Brands on Blast: Will You Avoid Crumbling Under the Weight of a Social Media Call-out?

Re-wire your business’s DNA to accept and acknowledge newfound customer power.

Prior to the days of social media, there was very little public accountability for brands behaving badly. If a CEO made an insensitive remark at a conference or an agent doled out sub-par customer service on the phone, the unfortunate incident might be mentioned in a business publication but otherwise would remain behind closed doors. These isolated incidents may have reached a small group of people—usually friends and family of the unhappy customer—but the overall impact on the business was negligible.

Nearly half (46 percent) of today’s consumers have used social to call out a brand.

Much, however, has changed. The emergence of social as a broadcast platform now gives people the unprecedented opportunity to share and amplify their messages to a much larger audience than ever before. Nearly half (46 percent) of today’s consumers have used social to call out a brand. So it’s more important than ever before that brands focus on delivering consistent, quality content and service—online and offline—regardless of how small or significant an issue may seem. One single Tweet now has the power to reach thousands, if not millions, in a matter of hours and greatly impact a brand’s reputation and business.

This emerging “call-out culture” has created a significant power shift in the relationship between brands and individuals and can be rather formative. In fact, 81 percent of people believe social has increased accountability for brands. So what exactly are they calling out? The number one cause is dishonesty, such as an executive getting caught in a lie or an organization deliberately misleading customers. Second and third, by a marginal amount, are poor customer service and plain rudeness.

Yet it’s not just the high-profile call-outs that are the resulting problem for brands. That same percentage would never buy from a brand again if they were dissatisfied with how it handled their complaint, proving that a call-out could cost your business more than just your reputation.

44 percent of consumers said a great response is all a brand needs to redeem itself after a public complaint.

If there is any good news, it’s that once you’ve become the target of a social media call-out, all eyes are on your reaction. You are in control of your destiny. 44 percent of consumers said a great response is all a brand needs to redeem itself after a public complaint. We’ve seen some pretty insincere and downright idiotic responses in the past. Are you ready if it happens to you? Here are a handful of tips to keep a future call-out from becoming a full-blown crisis:

Time Is Not on Your Side

It can be tempting for brands to play the waiting game in these situations by monitoring the call-out to see if it picks up steam. The problem with this approach is that once the brand finally decides a post needs addressing, the damage may already be done. A good social monitoring tool and the right brand keyword searches can help brands to get an advantageous jump on any negative mentions. Apply Sheryl Sandberg’s often-quoted and very sound advice: “Done is better than perfect.” Someone will always nitpick or have an issue with your response, so don’t get caught up in extreme precision. Be accurate and authentic, but a quick response is better than no response at all. Which leads us to the next tip…

Make it a Personal, Human Response

No two call-outs are alike, so if a brand is hoping to speed up its response time with canned responses—think again. People will see right through it and the brand will only dig itself deeper. Bank of America ran into problems when customers realized its “robot was showing” when non-business-related complaints were being met with bot-driven customer service responses. Protocols and policies are important but in the case of a call-out, a tailored approach that addresses the issue with human emotion and compassion is paramount. Companies must ensure they have a live, properly trained customer service representative on hand to personally respond to complaints, and avoid scripted responses if at all possible.

Own Your Mistakes

If we learned anything from United’s most recent PR disaster, it’s the importance of accepting responsibility amidst a slew of negative media coverage. United’s CEO initially only apologized for the flight being overbooked, not for how employees had treated the passenger. That’s like telling someone you’re sorry their feelings got hurt without apologizing for what you said. Again, there are always people behind the profiles and they want to see a genuine apology from a business no matter the nature or severity of the misstep. Swallow your pride to save your reputation; it’ll be worth it in the end.

No B.S. Is the Best Policy

Along the lines of accepting responsibility, brands should also take great care in crafting responses that are as honest and transparent as possible. People have very high B.S. meters—especially these days. Since we know the number one reason for a call-out is dishonesty in the first place, deferring to honesty is the best and most acceptable way to respond. Being open and vulnerable in a response humanizes the brand and also helps break down the invisible barriers between a large corporation and its customers.

Rinse and Repeat, Above and Beyond

It takes on average 12 positive experiences to negate a single bad one. So while a swift, honest apology is important, your work will not end there. In the case of JetBlue’s memorable operational breakdown, the company followed its initial apology by introducing a brand-new customer Bill of Rights and publicly releasing a detailed list of what it was offering the affected passengers as compensation. Through a series of communications and repetitive efforts, they were able to take back control of the conversation and do right in front of a captive and already engaged community.

It takes on average 12 positive experiences to negate a single bad one. So while a swift, honest apology is important, your work will not end there.

When in Doubt, Test it Out

If brands are unsure how the public is going to react to a particular piece of content, they may want to utilize a social listening tool to gauge audience sentiment. When Budweiser was unsure how the public would react to a Super Bowl commercial that touched lightly on a controversial topic, its marketing team posted the video on YouTube first. After analyzing tens of thousands social reactions, they found that 78 percent of posts were either neutral or positive—giving Budweiser the confidence and peace of mind to move forward with the commercial on game day where the ad would be subjected to the opinions of approx. 111.3 million viewers.

 Get it Right The First Time

The best defense is a good offense so the most reliable way to avoid the fallout from a call-out is to avoid the call-out altogether. Now that we know the power and impact these negative experiences can have on a brand’s bottom line, every care and caution must be taken to ensure that brands are delivering an exceptional experience to every customer they encounter. According to the Q2 2017 Sprout Index, at the end of the day consumers just want brands who are honest (86 percent), helpful (78 percent) and friendly (83 percent). Businesses must begin to shift away from reactive, issue-specific responses to proactive, customer-centric service.

Successfully managing a potential or active call-out requires more than just the knowledge gleaned from the tips. And even though delivering exceptional experiences to customers should always be the number one goal, no brand is perfect. So if a brand finds itself a target, it need only accept responsibility, apologize and rectify the situation. Embrace a complete change in thinking: think of it as a re-wiring of a business’s DNA to begin accepting and acknowledging this newfound customer power.

Andrew Caravella

VP of Strategy & Brand Engagement at Sprout Social
Andrew Caravella is Vice President of Strategy & Brand Engagement at Sprout Social, a leading provider of social media engagement, advocacy and analytics solutions for business. Find him on Twitter @andrewcaravella.
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