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How brands can respond to tricky questions on social media

In this second post delving deeper into my five-stage social media engagement model I take a look at how companies can acknowledge difficult questions and issues raised on social media in order to buy themselves time to formulate an appropriate response.

Once a brand mention on social media has been discovered and you have decided whether to respond, one of the most difficult elements of social media engagement for companies to deal with is the time factor. In social media channels there is an expectation of – indeed, sometimes a requirement for – immediacy. By the time the PR, customer service and legal people have all had their say, there is a danger that the discussion will have already moved on and you will have lost your opportunity to build a connection with an advocate or build a bridge with an adversary. For most organisations, it isn’t an option to bypass these internal stakeholders, but there are two strategies for dealing with this situation.

Be prepared

It is often said that conversations that take place on social media are a true reflection of the conversations that take place in real life. Therefore, chances are that the issues that get raised in forums, blogs and the like will be the same ones that you’ve already had to deal with as a company. It doesn’t take a lot of work then to adapt and modify the responses you would give to shareholders or journalists and make them appropriate for social media. Make them short and less formal, and put additional detail on your website (at a hidden URL if necessary) that you can link to. If you do this for the most common issues as part of your normal crisis planning and preparedness activities, you will save yourself a lot of running around every time someone mentions it on Twitter.

Buy time

For those new issues that bubble up online, you obviously won’t have pre-prepared statements ready to go. So you will need to buy yourself some time whilst you do. The best way to do this is to acknowledge the mention (note that this isn’t the same as acknowledging the issue or problem), through a simple form of words such as ‘Thanks for bringing this up. I’ll see what I can find out.’ This shows that the brand is listening to people’s concerns and may mean that they are more likely to suspend their final judgement (which will likely be influenced by their peers and your competitors whilst you formulate your response) until they hear back from you. The downside of this approach is, of course, that there is now an expectation that they will get a resolution in a reasonable period of time. So, before you acknowledge make sure that your organisation is committed to resolving issues as openly and quickly as possible, as attempts to brush a problem under the carpet or ignore it until it goes away are only likely to backfire, creating a bigger problem than a single mention in a social network.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at how brands and companies can classify and prioritise social media mentions in order to ensure the right person provides the right response in the right amount of time.