Preparing for Disaster

Apollo 13
One of the cool things about the Internet is the idea of “real-time.”

Though live TV has been around forever, there is still some magic left in the ability to experience remote events as if we were there ourselves, particularly on a medium as fluid (yet permanent) as the internet.

Give Me a Break…

So it was with train wreck curiosity that I watched March’s Nestle / Greenpeace social media disaster unfold on the Nestle Facebook wall. To recap, Greenpeace UK launched a campaign protesting Nestle’s practice of sourcing palm oil from vendors who cut down rainforests.  Activists and sympathetic individuals descended upon the page, voicing their protest to Nestle’s actions.

The PR rep in charge of the Nestle account, clearly working without a net, grossly mismanaged the situation.   The situation quickly turned a minor digital protest into a snarky tit-for-tat that snowballed as crowds of onlookers logged on and joined the melee.  The story was initially summarized by Tech-Eye, but ultimately found its way to nearly every major news outlet and blog of repute: CNN, CNet, ZDNet, The Guardian, Forbes, Business Week, Fast Company, Ha’aretz, Huffington Post, Salon… definitely not the outcome Nestle would have hoped for.  (But a fortunate turn of events for Greenpeace that ultimately forced Nestle’s hand.  Nestle has since agreed to adopt “Certified Sustainable Palm Oil” by 2015.)

Nestle Wall

Why Does this Keep Happening?

Alas, the double-edged sword of social media strikes again.   What can be a powerful tool to forge consumer relationships can be equally powerful in destroying them.  What amazes me is not that social media disasters happen (they will) but that brands keep making the same ham-handed mistakes – the kinds of clear indications that they don’t possess some kind of social media “disaster binder”.  From the Motrin Moms, to Domino’s “booger-gate,” to “United Breaks Guitars,” to Southwest Airlines and Kevin Smith’s “too-fat-to-fly” fracas – brands simply don’t have an established protocol to rapidly address and respond to the inevitable social media disaster they are bound to encounter at some point.  The result is extended periods of silence while the problem snowballs or a  rapid response that is tragically mishandled.

command module disaster

Do you have a plan to deal with a disaster like this?

These arguments have been made before – yet many brands still seem to be without disaster management plans for social media.  It’s kind of like how everyone knows you should fill out a living will, but no one really does it.  Yet, if nothing convinces brands to take this seriously, I hope the latest turn of our politics highlights the extreme need for these conversations to take place.

Let them Eat Fake

I usually try to keep politics off this blog.  The Internet has more than enough of the left-right venom that passes for political discourse.  Still, on April 2, Rachel Maddow, the left-center commentator on MSNBC, addressed the scariest issue facing brands in social media, “the unmooring of politics [and public opinion] from fact.”  She makes the point quite eloquently, and, regardless of your politics, I encourage you to watch.

The fact is, that the news media simply cannot keep up with the fact-checking necessary to verify everything they report.  The flow of information is simply moving too quickly for the watchdogs to do their jobs.  And that’s just the professional stuff.  It doesn’t include the consumer-propagated undercurrent of dubious content that no one is even attempting to filter.

Politics is but one highly visible example of this.  The reality is the current media paradigm does nothing to prevent anyone from falsely accusing your company or brand of nearly anything.  If recent political history is any indicator, the veracity of the claims has nothing to do with the impact they can have.  The challenge of responding to actual consumer complaints pales against the specter of responding to well-constructed false accusations. And once these things snowball, they have a nasty habit of becoming almost impossible to dispel.

Ignoring it, dismissing it, or avoiding social media is not a solution. Hoping you never have to deal with it is not a solution.

If that’s not frightening enough to chart a what-if disaster plan, I don’t know what is.