The c-word has occupied my attention in recent days. Crisis. I’m not referring to today’s strained Sino-Japanese relations, as intriguing as the Diaoyu Islands issue is. Rather, I took an international cosmetics company through the ins and outs of Chinese social media crisis preparedness and management late last month, and last week I spoke at the 6th social media and communication summit in Shanghai on the very same subject.
The social media crisis seems to be an especially pertinent threat in China that can afflict brands and personalities alike. When the 大便 hits the fan in the Middle Kingdom, China’s Twitter, a national water cooler used by some 368 million, tends to figure prominently. As I am prone to saying, hardly a week passes in China without a topic trending on Sina Weibo that draws attention to an entity or official in a less than favourable light. In recent months, KFC, McDonald’s, Carrefour and Mengniu have all come under attack or intense scrutiny on the microblogging platform, with some brands faring better than others.
Consider this also: there are trends on Weibo that typically get coverage later in international media. China is said to be the world’s biggest story. There are many examples of Weibo hot topics resulting in articles published in The New York Times, The Telegraph and the like, such as the Foshan toddler incident, the Red Cross/Guo Meimei controversy, the Lujiang photos… the list goes on.
Alarming? It doesn’t have to be if an organisation is sufficiently prepared. Here are seven online crisis preparedness tips (better safe than sorry!):
- Monitor social media. In my opinion, every organisation with a presence in China should be doing this. Ideally (and essentially in the case of bigger businesses) the full breadth of the nation’s social web will be included. China’s social media landscape is rich and complex, but social media monitoring needn’t be complicated. Quick scans of Weibo throughout the day are better than nothing.
- Be proactive. Establish a social presence sooner rather than later. Who will read your Weibo posts when a crisis strikes – 100,000 netizens or 100 employees?
- Develop social engagement guidelines. Social media monitoring will serve to identify comments (and their authors). Social media being social, some of these comments will warrant a response. But which comments? Not all negative comments are equal. My suggestion is that an organisation creates China-specific guidelines to eliminate any doubt. An organisation should be able to readily answer questions such as, “Should I respond to an unhappy customer in a BBS community, and if so, how?”
- Build relationships with KOLs. Correspondingly, social engagement can and should evolve into lasting relationships – particularly those with most influence over peer opinion (Weibo celebrities or popular bloggers, for example). When misperceptions emerge (rumours are rife in Chinese social media), their support and participation as third parties can be enlisted to help correct the record.
- Create a social media policy. Crises sometimes emanate from inappropriate or confidential information being posted online by a disgruntled or bored employee. Many of us are familiar with case studies that include Domino’s Pizza, Virgin Atlantic and Waterstones. In China, a female nurse posted very public messages urging her patient to die, while a sales director drew netizens’ attention to an internal pay dispute. Both stories ended unhappily. A social media policy will therefore serve to ensure that social media is used responsibly by employees.
- Include digital in your crisis response plan. Any crisis response plan should incorporate online channels and measures. Statements, Q&As, factsheets, images – these should all be created and placed somewhere. And practice! Drills should include online elements.
- Finally, don’t forget your website. It’s tempting to think in social terms alone, but more conventional online tactics are still relevant. Create a “dark” website for crisis response while all is rosy and ramp up security (Mengniu’s website was hacked in December 2011 amid the carcinogen scare).
You might also be interested in our recent Viewpoint article about Product Safety and Social Media in China.
Next: A crisis strikes anyway. Now what?