How to Use Agitation and Instigation Media for Your Company’s Benefit

I have this argument with my wife all the time.  She says social media is dangerous: a boon for sexual predators, the next flash mob on Michigan Avenue, the death knell of civil discourse.  

I contend that, used properly, it is the Krazy Glue in community building: the ultimate affinity group connection, an early warning system, a digital extension of your best dinner conversations.  

There’s more than a kernel of truth in each argument.  I have to admit that there are times when I think we are just a Tweet away from toppling Illinois state government (would that be a bad thing?).  But I have to keep reminding myself that the Tweet is little more than an ignition switch that lights the passions and, yes, behaviors, of like-minded followers.  

And therein lies the point.  Social media is all about “the community, stupid,” not the Tweet.  

Put that notion in the context of crisis communication and it naturally gives rise to defense.  How can modern PR pros deliver a counterbalance to crisis-driven social media bombardments in an era when virtually every smartphone is a potential ignition switch?

Basically, it boils down to the old cliché: the best defense is a good offense.  There is one very big caveat, however.  The communities that spring to life in a crisis tend to gather around the negative, making the development of a counterbalancing community a pretty tough row to hoe, especially on the spur of the moment.

So, as I tell grad students in crisis communications classes at Northwestern University’s Medill School, if your company doesn’t plan for the unplanned, shame on them … and double shame if they (you) haven’t planned on how to activate a community of supporters long before the flames of crisis are burning down your brand.

Translated, this suggests three discreet planning efforts with an eye toward “agitating and instigating” when and if crisis ever hits.

The first has to do with identifying communities of prospective allies.  No doubt the list will rally around different topics and passions.  Some may be customers who believe in your brand … and tend to believe you.  Some may be vendors and/or suppliers who have a vested interest in your success.  Some may be civic leaders familiar with your company’s economic, social and cultural impact on the citizenry — in other words, people who can attest to your corporate citizenship.  Still others might be joined with you on science, public policy, business development and the like.

Once you’ve identified them, the second step is to figure the issues, topics, interests, vocations and avocations around which allies might gather.  The forces that bind are usually pretty obvious.  Starbucks, coffee lovers and growers on all things coffee, for example; or Science Diet, pet owners and veterinarians on pet care; or Huggies, moms and pediatricians on kids health.  

Finally, and this is the hard part, you have to develop strategies for engaging allies who can become possible support groups “when the balloon goes up,” as one of my Northwestern colleagues says.  This means using the community-building power of social media to create a group of followers and keep them interested.

A lot of companies may have to swallow pretty hard if they want to deploy social media for offense (or defense) during crisis time.  The “social” part the terminology is far from incidental.  To the contrary, it requires serious levels of frequent and transparent exchange to reach community status … and a constancy/intimacy of engagement to engender the trust that necessarily girds a support group.

Starbucks has it figured out.  They have nearly 1.7 million followers on Twitter who stay in touch because Starbucks lets them say what they have to say, and often responds with, “We’ll do what we can to help.”  Tweets post by the minute. The social tie that has been created probably gives Starbucks a fairly powerful ignition switch for informing, and even activating, its supporters in a moment of need.

On the other hand, with only 9,500 Twitter followers and Tweets posting daily, Huggies’ trigger might not be pulled to similar effect.  It’s a little harder to tell how Hills, maker of Science Diet, might fare with the 853 veterinarians following Tweets that post irregularly — a day or two or twenty in between — @HillVet. There are nearly 60,000 veterinarians in the US.

Of course, Twitter is not the only measure of community building, but the drift is quite evident. There is a new communications paradigm, and company communication executives need to pay heed to its influence on business and reputation. Dow Jones puts the challenge this way:  

The sheer number of social media platforms and tools, coupled with the deafening volume of conversations they host, leaves communications executives at the center of a chaotic information universe.

Their advice, and mine, is to get on the offense and engage.  Traditional news media and organized journalism aren’t the only games in town.  Now there is individual empowerment and public involvement with instant messages, Tweets, blogs and Facebook posts.  

When pressed into duty a decade ago, crisis PR staffs at Enron, Arthur Andersen and Martha Stewart generally knew how, when and where to engage with the media.  BP, Toyota and Tiger Woods had no such luck.  In their moments of crisis, every keyboard represented a potentially viral opinion, every cell phone was just a click away from an incendiary YouTube video, and everyone was reading everyone else’s mail.

My argument on social media, then, is that companies need to have a network/community in place “just in case” they want to trip a switch to agitate and instigate for their own account in an emergency.  

And that’s exactly the same argument I make with my wife.

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