The Weaponization of the Social Web And How To Deal With It

The Weaponization of the Social Web And How To Deal With It
The Weaponization of the Social Web And How To Deal With It - SideraWorks Blog

We’re really good at weaponizing social media.

The latest example was earlier this week when a cellular phone carrier made a not-so-brilliant reply to an upset customer (who also happens to have a formidable online platform). The details of that exchange aren’t really important, the point is that it was a misguided response on behalf of whomever was engaging via the Twitter account and something that could have been handled better.

The social media mob kicked into high gear, flaming the brand for the comment. Their competitors got in the game, and one could ask just whether that’s savvy opportunism or not a smart brand move. People who make their living helping businesses get better with social media and social business slammed them too, which makes me wonder what I’d think about that as a potential client (or heck, even a current one). But the point is that there are dozens of examples just like this every month.

Brand does something stupid, intentionally or otherwise, or an individual on the front lines makes a bad judgment call. The online world reacts swiftly, mercilessly, even gleefully trouncing all over the company who made the mistake, eager to hold them up as an example of the latest company “doing it all wrong”.

What does this teach? Is this helping anything?

Mistakes Happen

It could very well be argued that knee-jerk brand backhanding is teaching business one very clear thing: The Internet is intolerant, quick to react with or without facts, most often on the side of an individual with little empathy for the company or their individual worker, and that social media especially is a volatile, ready-fire-aim place.

That’s exactly why companies to this day, years after the emergence of the social web as a business tool, resist putting even their toes into the very pool we’re begging them to swim in. I’m not sure this is the example we need to be perpetuating.

Individuals screw up. So do individuals that work for companies. And I don’t buy the argument that “it’s been long enough now” in social media that mistakes shouldn’t or won’t happen.

Most businesses really delving into social are still the ones on the leading edge, bringing it to the intersection of the business world and beyond marketing.There is still a great lack of knowledge out there, minimal education, and real business models for integration of social and standards for performance are anything but mature.

What About Intent?

There’s such a thing as a one time, misstep by a company, perpetuated by someone who’s having a bad day, who hit the wrong button, who didn’t ask the right questions before going out and posting or publishing something. That’s not unique to social media (we’ve all replied to an email we meant to forward or forgotten to put the conference phone on mute). The problem is that those mistakes are immediately public.

It’s one thing if a business consistently and continually screws up, or gets tons of feedback from unhappy people about the way they’re handling themselves online or off. When a pattern of behavior emerges, then it’s worthwhile to start asking hard questions about what’s going on and why.

But does the intent matter, in either case? Whether someone meant to be harmful, disrespectful or rude? Whether the root cause was ignorance or willful and malicious intent or breach of ethics? Whether a company or person made an error they regret and would like to fix? Intent can matter a great deal, and it typically makes the difference when we’re deciding how much slack to cut someone when they say or do something regrettable.

But we rarely stop to ask about that intent or put ourselves in someone else’s shoes before we put our interpretation to work, assuming we understand all of the circumstances behind an incident . And once something is broken, once our perceived line has been crossed, we’re an intolerant group when it comes to retracting our giant #FAIL labels and recognizing and accepting an attempted apology or resolution.

Is This The Price of the Web?

Do we just have to deal with this as a potential cost and risk of being on the web? And when someone screws up, is a backlash of a social media nature just an accepted consequence? A justifiable one? Is the “voice of the customer and community” age something that requires us to take the good with the bad, and is there ever a case where the community is the party that should exercise some standards of decorum or behavior, or do they get a blank check?

Some of us encourage the idea of brands and companies experimenting on the web, testing the waters and trying things to see what works. Does that only mean if they do it flawlessly? If we’re encouraging experimentation, isn’t the burden on us as the teachers to help them navigate when mistakes happen and demonstrate the tolerance and patience we’d want someone to show us?

Who is the judge of when “experiments” should end and “taking it seriously” should begin? If we expect companies to have it nailed by now, what standards are we expecting that they adhere to? Are they consistent, understood, and predictable? Or is it all a moving target?

If we keep leaving businesses cowering in abject fear, motivating them to participate by saying that they’re missing opportunity but then terrifying them into inaction because they watch how the community treats businesses that screw up, how does that advance the purpose and potential we’re hoping for with social business?

What Exactly Do We Want?

I’ve never much liked fear as a motivator with individuals. I’ve made the mistake of using it. It’s never worked for any positive, long-term purpose. I don’t think it works for business, either.

Not to say some brands couldn’t indeed use some help and polish about how they conduct themselves toward their own customers online, or that there have been genuinely bad practices put out there, customers neglected, communities offended or alienated.

