Surviving a Tweet Storm
It was early in the morning when the earthquake hit Christchurch. Much to the frustration of locals, struggling to find what was happening, the quake was not immediately picked up by the media. But Twitter was awash with information and users were able to check on each other en masse. As they checked on who had power, the damage done, and that everyone in their online communities was okay, it became clear that the speed with which information could be communicated across this network, often through mobile phones, was astounding.
Those early hours, and the after-shocks in the days that followed, were a powerful demonstration of social media’s ability to connect with people, solve problems and communicate a message fast and fluently. News of each aftershock was broadcast through Twitter and Facebook a good 20 minutes earlier than via the now-primed media organisations. Journalists began to use and quote from these sources, drafting a response ready to go live within minutes of each new event, rather than hours.
This disaster has impacted on people, and the economy, but has also clearly demonstrated how fast a message can get out on the social networks. It also showed how easy it is for one piece of misinformation to grow. Early reports on Twitter of looting in the streets turned out to be one or two isolated incidents. Imagination and 140 characters can be a dangerous combination unhindered.
Twitter works well in a crisis because it’s not device-specific. Catherine Arrow is a public relations consultant and trainer and manages the professional development programme for PRINZ, and is also a former journalist. She explains: “You can access it whereever you are. With an iPhone and a flip camera I have everything I need to broadcast a message.” This can be resent from the people following her to whoever is following them, and so on.
It was for this reason that Vodafone’s Paul Brislen began a Twitter account. The then external communications manager had been a journalist, and had used social media to hunt down stories. Disgruntled customers complaining to their friends and connections were often a good place to begin an investigation. Brislen saw an opportunity to put out the fires before they became big enough stories for a newspaper. “I turned what I had done as a journo on its ear and went hunting for the stories, before they became bigger than Ben Hur.”
The move proved successful for Vodafone, which now has several people from its customer service team operating the account, with Brislen providing oversight and a little of his character into the tweets. “We trust our customer service team to talk to customers all the time, and handle all manner of problems. It makes sense for them to do this within social media as well. We might pass something onto sales if needed, and then I provide conversation, and the persona. Vodafone is known as a friendly, smart but casual brand, so our Twitter and Facebook need to reflect that as well.”
International social media specialist Frank Simon says companies often underestimate how muchdamage an unhappy customer can do on Twitter and Facebook. “A woman in the US had problems with her washing machine, and tried over weeks to get it repaired. Nothing was happening. Eventually she said to the customer care team ‘do you know how many followers I have on Twitter?’ and the customer care said ‘we don’t care.’ After only one or two tweets regarding her problems it had made the New York Times and CNN. Large companies can be affected fast.”
Many mid-sized companies are still nervous about opening themselves to potential attacks if they go online. But smaller companies use social media because it’s a free marketing tool, and an easy way to get their message out and solve issues. Luke Nicholas, owner of Epic Beer, finds his social networks work as a virtual sales team. “I’ll have someone tweet that they can’t find my beer in their local supermarket. I can direct them to go and request it be stocked, then tell them the closest place to find it while they wait. If that supermarket already does stock it, I can have an order out and shipped overnight ready for the next day.”
Nicholas is part of a growing number of small business owners who rely on the social networks they’ve created. “If I’ve got an issue I can’t resolve, I can ask the Twitterverse, and someone will know someone who can help me.” Enjoying the interaction with customers is part of the experience. “I like knowing that if there was an issue, people know how to reach me, and feel a connection with me. They know who to come to.”
Creating a connection with others can help you reduce negative PR. Simon calls a negative tirade a tweet storm as it can quickly build and overtake you. If you have good networks, they can help you fight against it. “Understand what social media means for your company. The first step is to research using monitoring tools, looking at what people are saying at the moment about your brands and your products. You need to understand that there is no PR department or marketing department out there that can be big enough to handle tweet storms – it’s just not possible. You have to empower your employees and to build your network with fans and advocates. It depends on your company’s strategy as to how you will do that, but to build your community, to engage your employees using social media policies is the first thing you have to do.”
Brislen found this to be true several months ago when someone tweeted that he hated Vodafone. Brislen jumped in to offer assistance, but his offer was declined and more hate tweets appeared. Brislen found other followers began to tweet the customer, telling him to “pull his head in and accept help instead of complaining about it.”
With journalists using social media for sources, story ideas and scoops, it makes sense for companies who may be at the centre of the story to get in on the scoop from the start. Catherine Arrow says this is an important facet of social media plans for any sized organisation. Many people see the need for a social media plan for their company after a PR disaster hits, but Arrow says that could end up being detrimental to your image. “When people say, ‘okay, if we have a crisis we will use Twitter’, that’s no good if they’ve never used it before. You need to be comfortable in that environment, and have a community built up there already.”
The response is faster because the audience is different. Social media is about everyday people interacting with each other, but there are also high media and PR presences as well as well-known personalities. Having your information re-tweeted and sent out to a large number of people is simple if you’ve built relationships with influencers. It’s a little like the old boys’ networks of old, just faster.
Video footage and photos are king in our image-hungry world. Arrow identifies citizen journalism as one of the strongest growth areas. Major networks will take raw footage and eye witness accounts and play them on a high trafficked news site, or on television. “It’s got an authenticity to it and it provides mainstream media with an ‘exclusive’ which is very hard to do in this converging world.”
Using social networks for branding can help to break down some of the preconceptions the public can have about particular types of business. When Kate Anderson, e-business manager of The Langham, Auckland began a Twitter account for the hotel, it was very much a trial borne out of her own personal experience. “It was a free resource that only took some of my time. I wanted to try it, and felt if it didn’t work at least we’d given it a go. However, we’ve found it’s been great in terms of raising our profile, and our range of services.”
While there have been no huge problems so far, Anderson has been able to deal with several minor miscommunications through Twitter. “It’s a temptation to take it offline, but being able to resolve it with those 140 characters and do it where everyone else can see us talk it important. It shows our human side, and it reflects the values of our company. It breaks down any barriers people may have in terms of who they may interact with at a five star hotel.”
In the end it does come down to creating a relationship with people online, as opposed to broadcasting information. Short, punchy press releases are tolerated by people in social media on occasion, but need to be tempered with real engagement, chatting and communicating with others. Some Twitterers have commented on how much they enjoy the way the different telco accounts talk to each other. Brislen explains it’s the difference between person and business. “Gone are the eras of competing silos. We’re now in a world of ambiguity where we compete with them as a business, but relate to them as individuals. We’re not there to bag out our competitors. We’re there to support our customers. There is a difference.”
The time taken by companies on social media platforms varies. Anderson says it’s around an hour a day, “but spread out across the day rather than all at once.” Brislen and his team have alerts built in so they can attend to Vodafone earmarked requests fast, and Nicholas says he checks on it throughout the day with his phone.
Our phones have not just become our tool for communicating one to one, but are our chief broadcast tool to a wider audience. “There is a huge amount of stuff that you can do with them now,” explains Arrow. “When you think seven out of 10 people worldwide have a mobile phone – that’s a big number.”
Arrow predicts most phones will become smartphones in the next 18 months, making social networking platforms more easily accessible. She reminds people it’s not just Twitter you need to think about, but blogs, Facebook and any conversation you have online in an open space.
Like the earthquake, PR problems for businesses don’t crop up neatly at a decent hour. Having a social network ready to meet the problem head on can save you money, unwanted media attention and as you meet it head on, you may turn a negative story into a positive one.