Whenever a company mishandles a social media kerfuffle, there is no shortage of bloggers and other experts ready to offer biting criticism and recommendations for how the organization should have handled the situation. Sometimes the advice is good, sometimes it's not. The advice offered is rarely consistent from one expert to another. And it's even more rarely forgiving of companies new to the space, just beginning to feel their way around.
I've spoken with leaders at some companies who are reluctant to enter the social media space as much because of the put-downs and jibes they'll take from the ever-growing world of experts as from the sources of the crisis.
The latest case is burrito chain Chipotle, which has mishandled attacks on its Facebook wall following a status update from an employee who confessed to running over a cat and not feeling very bad about it. The torrent of objections, outrage, jokes, and other comments went unchecked for 24 hours, followed by a comment from the company that, to say the least, could have been better.
I don't have a problem with posts that offer lessons learned from such instances. I've written some of these myself and often appreciate the insights from professionals who genuinely know what they're talking about. I do have a problem with the arrogant, self-assured Monday morning quarterbacks who sniff about how much better they would have handled the situation.
There are definitely lessons to be drawn from the Chipotle saga. The best advice I can offer has little to do with the specifics of the situation, which have been rehashed on a number of posts, some quite astutely. It's simple: If you're going to have a Facebook page, be aware that advocacy groups will kick you while you're down, and the world is full of idiots and simpletons who will take pleasure at the least provocation in posting the most juvenile and useless responses should your brand become a focus of unwanted attention. The brutally forthright H.L. Mencken had a point when he said, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."
Still this is no reason to avoid having a Facebook page if you determine that the benefits outweigh the risks. A parallel lesson is that your supporters and people with a more rational bent will defend you. Several of the comments on the Chipotle wall have reminded the rabble that a single employee's action is not representative of the company's policies or attitudes toward animals.
Take steps to deal with these situations when they arise so you're less likely to make serious mistakes.
One more lesson: Don't exacerbate the situation by making defensive or inaccurate statements. If you need an example of how to address these situations with style and dignity, take a look at The Mayo Clinic's deft handling of an assault on its wall after it was revealed that a doctor had claimed to give preferential medical care to patients from his native country over those from a disliked neighboring nation.
Of course, all these lessons have been repeated over and over again in countless blog posts, during the Nestle experience, the Dunkin Donuts adventure, and several other cases. Clearly, the chest-thumping of all these bloggers offering their counsel is going unheeded by many of the organizations that launch their own Facebook efforts.
But there is one more lesson I'd like to offer: Don't pay heed to the PR ambulance chasers who crawl out from under rocks to take advantage of companies struggling to figure out the best way to navigate these choppy social media waters for the first time.
The term "ambulance chaser" arose to describe personal injury attorneys who would follow ambulances from the scenes of accidents in order to offer their services to the victims, ready to sue on their behalves. These were never the cream of the legal crop. Truly professional attorneys with experience and credentials and track records wait to be called by prospective clients who have done their homework and figured out who will best represent their interests.
Social media has produced PR's own version of the bottom rung of the legal profession. I saw this example (identity redacted) as I was scrolling through the Chipotle Facebook wall:
I was amused by the comment that challenged the practitioner's credentials given the grammatical and punctuation errors, and even more amused by his rewrite. But it's also telling that you never see true professionals engage in this kind of behavior, not the big international agencies nor the smaller shops that embrace codes of ethics and abide by professional standards. Can you imagine someone from Fleishman-Hillard, Burson Marstellar or Hilll & Knowlton posting such a solicitation? SHIFT Communications or Voce or the Social Media Group? The very notion is laughable. These are pros who know better.
Yet it's the bottom-feeders who continue to shape the public perception of PR, as evidenced by the first comment to the ambulance chaser's offer: "PR are just another bunch of folks who get paid to deceive the public." Untrue, of course, in most cases, except for the kinds of practitioners who would also engage in behavior like publicly soliciting business from a company in the midst of a crisis.
Not only would I never hire a PR ambulance chaser, I would never view the shop as credible again. Ever.
If you're tempted to react to a company's misfortune, write a blog post serving up useful lessons from which anyone can benefit. If you must proclaim your own superiority, go ahead, but at your own risk.
But never, ever ask for-or worse, demand-business. Nothing shows you up for a hack quite like it.