But it’s up to us — the professionals that are leading and puzzling out social’s implications —  to help articulate the expectations and standards that the web will consistently hold them to, and why. It’s up to us to help highlight when it’s okay to be learning and failing, and when it’s time for standards to get more serious. It’s also up to us to demonstrate the temperance, patience, and common sense we’d ask of someone else when we deal with businesses who are having a bad day, and support obvious efforts to improve and get better.

After all, as customers we expect businesses to exhaust all of their options to help us when something goes wrong, even if it was our fault. We have high expectations for how we’re spoken to, how we’re communicated with, and how our issues get resolved.

I think we need to hold ourselves to higher standards as individuals and professionals for how we react and respond to the businesses who are doing exactly what we’re asking of them and trying to bring social into their organizations one piece at a time.

We have short memories for both triumphs and missteps. We need to consistently put our efforts not into making mockeries of individual screw-ups over and over again, but into addressing them critically and saying to ourselves and each other “What could have been done to prevent this, or if it’s not preventable, what’s the solution that can make situations like this better and more effective for everyone involved?”

Potential Solutions

So, in my experience with companies who are dealing with these things daily and with the realities of resource challenges, corporate infrastructure and bureaucracy, and an intimidating lack of knowledge about how to make social more than just a Twitter account, these are some of the solutions that work to help take the scare and the sting out of social.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments about the ones that have worked for your company or clients.

1. Accept the reality and even probability that it will happen to you. And publicly.

This is probably the hardest one, and it’s a cultural issue of risk tolerance and attitude toward change. The answer is, most simply, to have this discussion openly among your teams that are participating in and contemplating participation in social. Are they all aware of the reality that screwups are not only possible but likely? How does that make them feel? Can they say “yep, we know, and that’s an acceptable risk” or does that bring the conversation to a halt immediately or spark tense conversations about “risk mitigation”?

If it’s the latter, you can’t move anywhere until you start unraveling why that is. Those discussions aren’t going to have anything to do with managing your social media accounts. They’re going to have everything to do with change management and the central issues of trust and empowerment among the humans inside the company.

2. Think strategically about who you put in front line roles.

Humans are fallible. And we require them to be on the other end of social media accounts, profiles, and communities (no one wants a robot answering their Facebook posts, look at how much we love automated call centers). We simply have to be thoughtful about who we put there.

If we’re relying on an intern or a junior staffer with minimal experience, they’ll require more oversight and guidance, more concrete protocols to follow and get their questions answered on the fly, and an understanding of how their actions or reactions can and will have an impact on the brand or operations. Education is key (though it can’t stop at just a training program).

If we’re putting someone with more experience and judgment in that role, they’ll still need to know how to handle a potential negative scenario, how much authority they have to solve a problem on the spot, what  further approval protocols look like, when and if they can break them to deal with something urgent, and how they should guide their teams to provide a consistent experience to customers online that is right in line with the company intent, vision, and personality.

3. Model scenarios.

Asking “what if this happened?” is one of the most effective things you can do when you’re building a social business program. We like it so much we built an entire lab around it. Envision the best and the worst situations. Agree on what might have the most impact. Know how you’d handle them, or make your best guess. Write it down and bake it into your processes.

You can’t do this enough, really. Ask “what if?”. See if your teams agree about what’s a critical situation and what isn’t. Make plans that address the most likely situations and that are flexible enough to adapt to the realities and unpredictabilities of a real-time scenario. Get everyone involved, from leadership to front-line to operations, legal, IT.

Understand the potential ripple effect of both good and bad situations and what your individual role will be in handling them as smoothly and as positively as possible.

4. Develop great social business guidelines.

All of your scenario planning should lead you to developing comprehensive but flexible guidelines around social media participation for your company. Social business needs infrastructure to thrive, and a good guidance and governance plan is the backbone, especially if you have things like regulation or compliance issues you need to work with.

It’s not about control and all the “don’t”s, but rather helping your teams understand what you want them to achieve through social initiatives. Make your intent clear to your teams, share with them your vision and your concerns and your goals for how social is powering your business. Then help them use those guidelines as the basis for exercising their own good judgement and initiative to come up with great solutions to new problems in whatever area of the business they work in.

This is about empowerment, helping articulate what great choices and solutions look like so that your teams can put their own intelligence and experience to work.

Your Turn

This is a big topic, one that’s been discussed many times over on the web.

The social web isn’t going backwards, and the genie isn’t going back in the bottle. All of these new realities – real-time response, building new infrastructure, coping with friction between our culture and the expectations of our customers and employees, the new shape of organizations – are here to stay.

What we have to decide is how as leaders and teachers we’re going to point the way, and how as participants and stewards of a changing era we’re going to exemplify the change we want to see around us.

Make no mistake that we each have a role in realizing the potential of social business, and it can start with how we  build on mistakes to illustrate its promising future.

Amber is the president of SideraWorks, a culture and organizational transformation firm. She's also the best-selling author of the social business book The Now Revolution. You can find her on twitter at @ambercadabra.