Remember that game where a group of people sit in a circle and one person whispers a rumor to the person next to them? Then that person whispers it to the next person, and so on until the rumor has worked its way around the circle. Then the last person tells everyone what the rumor is, so they can see how the story changed from start to finish.
I was thinking about this game when Kevin Smith recently had his very public spat with Southwest Airlines. I’ve already covered what happened and my thoughts over at The Viral Garden, and don’t want to rehash everything here. But I think this case is an interesting study in how the number of filters or channels a message goes through can have a serious impact on when a company responds, and how they respond, and perhaps most importantly, WHAT they believe they are responding to.
Case in point, Kevin had the tools available to DIRECTLY communicate with 1.6 million followers on Twitter. For Southwest, they had to have the flight attendants and pilot, and gate attendants all communicate with their PR dept, and at that point the message MIGHT have gotten in touch with someone that could respond to Kevin via the same tools he was using; social media. So it’s obvious that Kevin could get HIS message out much quicker than Southwest could.
And to be fair, Southwest is very active in social media. But even with that, their natural communication infrastructure dictated that their response to Kevin’s message couldn’t come as quickly. All of the above people, the attendants on the plane and at the gate, the pilot, and perhaps others, all had to be consulted to get their version of the incident with Kevin. Then when all the information was collected, the PR dept had to issue the appropriate response for Southwest.
So how does a company address this and get timely and accurate responses out via social media tools during a crisis situation? I think it comes down to a two-part solution:
1 – Reduce the number of channels that a response must pass through
2 – Reduce the amount of friction in each channel
When there is a crisis situation, a timely, accurate and valuable response is essential. Companies should be aware of social media and how these tools work, if for no other reason than to understand how their customers are utilizing these tools to create and share content. Now granted, if you’re running a 1-man fruit stand, understanding how your customers could be using social media might not be your top priority. But if you are a Fortune 50 B2C company that is ignoring how your customers communicate via social media, you have a ticking time bomb on your hands.
So companies (especially larger ones) should invest the time to educate their employees on social media tools, what they can and cannot do, and how their customers are using these tools to communicate with each other, and to create content about their company. They should also create a social media policy so that employees understand not only how to use social media tools, but what usage is acceptable, and if any is not. Many of your employees will be using social media anyway, so it’s best to put some guidelines in place to govern their usage on company time. This will also give employees that aren’t familiar with social media and incentive to become active in using these tools to connect with customers. IBM has a great social media policy, if you want an example to look at.
Next, companies should create internal tools that allow employees to connect with each other. Tools like Yammer give employees a quick and easy way to connect with each other, and collaborate on projects. Companies like Dell and LinkedIn have internal blogs and wikis set up that let their employees connect with each other and share information quickly and easily. This helps reduce friction in the channels, but can also reduce the number of channels, if it allows a front-line employee to instantly connect with the appropriate person that can respond to a developing crisis situation.
But at the end of the day, the key to addressing a developing crisis situation via social media is to utilize the same tools that your customers are, in the same way. If there’s a firestorm erupting via blogs, your customers will expect you to respond via those same blogs, not via a carefully-worded press release 4 days later. If your company can educate its employees about how to use these tools, both external AND internal communication will be greatly improved, as will your ability to deal with future crisis situations.
PS: Thanks to Beth Harte for recommending I write this post.