As public relations professionals we need to be shining examples of communication etiquette when speaking in public or on social media. This is the second installment of our three-part Proof Positive series to help prevent self-made communications crises. In Part1, we looked at the consequences of using negative language. Now let’s look at how to prevent social media crises.

Social media is a tinderbox of outrage, awaiting a single spark from an unsuspecting digital denizen. Protecting your personal and client brands requires careful attention to your public comments, where ever you may have shared them.

Here are 3 key lessons to learn from past social media firestorms so you can better shield your brand:

1. Don’t be rude.

Do unto others as you wish done unto you. Before you hit send think about how what you are saying would make a loved one feel. Cruelty and rudeness can live on forever in the digital age.

Kelly Bazek learned this the hard way. In 2013, she had just won the Communicator of the Year Award from the Cleveland Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) for building an email list of highly qualified communications professionals in Northeast Ohio and distributing to more than 7,300 subscribers. Her efforts helped hundreds of people find jobs.

Right after the recognition, she sent a harshly-worded LinkedIn message that went viral:

 “How about starting with NOT presuming I would share my nearly 1,000 personally-known LinkedIn contacts with a TOTAL stranger? How bush league to pull that stunt ….”

More emails, just as mean spirited, poured in from spurned connections prompting a story in Time magazine with the headline Anti-Mentor Roasts Millennials, Then Karma Roasts Her Online. The IABC ended up asking for its award back and she inevitably shut down her blog as well as Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. A single act of rude behavior overshadowed years of positive and beneficial work.

Firestorm2. Choose your words and spokespeople carefully.

Whether it is a hot mic, a cellphone camera or a comment on a Facebook post, context easily gets lost in the grand scheme of quick-fire responses and your words can—and will—be used against you in the court of public opinion.

In the run up to the recent Alberta election, a Wild Rose Party candidate got caught on a hot mic during a group photo opportunity saying, “We need lots of brown people in the front.” The candidate soon heralded requests to step down from the race and the party placed second in the election.

This takes more than just attention to what you write or say, but in who you choose to do both for your brand. Review your spokespeople’s personal social media accounts for off colour remarks as their personal brand can easily be associated with your company. In addition to having social media guidelines, train media representatives how to handle cultural and regional differences in language use.

3. Listen to your audience

Social media is an amazing focus group for your content. When you put out an ad, an article or a video, listen to what your followers and fans say about it and use that as a gauge for what interests them in the future.

When Old Spice launched its television ads featuring Isaiah Mustafa, they only did so after field testing them on YouTube. Before this first ad ran on TV, the company shot more than 80 personalized videos for the channel, taking the pulse of potential consumers via comments and shares. This early field testing allowed the brand to monitor responses to its messaging and by the time the campaign reached television, the videos had already gone viral.

4. Respond quickly to a crisis.

In the case of negative comments, immediately respond to them. Acting quickly can prevent them from becoming a larger issue. For offensive comments, follow the rule a simple rule: when in doubt, take it down.

In 2013, Peter Aceto, the CEO of ING Canada Bank (Tangerine) responded in real time to comments regarding an ad his firm ran promoting its tax services. Critics found it was disrespectful to those living with mental illness. Aceto’s quick apology, removal of the ad and engagement with the media put the fire out before it began to burn, protecting his brand’s reputation.

It is easy to prevent personal slights or bigoted statements from reaching your brand’s Twitter feed, just don’t write them. However, it is the unintentional and unavoidable service issues that can quickly sour and require constant attention of your social media manages. When issues arise, respond quickly, earnestly and with empathize with your audience.

Check back next week for the third installment in our Proof Positive series where we will discuss how to apologize without making things worse.

About James Rubec

James Rubec is a data geek, a former public relations lead and journalist with a love of content and advocacy. Ask him anything @JamesRRubec and be sure to follow @Cision_Canada

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