What a week! I’m writing to you from Austin, Texas where I have spent the past four days at South by Southwest.

David Vap, RightNow
David Vap, RightNow

This internationally recognized interactive, music and film event attracts thousands from around the globe to discuss what’s next in technology and specifically social media. It is fantastic to be here in Austin and meet so many people who share my passion for taking full advantage of social media to deliver great customer experiences.

Perhaps the highlight of SXSW for me was headlining the session titled Social Hotline: How Social Media Impacts Crisis Communications yesterday. The premise of my talk is that social media has become a critical channel for organizations to plan and communicate with customers or communities in times of crisis – but an explosion of conversations in social media often overshadows these efforts.

I invited Dave Carroll, the musician of United Breaks Guitars fame, to join me and share his personal story engaging with brands in social media. Throughout SXSW, I keep hearing “United Breaks Guitars” singled out as a defining moment in the relationship between brands and consumers in social media. Dave really “struck a chord” during our session by shedding light on the customer experience in social media and playing his amazing original music! I also want to thank the SXSW attendees who contributed to the discussion yesterday, and now are continuing the conversation on Twitter.

For those unable to attend SXSW this year, I wanted to bring a little piece of our session to you to help you ponder how your brand can use social media to effectively engage consumers. Here is a recap of the best practices that I shared with our SXSW audience.

How Should Organizations Engage in Social Media Crises?

Organizations can and must plan ahead for how they will engage in social media in a crisis. What do I mean by a “social crisis”? By that I mean anytime an organization is at risk of losing control of their brand in social channels. As examples, consider the recent explosions in consumer conservations on social media about GAP, Groupon, Kenneth Cole, Nestle, Red Cross, and United Airlines. From my perspective, there are five critical steps to prepare your B2C organization for a potential social crisis:

  1. Understand your organization. Review external communication processes, social capabilities, and corporate culture. This is where we recommend scenario planning. Key questions could include: how would we respond if a vocal customer complaint suddenly went viral? How would we respond to a brandjacking attack?
  2. Create a new social mindset in your organization. The social shift calls for a mindset characterized by transparency, accountability, employee empowerment, and planned spontaneity. Technology is certainly a crucial component of dealing with crisis communication, but preparing processes and practices must come first.
  3. Know your consumers. Listen to conversations unfolding on the social web about your brand, and respond/employ proactive social support. Also identify your customer advocates on the social web – they will be invaluable in the event of a crisis.
  4. Form a social crisis team. A successful social strategy must cross the boundaries of department and hierarchy because consumers expect a seamless experience. Build a cross-functional team, including a social media manager, a product owner, and at least one executive sponsor. Draw up a social team charter to clarify roles and responsibilities and create an internal collaboration space for this team.
  5. Roll out a social crisis communications plan. Develop a playbook with guidelines for the social crisis team. Define an escalation process for potential PR issues. Build feedback into every step so you can adapt. Your plan needs to think through three areas – process and culture (what / who needs to change), technologies and tools (what to use to get there), and key metrics (what to track).

If I could leave you with one thought, it would be the importance of planned spontaneity. It’s critical to remember that companies can and must plan ahead for how they will engage in social media in a crisis.

Join the #SocialHotline Conversation

In the spirit of SXSW, I invite you to join the conversation that started in Austin and has moved online. We introduced a new hashtag #SocialHotline to facilitate this discussion on Twitter. I also invite you to share your reactions, insights and questions in the comments section below. Inquiring minds wants to know – What do you think are the best practices for how brands handle social media crises? What are the biggest hurdles to helping a brand through such a crisis? What should a brand like United Airlines have done differently?

About David Vap

A 17-year veteran to the technology industry, David joined RightNow in 2006 and currently holds the title of Chief Solutions Officer. In this position he is responsible for the entire RightNow solution including Products, Partners, and Best Practices, including the five Centers of Excellence. To read more by David on social media best practices, please visit the RightNow blog.

RightNow is a provider of on demand customer experience solutions that help consumer-centric organizations deliver great customer experiences. Founded in 1997, RightNow is headquartered in Bozeman, Montana, employs more than 800 people, and serves nearly 2,000 organizations worldwide. RightNow is listed on the NASDAQ under the symbol RNOW.

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