Monday, December 5, 2011

The Predictable Unpredictable Social Media Disaster

I was reading about the latest so-called "social media disaster"--this one from Qantas Airlines--when I was struck by a sentence in the Reuters article: "PR experts said the campaign was... a classic example of the dangers of unpredictable social media." I don't mean to be hard on Qantas--any company or human can inadvertently make mistakes--but this situation was about as unpredictable as the sun rising or Groupon's stock falling.

Qantas' social media campaign was intended to get travelers using the hashtag #QantasLuxury and describing their "dream luxury inflight experience." The timing was, at best, dubious, coming just a day after Qantas and its unions broke off contract negotiations and one month after Qantas stranded 70,000 travelers by grounding its fleet due to union woes. Furthermore, the prizes in this promotion weren't, as you might expect, trips to exotic locales but pajamas and toiletry kits. The effect was to spur many negative, sarcastic and angry responses about Qantas in social media channels.

So, are you shocked at the outcome? Do you find the social media backlash "unpredictable?"

How many instances of social media PR disasters are truly unpredictable? There are cases when a brand can be caught by surprise--such as when activists launch a critical social media campaign or a single consumers' complaint becomes a meme--but are most social media issues really fluky and unforeseeable? This isn't an inconsequential question; if social media is a flaky and erratic channel, then it is an inhospitable medium for business.

I believe social media is not a game of chance but more akin to the weather. Weather forecasters may frequently get tomorrow's forecast wrong, but that doesn't mean we consider sun, rain, snow or lightning unpredictable.

This year, lightning strikes will ignite around 24,600 fires to which US fire departments will respond. One lightning strike is unpredictable;  tens of thousands of them across the country is not. Because we know this, we prepare. We purchase insurance, install lightning rods, use surge protectors and tune into the National Weather Service to stay informed when weather turns severe.

Any brand can be struck by social media lightning at any time, so the smart ones prepare--they engage advocates, provide excellent products and services, amass fans and followers, deploy social business strategies, use listening platforms and employ community managers to respond with speed, empathy and care for the customer. These are the components that ensure if and when a brand is struck by social media lightning, brand damage is limited.

But while any brand can be struck, we also have to recognize there are actions our organizations may do that can make it a target.  Golfers know better than to stand in the middle of a fairway holding a metal club above their head in a thunderstorm, yet brands seem to do the social media equivalent quite frequently.

Many of the social media PR disasters that have occurred weren't unpredictable. Brands may not be able forecast the specific social media reaction, but we know risk increases when brands raise prices or fees, redesign products or logos without engaging loyal customers, fail to hear concerns about environmental policies, ignore consumer complaints, engage in dubious business practices, or--as in Qantas' case--deploy marketing or take other actions that fail to understand the brand's current relationship with consumers.

Social media is not unpredictable. I can predict that your organization, if it is any size at all, it will be struck with social media lightning this week. Your brand will receive critical posts on its Facebook wall, earn one-star ratings on review sites and get a handful of gripes on complaint sites like

There is no insurance for social media lightning--no one will compensate your brand should a misstep cause lost business or brand damage--but smart organizations can prepare and protect. They do so by understanding the social media climate, conducting business in ways consumers expect, setting their business and communication strategies appropriately and investing in social media to protect their brand from the inevitable.

Consumer storm clouds are brewing. There is a 60% chance of consumer complaints, some industries will face a hard sentiment freeze and companies may experience localized areas of brand flooding. Whether social media will be shelter from the storm or the storm itself has more to do with your enterprise than the "unpredictable" nature of social media.

1 comment:

jmal18 said...

Great post! From my own experiences with certain brands they believe they can control the social space. Their reasoning seems to be that if someone posts a negative tweet, it will be drowned out or ignored, and Facebook comments can be deleted. I had a similar issue with Ogio, a luggage and backpack maker. My tweets were ignored and my Facebook post was deleted. After writing a blog post about my experience I still did not receive any type of response. I laugh now because if you Google "Ogio social media" the first result is my post.

Instead of being stewards to their customers brands still choose a line and take it, with little thought to the audience and their responses. Customer satisfaction is so precious and it is laughable that brands throw it away so needlessly. This leads to the social media fires and disasters as you described Quantas having. Qantas brought this on themselves! The old saying "don't bite the hand that feeds you" is so relevant in these situations. In the past customers thought they could not "bite the hand" but because of the social evolution that has changed. The problem is some brands still think they are "the hand..."