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Social Media Crisis Prevention: Can You Defuse an F-Bomb?

Susan Etlinger

It's a nightmare scenario.

  1. You get a frantic text or call from a co-worker that someone tweeted a tasteless joke or profanity from your corporate Twitter account.
  2. The keywords in the post start trending among your brand mentions, soon to be followed by the hashtag #fail.
  3. Your customer service team receives outraged calls complaining about the foul language and lack of judgment of your employees.
  4. You scramble to delete and/or apologize for the offending tweet. The apology tweet must be vetted by at least three departments, delaying the apology and allowing the issue to escalate further.
  5. You are summoned to your boss' office to explain what happened, what's being done to fix it and what your plan is to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.

Sound familiar? It does if you are KitchenAid or StubHub, each of which experienced a similar social media crisis during the last few weeks. But, even if you've been lucky enough to avoid this situation, you still need a plan.

The first thing you need is a social risk management framework to guide you through the process of identifying, evaluating, mitigating and assessing emerging risks from social media. My colleague Alan Webber recently published "Guarding the Social Gates: The Imperative for Social Media Risk Management," for that purpose. It covers the steps you need to take to understand your risks, and put the right policies, processes, resources and training in place to mitigate them. As Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) says to Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) in Fast Times at Ridgemont High:

"Learn it. Know it. Live it."

If you are in the healthcare or financial services industries, chances are you've been over this territory with a fine-tooth comb, given the stringent legal requirements related to patient, consumer and investor protection. But, if you're in a less regulated industry, you still need to take stock of your social media governance policies and processes to prevent this--and other--scenarios from happening.

Clara Shih, CEO, Hearsay Social, agrees. "These [accidental posts] are certainly tactical challenges we need to figure out, but they signal that social media is growing up into something that’s real. Along with that comes a new set of responsibilities. If we expect social media to drive business impact, then we need to invest in a full set of governance policies, procedures and tools to make that so.”

Everybody else, this means you.

But what if you already have a social media risk management framework in place, but someone still makes a--frankly stupid--mistake and accidentally tweets something from the corporate account that they meant to tweet from their personal one? Or if you have good processes in place to handle industry issues, but not cultural or political ones? Is there a last line of defense? Can technology be your safety net?

The answer is...sometimes.

Even if you are not in a regulated industry, it's time to educate yourself about the social media management and compliance tools that include features and integrated business rules that can help prevent the unprintable. Typically, they include lexicons of industry-specific words or phrases (think "guaranteed return" for financial services) that require approval, modification or deletion to keep the brand in compliance with applicable laws.

In the case of StubHub, a profanity filter would have done the trick, assuming that the company had uploaded the most common swear words to their "flagged content" lexicon (and further assuming the tweet in question was posted by an employee and was not the result of hacking). In the case of KitchenAid, however, it's a bit more complex, since the post did not contain any profanity but rather consisted of an offensive comment about the president and his grandmother.

[And let's be clear: the StubHub tweet was about the brand, by an employee, so would have violated most social media policies, irrespective of which account tweeted it. The KitchenAid tweet, while offensive, didn't enlist the brand except in the sense that it was tweeted from the corporate account.]

140 Characters of Prevention

Here are some quick tips on "last lines of defense" for social media risk. They can't--and won't--replace good policies, processes, education and judgment, but they can sometimes provide a safety net when all else fails.

  1. Posting restrictions. Look for management and compliance tools that enable you to set a requirement that people can only post to your brand account through their app, which would then run business rules that flag questionable content and/or prevent it from being posted in the first place. Make sure this is true both for the mobile and the web application, and change login credentials regularly to ensure that any employees or agency staff who have left the company no longer have access. If you don't have a tool that supports this function, Alan Webber counsels that you not allow employees to have personal and corporate accounts on the same mobile device (or app).
  2. Manual approval. While this is the most cumbersome option, and most difficult to scale, some organizations require approval of all posts before they go live on brand channels.
  3. Updated lexicons. Even if you already have a compliance tool with an industry-specific lexicon, consider creating lexicons of other types of language that you want to prevent or restrict on your corporate social sites. This could match existing acceptable use policies related to profanity, or discussion of politics, religion or race, if desired.
  4. Proactive monitoring. Look for tools that continually monitor your brand accounts and, depending on the content, automatically delete inappropriate posts or alert someone within the organization when they occur. Some of these tools also include infraction tracking, so you can monitor trends among departments, geographies and individual employees, as needed.

The truth is, you can't always stop stupid. But for those times when judgment and impulse control fail, make sure you have the tools and processes in place to defuse that ticking F-bomb before it explodes all over your news feed.

For more on social media management and compliance tools, please see Alan Webber's "Guarding the Social Gates: The Imperative for Social Media Risk Management," page 20, as well as Jeremiah Owyang's "A Strategy for Managing Social Media Proliferation." And, as always, I welcome your comments and differing points of view.

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