I spent much of yesterday caught up in Apocaclipse 2017 (even though the clouds made it impossible to see much of anything). At one point, I posted to Facebook that I had heard “Don’t look at it!” so many times I was starting to have flashbacks of that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Nazis opened the Ark of the Covenant. For a moment, though, I hesitated, wondering if I’d get any backlash from using the word “Nazis.”

Fortunately, I didn’t. But that momentary hesitation was the catalyst for this post: How do we approach content marketing when we know that somebody could take offense at just about anything we say? (And now I’m wondering if I’m going to get accused of implying some people are snowflakes…)

I’m certainly not suggesting that we stop thinking about the impact our content may have on others. I’m just saying that, whatever you may think of political correctness in 2017, it’s indisputable that you will, at some point, offend a portion of your audience. The only question is what to do about it.

Make a plan

The best thing you can do is have a plan in place before your brand is blowing up Twitter (because making policy in the middle of a crisis is never a good idea). That plan should include things like:

  • How do you define a social media crisis, both quantitatively and qualitatively? Is the threshold a certain number of Tweets or Facebook comments, or is it more of an, “Uh oh, this is getting ugly” gut response?
  • What types of social media crises are you likely to encounter, and how will each be handled? Is unintentionally releasing proprietary information handled the same way as using offensive language? Is using a single four-letter word handled the same way as getting into an argument with or insulting a customer?
  • Who has the authority to handle and/or respond to a social media crisis?
  • How far up the ladder does a response to the crisis need to go? Is it handled at the managerial level or in the c-suite?
  • Under what circumstances might you choose not to respond?
  • What, if any, disciplinary action will be taken with the employee who posted? Will intention be considered?
  • Since the internet never sleeps, what, if any, circumstances would justify waking an executive up in the middle of the night?

Questions like these are almost guaranteed to make your lawyers sweat and your front-line employees back away from the keyboard. But, if you haven’t already had this conversation, you need to. These aren’t questions you’re going to want to ask and answer for the first time in the middle of a social media firestorm.

Prioritize prevention

There are things you can do ahead of time to reduce the likelihood of a social media misstep:

Determine whether any automated messages could backfire in a crisis

This one is pretty simple: You don’t want to share or retweet messages that portray your brand in a negative light. Nor do you want to respond with an automated, cheery, “Thank you!” when a somebody describes their horrible customer service experience.

Know what’s in the pipeline

Current events can turn a previously innocuous message into kryptonite. In 2012, for example, American Rifleman sent out a Tweet that started with, “Good morning, shooters!” While some may question the appropriateness of that Tweet in general, what American Rifleman couldn’t have know when the Tweet was originally scheduled was that, at about the same time, media outlets would be releasing more information about the theater shooting in Aurora, CO. That problem could have been avoided if someone had had the forethought to delete the message.

Make sure all employees who post on your company’s behalf are properly trained

Develop policies, standards, style guides, processes, etc., and communicate them clearly and often to take as much guesswork as possible off the shoulders of your digital front-line employees.

Encourage employees not to share passwords or leave their desks unattended with any social media platform open

Some things are just too tempting.

Stress the importance of making sure employees are posting on the right account

Some of the most notorious mishaps have occurred when employees mistakenly post on the wrong account — such as the time a Red Cross social media specialist posted her alcohol-fueled escapades on what she *thought* was her personal account.

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Take advantage of your team’s diversity.

Identifying potential problem areas is one of the best capabilities in a diverse team’s arsenal, as American Apparel must have learned when the picture of “fireworks” they posted to their Tumblr account in honor of Independence Day turned out to be the exploding space shuttle Challenger. My guess is that this was posted by a younger member of the team, since those of us who were around in 1986 have those plumes of smoke permanently seared into our brains.

Back each other up.

Social faux pas are often a matter of perception — and perception is often based on cultural and societal norms that can vary greatly. One of the most egregious examples comes from an Asian company advertising their skin-whitening cream.

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And, as if the picture weren’t bad enough, the tagline read, “Just being white, you will win.” I kid you not. It makes me wonder about their review process. Surely anyone with even a passing knowledge of American culture would have had alarm bells going off all over the place.

