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Minimizing Social Media PR Disasters: Seven Safe Social Steps

Whenever your company speaks via social media, its message is heard loud and clear – and by millions all over the globe in a matter of minutes. Below are seven tips for safely navigating through today’s social spotlight.

It is the old telephone game, amplified by a factor of a zillion, spread by an increasingly expanding world wide web. A misunderstanding, bad service, a rumor - the (mostly bad) news quickly spreads like a virus.) You need to react, to take action, but what to do? A misstep at this point may be a PR disaster. It happens every day, and it could happen to your company if you don't minimize its potential and practice "safe social."

The year was 2010. Nestle had a PR crisis with Greenpeace; an environmental protection organization. Greenpeace used social media to spread news that went viral. Nestle was using vendors who contributed to the extinction of the endangered orangutan. It got quite nasty. According to Greenpeace, companies that were supplying palm oil to Nestle were clearing off rainforest to grow palm trees plantations, making orangutans homeless in the process.

This was a fiasco in the making. Greenpeace loaded a video on YouTube, which created a social media storm (Warning: the YouTube video is nasty). When Nestle blocked the video, Greenpeace activists and environmentalists took to Nestle’s Facebook page to show their anger. What followed was an utter failure by Nestle to handle conversations with audiences on a public platform, which resulted in a PR fiasco.

Nestle's Facebook fan pages and blogs were filled with scathing comments on Nestle's environment-destructive action and their substandard social media behavior. The episode ended with Nestle making an apology for their improper handling of conversations; the food giant also announced that they would see to it that supply from such vendors would be stopped by 2015.

Nestle's problem would not have gone huge if they had in place concrete guidelines to handle such negative attacks on a vastly public platform such as social media. Brands will be in a better position to manage such situations with some pre-planning. So here are seven tips for "safe social" interactions. Remember, prophylactic measures help build better communities.

1. Accept that they're going to be such attacks. After all, there are going to be people with counter perspectives. And with social media, the perspectives are not just limited to local but the entire world. Accepting it will make you focus on solutions to better handle of such situations. Build a cross-organization response team with clear measures (SLA's) that everyone signs up to.

2. Watch your reaction. Taking undemocratic action (making the YouTube video inaccessible in the case of Nestle) will only explode the already existing problem. Instead, make efforts to come up with a more sensible response such as carrying out an open discussion or debate about the incident.

3. Maintain your cool when audiences become rude. Reacting in the same vein will only worsen the problem. Instead, state facts behind the incident and make your point. Respect the fact that other people are entitled to their own opinions even if they don't agree with yours.

4. Interact with your audience continuously. Giving a press release a week or month after the incident doesn’t help. News spreads at a rapid pace on social networks. Regular interactions with audiences help prevent further deterioration of trust and enable you to keep a pulse on prevailing audience sentiment.

5. Transparency is essential. When faced with a controversy, ensure the audience knows what's in your mind as a brand. In the case of Nestle, it would have helped if it had come out sooner and told the public what they next step would be.

6. Avoid getting into social media without a clear strategy in the first place. Have in place proper resources including people and technology to tackle potential problem-causing situations.

7. Recruit experienced people with excellent communication skills over social media. People with the know-how to handle criticisms can help prevent potential problems arising from poor social media communication skills.

Keith Fiveson is the chief strategic consultant for IT Enabled Services Alliance (ITESA). His firm provides advisory services for contact center and social media and creative production.