How Social Media Can – And Can’t – Help You Survive PR Calamities

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Everyone has a PR misstep every now and then, but few brands have experienced the kind of unmitigated publicity disaster that United Airlines has dealt with the last couple of weeks.

Certainly, I hope you haven’t.

By now I’m sure you and nearly everyone you know have seen that viral video of a United Airlines passenger getting yanked out of his seat by police, his face smashing into the armrest in the opposite row. Other passengers, clearly mortified, aimed their smartphone cameras at the ordeal.

In seemingly no time, the video was shared online, news organizations reported on the PR disaster, and people on social media skewered the airline relentlessly.

All because United Airlines needed to open up a few extra seats on the flight and couldn’t come up with a more delicate way of solving the problem.

I often talk about what a great tool social media is for promoting yourself or your brand, and how in this day and age social media is an essential element in an overall publicity campaign.

And that’s just as true as ever. But, as the United Airlines situation reveals, social media is a double-edged sword that can be used against you when the publicity tides turn and customers want to complain about your service.

As I pondered that situation, I decided to ask Jay York, our senior social media strategist, to share a few tips about the role social media can and can’t play when your brand gets a black eye. Here’s what Jay had to say:

  • Get ahead of the problem before social media is involved. While it’s great when companies address the problems their customers or clients report on social media, it would be even better if those situations never reached the point where that was necessary. In other words, don’t view social media as your customer-service safety net. When problems arise, take care of them upfront. Recognize that social media provides consumers with the opportunity to get better service, which means you need to do a better job providing that great service to begin with and leaving them little to grumble about.
  • Address customer complaints the right way on social media. Okay, let’s say that despite your best efforts, someone is grumbling about you anyway, tweeting how unfair you are or using your very own company Facebook page to warn others away from your business. Tackling the problem head-on is typically the best approach. Even if you were in the right, express that you are sorry the person wasn’t satisfied. Explain things from your perspective, and show that you legitimately care about your customers or clients, and are willing to work toward a mutually agreeable outcome. You don’t want to cave to an outrageous complaint, but you do want to handle matters with a diplomatic, level-headed and caring approach.
  • The last resort – going dark. The social media managers at United Airlines – once they no doubt stopped pounding their heads on their desks – decided the best social media response to their PR tsunami was no response at all. So, other than posting their CEO’s rather awkward initial apology and then his follow-up apology, their social media channels went dark. They didn’t post anything new. Generally, ignoring problems on social media is a bad idea, but in this case it was the right call. There’s just not much they could say that would help quell the backlash to what happened on that airplane, and any posts would just open another avenue for the public to pile on with disparaging remarks.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help. Social media isn’t something you should do on the side or delegate as one more extra duty for an employee already swamped with responsibilities. Properly managing a social media campaign is both an art and a science. Ideally, you want someone who knows how to strategize and can make the right decisions about what to post, when to post and how to engage followers.

Jay’s final tip points to something I’ve brought up in the past. You can’t just take a willy-nilly, anything-goes approach to social media. It’s important that your social media effort be planned and carried out in a thoughtful, professional manner.

And that’s probably even more important when it comes time to address those customer complaints.

Strategically yours,

P.S. If you’d like professional help getting interviews with the media, we’ve been arranging interviews for our clients on radio and TV, and obtaining editorial coverage in newspapers and magazines for more than 26 years. We also offer a comprehensive social media marketing program for select clients, where we do it all for you. If you’re interested in our help, please call us at 727-443-7115 Ext. 231. We’d love to hear from you!

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