Managing Social Media Disasters: What to do when employees go off the digital deep end

February 29, 2012

Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, presenter, keynote, technology, social media, Calgary, Canada, educator, education, professional developmentSocial media can be an organization’s worst nightmare. What do you do when employees badmouth their boss on Facebook? Or Tweet sensitive company information? These are complex situations with no easy answers. But there are practical strategies you can use to mitigate the effects of employee’s inappropriate behaviour on social networks and more importantly, prevent disasters before they happen.

It only takes one person to create a social media disaster for an organization. When that happens, the situation becomes complex and messy very quickly. You will leave this session with practical ideas that you can implement to control social media damage and prevent your employees from going off the digital deep end. Here are 10 tips to help:

Preventing a social media disaster

#1 – Develop an organizational social media policy

Putting together a social media policy for your organization is a critical first step in ensuring that people understand what is expected of them and why.

#2 – Provide training to your employees and managers

Policies mean nothing if people do not understand how to follow them and why they are important. Offer organizational lunch and learns, webinars and other short, quick training for your employees.

Social media training should not be one-way. It should not involve a trainer standing at the front of the room delivering content or telling employees what the social media rules are as part of compliance training. The most effective social media training involves conversations, dialogue and the participants exchanging ideas and input.

#3 – Establish disciplinary protocols before you need to use them

Most large organizations have standards and disciplinary procedures in place for workplace behavior. In an ideal world, discipline is unnecessary. But let’s face it, sometimes, people do stupid things. Take for example, the Domino’s Pizza employees who thought it would be funny to put snot-covered cheese on the sandwiches they were preparing. Not only did they sell the snotty food to customers, they video-taped their antics and posted their video to YouTube.

In that case, the employees were fired and charged by the local police with delivering prohibited foods to the public. What would you do if this happened at your organization?

Organizational response to a social media disaster

#4 – Respond quickly

A social media disaster is much like other kinds of organizational crises in that it requires an immediate response. You need to respond within 24 hours.

#5 – Apologize

Gone are the days when an organization can try to cover up a disaster. In today’s world, news travels fast. Your customers, clients, investors and funders may know about a situation before you do. If the organization has screwed up, the first step to recovering your reputation is to acknowledge the screw up and say you are sorry. Anything else just makes the situation worse.

#6 – Ditch the “corporate speak”

In addition to the apology, you need to sound genuine. A speech prepared for the TV cameras that is full of multi-syllabic words and corporate jargon is not as effective as a sincere, heart-felt apology, using plain and simple language. In a crisis situation, we tend to use shorter, simpler language. The stilted “corporate speak” of the late 20th century creates an immediate negative visceral reaction among people who hear it today. Be real. Be straight up. Be sincere. Nothing else counts.

Deal with the offender

#7 – Immediate response

In addition to a response from the entire organization, you need to deal with the offender(s) immediately. If nothing else, contact the person and let them know that their behavior has been unacceptable. Make an immediate, polite and straightforward “cease and desist” request. If nothing else say, “I don’t know how we’re going to deal with this. For now, I’m asking you to promise me that you won’t post anything else about this on social media. Would you do that for me, please?”

#8 – Insist on accountability

This is not an easy situation to deal with. An immediate reaction from a manager might be to simply fire the person. Given the circumstances, that may be warranted or it may be an over-reaction. If you decide that the offense does not warrant firing, the offender still needs to account for his or her actions. Asking “Why did you do it?” may help you understand, but it does not really move you towards a solution.

A productive conversation might include questions like: “What would you do if you were me?”, “What will it take to make this situation right?” or even “How do we make this right again?” You may not get the answers you want, but you will gain valuable insight that will help you determine your next steps.

Make it right

#9 – Affirm your commitment to your customers or clients

What makes a social media disaster so terrible is that an employee can go rogue in a matter of seconds… and customers or clients can find out before management does. That means your customers form their own opinions and make decisions based on the information that they have in a given moment, not necessarily based on what is true.

Organizations that serve customers or clients do not exist without them. They are the reason you do what you do. So, taking care of them is top priority. Make your response more about them, than about punishing an offender. A simple statement such as, “This isn’t how we treat our customers. We are going to do whatever it takes to earn your trust back” can be very effective. (Remember to ditch the corporate speak and be sincere).

#10 – Use social media as an engagement tool

This is not the time to silence your fans or supporters who are momentarily angry and express their feelings on your organizational Facebook page. Instead, engage your customers in conversations and dialogue. Re-iterate your apology (but not ad infinitum) and ask them what they would do to make it better. Re-direct the conversation in a positive way that is about helping you re-build the loyalty you may have lost.

These are just a few tips to help you in a complex situation. The reality is that a social media disaster can affect an organization for a long time after it has happened. Using the incident as an opportunity to learn more about your customers, what they want and what matters to them is an effective way to ensure an effective response and a long-term solution to help you re-built your reputation.

Want to get your employees, managers and leaders trained in how to manage social media disasters? Learn how in one of these programs, all of which are offered as live training and e-learning programs:

  • a one-hour webinar
  • a half-day workshop
  • a full-day workshop
Here’s what the curriculum looks like:
View this document on Scribd

Join us on February 29, 2012 at noon Mountain time for a one-hour webinar offered by Chinook Learning on this content. You’ll get the condensed version of the “how to” steps in 55 minutes.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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