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How to avoid a social media crisis

When it comes down to it, PR and marketing are all about narratives. Once upon a time, a company’s or business’ narrative belonged to its boss or owner. He or she could simply dictate from the top and entrust a team of PR men and marketers to put it into action. After all, there were only a handful of communications channels to worry about: print, radio, and TV were about it.

Those days, as you might’ve guessed, are long gone. In the social media era, your brand is not what you say about it, it’s what people are saying about your brand. Your narrative is not a fixed story decided once a quarter, but rather, an evolving story that could change based on any number of factors. It’s your job to both appreciate that, and do your best to direct it.

To illuminate what I mean, let’s take a recent example from the headlines. After President Trump initially issued his controversial travel ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations in January, protests erupted all over the US, including at JFK airport in New York. In response to the protest, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance stopped trips in solidarity with the protesters cause.

Meanwhile, the ride-sharing app Uber sent out a Tweet noting that it had dropped surge pricing. As New York magazine put it, “Though turning off surge pricing would likely mean fewer drivers at JFK and less money in the company’s pocket, the bland confirmation that Uber was conducting business as usual infuriated protesters, who accused the company of scabbing. Uber was forced to clarify hours later by linking to a limp email that CEO Travis Kalanick had sent to employees about Trump’s order.”

But it was too late. What happened next is that a different narrative took over. Angry users—who, rightly or not, saw Uber complicit with Trump’s wildly unconventional and unpopular policy—started the hashtag #deleteUber, which promptly took over social media. Meanwhile, Uber’s competitor Lyft announced a generous donation to the American Civil Liberties Union and posed itself as an alternative to the supposedly pro-Trump Uber. Lyft’s downloads surged, while Uber’s communications team no doubt scrambled to clean up the mess.

In this case, it didn’t matter that Uber’s decision to drop surge pricing wasn’t a political one. Once it was perceived that way by users and impassioned protesters, that’s precisely the narrative that took over. And any narrative that’s empowered by a hashtag and an angry army of social media users is one that’s going to crowd out a corporate communications team.

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The fallout from this lasted days, and ended with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick removing himself from his previous role on President Trump’s economic advisory council. His statement essentially proved the point I’m making: “Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the president or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that.”

So what can you learn from this rather extreme example of an ill-timed Tweet turning into a nationwide company boycott and social media crisis? The answer is to wield your power carefully, act cautiously in a media climate that often wants you to act quick, and always be aware that your intentions won’t always be viewed as such—no matter how hard you insist. Getting it right the first time, as Uber didn’t in this case, is much better than making a social media blunder that can turn into a monster you can’t control.

Tip #1: You can’t control the narrative. In a social media world, other people control your narrative - so be clear and considerate with your messaging, so as to avoid unintended consequences.

If you want to learn more about the media in the digital age, and how you can leverage social media for your business, please see these posts below:

Social Media Strategy is a Cocktail Party

Understanding the influence of news media

Tips for dealing with journalists in the digital age

Social Media Strategy: 'One subscriber is worth a thousand surfers'


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