The Queen is dead. Or maybe not

Bad information, outrage and mob tactics make social media a difficult threat to manage, but there are some basic concepts you can use to reduce the risks, argues Mark Evans

BBC journalist Ahmen Khawaja might have thought she had a scoop, and quickly tweeted that Queen Elizabeth ‘has died’. She was, of course, wrong and failed the first journalistic test of checking her sources, in this case an internal and completely fictional exercise. But the damage was done, and the story was retweeted. Indeed the story spread so fast and wide that Buckingham Palace had to issue a formal statement denying the Queen was ill, and breaking the tradition of refusing to comment on the health of the Royal family.

The irony here is of a crisis communications exercise actually causing a crisis. All of which brings us back to Churchill’s old quote that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”. Except these days it isn’t half of the world, and the truth doesn’t always stop the lie.

Ask BP. After the explosion of its Deepwater Horizon platform, Leroy Stick (in itself a false name) tweeted as if he was part of BP’s public relations team. As an undersea oil plume was injected into the Gulf of Mexico @BPGlobalPR tweeted about lunch menus and image, provoking outrage at BP and fuelling the backlash against the oil major. A hundred thousand followed the updates – more than followed the actual BP Twitter account.

In the first case the news organisation suffered embarrassment and reputational damage because of the over-zealous actions of one employee. In the second, it was a deliberately false story. In both the action was ‘asymmetric’ in that a single source created havoc.

However the lone voice has support – the technology itself creates a ‘digital memory’, reinforcing the attack. Even the truth can have bias. Search ‘Deepwater Horizon’ and you will find images of the disaster itself cheek by jowl with oil covered birds and dead dolphins. None of which is not relevant, but something of a simplified story, and one from which BP would like to move on. But ‘digital memory’ helps keep the scandal at the top of the pile, and very much front of mind.

One could argue the philosophical desirability of this. None of that changes the twenty-first century reality of the threat to brands and organisations social media can be, as much as it can be a friend too.

CIR conducted a survey on the threats from social media, showing that reputation was clearly the most pressing and serious issue to our readers. So while not the only risk, the sector recognises reputational damage as the foremost. And yet this is an area where there are few case studies in what to do right, or wrong.

Domino’s – a corporate case study?

In 2009, Domino’s Pizza staff in Conover, North Carolina, thought it would be funny to play with the food ingredients before using them, and duly posted their exploits on YouTube. After 24 hours the video had been viewed a million times (and a later version of the report is still posted with 1.3 million views). This has become something of an academic case study.

First off, one might note that Domino’s share price did dip, but one will never know if that was a result or a coincidence, or a bit of both, and it did recover. But then, it is also generally reckoned that Domino’s then handled the situation well.

Social media is new(ish) but the fundamentals of a crisis communication strategy remained timeless, and considering that, at the time, Domino’s had no social media platforms, its response was not only good – it wrote the textbook as it went. An analysis of what it did creates a list:

Advocates Domino’s had no official social media presence, but they had enough fans who were social media savvy to tip them off. Support is vital, and worth maintaining.

Quick response The company is generally reckoned to have got this bit wrong. It may have been formulating responses, but it failed to convey that it was responding.

Momentum Once it was identified, the company set up a Twitter account to respond and reassure. Customers were informed that measures were being taken (close of the store) and that an investigation was enacted.

Build on momentum

With Twitter up and running and an apology made, followers can perpetuate the message by retweeting the link.

Official response Creating a video allowed social media to redress a social media problem, so that the channels were appropriate – by using video Domino’s also could place its response alongside the original YouTube footage. In terms of the content, having its president accept the issues allowed it to be honest, open and ready to correct the mistakes.

In hindsight, additional precautions might include:

•Having a crisis team on standby of investor relations, public relations, crisis communications, lawyers, HR, multimedia communications experts and an executive team.

•Imagine the worst case scenarios and exercise

•Monitoring social media

•Training your staff in its use and misuse.

Other issues with social media

Lower down the scale are the marketing missteps. These just make the brand look bad – the cost is not likely to go beyond the ‘joke’ falling flat or the professionally outraged – but, and it is a big but, it is cheapening your communication with your audience, and it is a missed opportunity to connect. If, for example, a fashion label tries to leverage off the Arab Spring – in 140 characters – it really will not work. And yes, this has been tried.

And as to those false rumours being spread on the internet, there is some irony in the rumour that Facebook planned to shut down its site, claiming CEO Mark Zuckerberg “wants his old life back” and desires to “put an end to all the madness.” A Facebook spokesperson later debunked the rumour, saying “the answer is no, so please help us put an end to this silliness.”

Another approach, although not recommended, was back again in 2009, when Ryanair cemented their pre-charm offensive reputation with an online response that read: “Ryanair can confirm that a Ryanair staff member did engage in a blog discussion. It is Ryanair policy not to waste time and energy corresponding with idiot bloggers and Ryanair can confirm that it won’t be happening again. Lunatic bloggers can have the blogosphere all to themselves as our people are far too busy driving down the cost of air travel.”

Well, it worked for them.

This article was published in the July 2015 issue of CIR Magazine.

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