yet when the family took the driver of the other vehicle to court, they found that Progressive had paid for his legal team. Fisher’s Tumblr post went viral overnight and inspired the wrath of more than a few concerned citizens who took to Twitter. In a bind, Progressive created an automated tweet, complete with the signature grin of its mascot, Flo. Each negative tweet received the same response: “This is a tragic case, and our sympathies go out to Mr. Fisher and his family for the pain they’ve had to endure. We fully investigated this claim and relevant background, and feel we properly handled the claim within our contractual obligations.” This did not go unnoticed, and stirred up even more trouble for the company.
Why is this so scandalous? “Now, I believe in automation with tools like Hootsuite. They’re fantastic tools and they are great ways to automate evergreen content, but you can overdo it. Social media has to be social,” says Cooper.
Despite countless examples of major brands falling on hard times at the hands of bad social media strategy, companies continue to mishandle negative comments. Such scandals can be even more detrimental to less established brands. “Crisis really costs four things: time, money, customers and ultimately your career. And when there is a negative post, it may be an issue of sensitivity, it might be an issue of adversity or it might be a crisis,” says Weinhold.
The best defense
“Some of the most forward-thinking brands are actively engaging with their unsatisfied customers on social media,” says Darius Fisher, president of New York-based Status Labs, an online reputation management company.
So how do you go about this kind of engagement? “A company can not only protect, but improve its brand by responding promptly and attempting to reach a reasonable resolution with the dissatisfied customer. Developing a reputation for being proactive and responsive is important,” says Maria A. Feeley, partner at Philadelphia’s Pepper Hamilton LLP and senior legal counsel at Freeh Group International Solutions, LLC.
Weinhold and Cooper agree that negative comments or reviews ought to be addressed in a timely manner. “Restate your company’s commitment to client satisfaction, … help resolve the issue, and move the conversation offline,” says Cooper. By taking the time to publicly address the issue, a company has the ability to regain the favor of not only the person who posted the comment but also anyone else who sees it.
The next step is to take the conversation offline, keeping in mind that anything that is said could become public at any time. “Going offline and making the conversation more personal and the experience much more interactive allows the company to earn trust back more quickly, and that’s really the goal: to repair trust, which seemingly has been broken,” adds Weinhold.
The key is to always remain engaged. Just creating a Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn account isn’t enough. “If you’re not going to be responsive, you shouldn’t be online … If you’re not going to be responsive, it’s worse than not being online because you show that you do not care, you are not engaged,” says Cooper. To that end, Cooper suggests posting targeted content and curated articles that serve a purpose in the lives of your customers or clients. “You should be informing people. You can be inspiring or motivating people through quotes and stories and features. You can be entertaining,” she says.
In fact, the insiders agree that the biggest threat to a company’s brand is not engaging in social media. “It’s the new word-of-mouth referral. If you want those referrals, you’re going to have to engage with your audience on social media and make sure they’re satisfied,” says Fisher. This sentiment is so important to Weinhold that it makes up his company’s mantra: “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. And when someone else tells your story, it certainly won’t be the story you want told. You need to control the rules of engagement.”
By properly responding to negative comments or reviews, a company can really shine, and ultimately gain fans, or brand ambassadors. “Customers now have a platform and a voice they’ve never had before. … With any point of adversity, there’s advantage if it’s managed the right way,” says Weinhold. “Digital stakeholder bases have a way of policing themselves, as long as the brand is strong and the brand is relevant in those people’s minds.”
We asked local leaders how they protect and build their brands on social media.
180 South Group
“We work in an intimate environment where any one of us can be face to face with some of our biggest clients; we have to protect the brand above all. With that being said, our method of posting through social media is what ensures we don’t damage our brand online. Our social media manager creates a content calendar of times, days and platforms, including the planned posts for the week. The posts are reviewed by our VP of operations, and approved for distribution. This helps us to maintain accountability for the posts, and also provides some checks and balances in the process.”
President and CEO
“We are a business and industry that is built on creativity and fun, but at the end of the day, we still expect our employees to be professional. We knew that we needed to implement some sort of social media guidelines to protect both our employees and our business, but we also wanted to make sure that our employees didn’t feel as if their freedom of speech and creativity was being hampered. Our policy dictates that if employees choose to identify themselves as a member of Brownstein Group in their social media profile, they must refrain from discussing coworkers or clients in a negative manner on any social media platforms.”
Founder and CEO
“I think that customers gravitate toward social media to get a resolution to an issue that they have. Even though we have an 800 number posted and we have a million email addresses posted, they seem to gravitate toward that. Luckily, we don’t have very bad reviews. … When it has happened, we respond quickly because we have people managing social media 24/7. … People can see the resolution, so for us it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have a customer issue on social media. It’s only bad if you ignore it and don’t respond to it.”
Lisa E. Rosenthal
The Mayvin Consulting Group, Inc.
“We trust our employees to use professionalism during and after work hours when operating in all social arenas, especially social media. In the corporate office, we encourage employees to post about what we are doing. Handling negativity on social media is always very reactionary and challenging for a company. We realize we can’t control what people say about us, but we can control the image and persona we give off. That’s why we are constantly involved in local communities, giving back to charities, and showing just how small businesses can make a difference.” CEO
BRAND PROTECTION: DON’T FORGET ABOUT EMPLOYEES
“Anyone with an internet connection and a recording device can wreak havoc on your brand,” notes Robert W. Weinhold Jr., CEO of Fallston Group, LLC. That includes your employees, so a social media policy is key to brand management inside your company. Here’s how to get started:
- Hire well. Darius Fisher, president of Status Labs, suggests nipping the issue in the bud by focusing on hiring employees who won’t expose a company to social media risk. “We use a software called Fama. It gauges social media risk prior to hiring anyone. … We try to hire people that we like personally, that are ethical, and we hope they are going to make good decisions in their personal lives,” he says.
- Make sure you’re covered inside and out. “A social media policy should cover employee use at work, as well as posts outside work if they relate to company business. Companies should also consider policies concerning posts on company-owned devices,” says Maria A. Feeley, partner at Pepper Hamilton LLP and senior legal counsel at Freeh Group International Solutions, LLC.
- Don’t overstep. A social media policy isn’t about becoming Big Brother. “Companies can sometimes be over-aggressive when they are monitoring and restricting what employees are doing online, so that can be a big threat if you’re violating people’s constitutional rights,” says Tasha “TC” Cooper, president of UpwardAction LLC.
- Pay attention to the law. “Generally, employees have the right to discuss issues relating to wages and working conditions, and a company can inadvertently violate the [National Labor Relations Act] by implementing a social media policy that is too restrictive. Similarly, companies should keep in mind that employees’ posts may be protected under whistleblowers laws. The right balance has to be reached in developing a social media policy that protects a brand but is not too restrictive and thus unlawful,” says Feeley. Note that the safest bet is to consult an attorney when you craft your policy.
- Culture and training matter. “I can think of nothing more important than culture and an energized employee base with the right leadership,” says Weinhold. “The lines between protected speech, employment and private lives are sometimes blurred, but I think most employees will be managed into compliance much more quickly with a social media policy in place that is signed for and trained against,” he adds.