04.28.16

#Crisis: How Social Media Amplifies Stories and Multiplies Brand Nightmares

The days before Facebook and Twitter were quieter, simpler times. If someone had a problem or complaint about something, they might tell their family, friends or neighbors. If the problem was big enough, they maybe would talk to a local reporter. Maybe there would be an article in the paper or on the news about the issue. But, concerns and complaints stayed, for the most part, local.

Social Media changed all of this – a story about a problem or concern in a local community is no longer limited to its geography. This is not always bad. The Internet has improved social organizing, allowing people to band together to create change. Sometimes, however, social media simply helps something spin out of control, causing a small-scale story or issue to gain large-size attention.

Stories with strange or sweet angles (Boy and Duck are Best Friends!) are spread quickly because they’re funny or heartwarming. Life is full of disappointments and stress. It helps, in some strange way, to know that somewhere a panda is rolling around in the snow, as excited about it as anyone has ever been about anything.

But even more potentially infectious are stories that create outrage or stir emotions. Our collective Facebook feeds are littered with stories about discrimination at a small store five states away or bullying by kids 5,000 miles away. These stories are presented as indicative of larger trends or fueling an overarching discussion of the ills of our society. And they are – discrimination and bullying are terrible and, in many ways, universal experiences to which many people can relate.

For brands and companies, however, this illustrates how the wrong story can gain traction on a site and go from 10 shares to 10,000 shares in minutes. Sometimes, companies or organizations become casualties in the larger conversation. Once the genie is out of the bottle, as they say, it is hard to put it back in.

What motivates this kind of epic sharing of small scale news on a sometimes global level? The change in media. Online publications can (and do) chart the popularity of their stories minute-by-minute. The more views and shares, the better. With analytics so clearly able to track how specific content scores with audiences, savvy media content producers know what to share to bring in thousands of hits or dozens of shares. Once a story is republished on a site, it is shared to the site’s social media channels and then it is off to the races and people react and share and comment and buzz about a larger issue of the article (“Bullying is out of hand!”), dragging sometimes innocent bystanders along for the ride.

This is how you end up with more than 300,000 Google News results about a teenager who was arrested less than a week ago for putting soda in a water cup at a restaurant in Arkansas. This story has no bearing on most people’s lives, but because it provokes outrage, it has been broadcast on news sites galore and shared thousands of times across social media in a matter of days.

Imagine working for that restaurant when the story goes viral. What would be posted on your Facebook page? How would you react?

Our advice: watch for oncoming problems and react quickly and definitively. Respond to negative comments professionally and consistently. Manage media interviews to ensure complete coverage.

(Or, when in doubt, just drop us a line.)

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