Weather the storm

Nobody’s perfect, and sometimes the biggest social media firestorms spring from offenses that would have been hard to anticipate. The bottom line is that, if you’re on social media long enough, you’re going to mess up. Here are some things you can do when that day arrives:

Get the timing right

Your response in a social media crisis is a matter of timing. If you delete, backtrack, or apologize the minute somebody complains, you risk looking disorganized and wishy-washy if the uproar turns out to be nothing more than a whisper. On the other hand, it doesn’t take long on the internet for minor rumblings to quickly grow out of control. Preferably, your social media plan should address this. If it doesn’t, the first — and one of the most important — steps is to decide when (or whether) and how to respond.

Identify the real problem

Apologizing for the wrong thing — or in the wrong way — makes matters worse, because it underscores the fact that you still don’t get it. Case in point: When I was a baby writer at my first corporate job, I was traveling with some colleagues. I was the only woman on this particular trip and, when meeting some local employees, one of them said, “So what are you, the coffee lady?”

I thought it was hilarious — because how clueless can you be? — and enthusiastically regaled my colleagues with the story. But this was in the early 90s, when political correctness was just starting to be a thing, and the powers that be were nowhere near as amused as I was. They made the guy call me later to apologize:

Ma’am, I’m sorry. I never should have said that to you. You could have been somebody’s wife or something.”

I think I managed to hang up the phone before I started laughing hysterically (it didn’t help that 3 VPs were crowded into my office to watch me take the call). Because an apology is clearly not the end of cluelessness.

The moral of the story: Make sure you know what people are upset about before you react. Otherwise, you’ll get even more of a backlash for being out of touch.

Lead the charge in poking fun at your “stupid” mistakes

content marketing eclipseNot long ago, there was a story about a mom who asked the museum in her town if they could reschedule their eclipse-watching party. If this woman even exists (there has been some debate) she’s probably pretty smart. After all, she’s checking out museums for things to do with her kids instead of stuffing them full of fat and germs at fast food play centers! She probably knows good and well that the museum can’t reschedule the eclipse, and, once she realized what she had done, her face was probably as red from embarrassment as everyone else’s was from laughing.

I first encountered this when I was a teenager working as a tour guide at Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home. I can’t tell you how many people asked questions that made us question their ability to function in the real world:

  • Countless people, upon viewing the costume Elvis wore in his last concert, asked, “Is that the suit he was buried in?”
  • People touring Elvis’s plane often asked, “Did his plane have a sunroof?” (To be fair, there was an indentation in the ceiling, but still…)
  • Upon seeing a picture of Elvis and his dad in Elvis’s last concert, people would often ask, “Was that picture taken before or after his dad died?”

And I swear on my little southern heart that this really happened… Elvis’s Aunt Delta lived in the house while tours were going on. Her dog, Edmund, sometimes pooped in the Jungle Room. I cannot even begin to tell you how many people asked if the poop was there when Elvis died. (We truly feared for our species…)

The point is that we all have occasional brain blips, and laughing at yourself is far more effective than getting defensive. And you’ll get kudos for joining in the fun.

Offer reasons, but not excuses

There’s a very important distinction between the two. Reasons explain what happened but retain accountability. Excuses, however, try to persuade the audience that you’re the real victim — of overreaction, judgment, hatred, etc. Excuses have that underlying message of, “It’s not my fault!” There’s nothing wrong with explaining what led to a social media misstep, but avoid creating the impression that you’re trying to shift the blame.

Describe which actions (if any) you’ll be taking to prevent future problems

Clearly, you don’t want to announce to the world that a specific employee is being fired, but, if processes are being changed, announcing those changes can help rebuild good will.

Know when to shut up

The urge to apologize and make things right can be overwhelming, especially if you really were clearly in the wrong. But don’t drag it out. If you keep bringing it up, all you’re accomplishing is to keep the conversation going. Know when to move on.

 

Every day, we churn out 2.5 quintillion bytes of data. On a minute-by-minute basis, that includes approximately 350,o00 Tweets, 400 hours of video, 2.5 million Instagram posts, and 3 million Facebook posts. And that’s not counting blog posts and emails.

I know it’s a cliche, but do the math. Statistically, you’ll eventually have a social media “oops.” The only way to avoid it completely is to not have an online presence at all. But, since that’s not realistic in today’s world, do the next-best thing by having a plan in place to minimize the risks and to repair the damage when something goes wrong.