Posted: April 17, 2015
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Article SummaryClients almost always ask me how I think the rise of social media affects outrage management. After struggling to write something long and definitive on the topic, I finally settled instead for this “listicle”-like short column. The two most important takeaways from my ten numbered points are these. First, social media are an ideal vehicle for expressing and exacerbating outrage in front of a potentially huge audience. That makes outrage management all the more crucial, even for organizations that might previously have thought they could afford to leave stakeholder outrage unmanaged. And second, since social media are where outrage is most often and most effectively vented, social media are where outrage must be managed. Everything else follows from these two basics – what it takes to respond to social media complaints fast enough; how to organize your own social media platforms to make them conducive to controversy; etc.

10 Things You Need to Know about Outrage Management and Social Media

Virtually every client I’ve worked with in recent years has wanted to know my take on how the popularity of social media affects outrage management. Here’s the short version of my answer.

I’m not a “listicle” sort of person – I like writing l-o-n-g essays – but I figure if I’m going to write about social media I ought to defer at least a little to the preferences of social media users. So what follows is a list of bottom lines. Someday maybe I’ll write the long essay I think the topic deserves.

I need to preface my list with three notes:

NOTE 1: I feel like a bit of a fraud writing about social media at all. I have probably spent more hours reading articles about social media than immersing myself in social media. For better or for worse, I write as a 70-year-old distant observer, not a participant. I don’t tweet. I’m not on Facebook. My LinkedIn account is moribund. And even I know that Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are so 2000s, no longer the cutting edge of social media. Even if I understood those three better than I do, using them as my social media icons is like assessing video games based on experience with Super Mario Bros.

NOTE 2: Back in 2011–2012, I tried writing that long essay, in collaboration with Rusty Cawley of Texas A&M University (an ex-journalist, PR professional, outrage management aficionado, and social media maven). We went through several drafts before we shelved the project, partly because we kept coming up with new facets to discuss, and partly because we kept replacing last week’s examples with this week’s examples. This list is in some ways a distillation of the more complex thinking Rusty and I did together a few years ago.

NOTE 3: “Social media is” gets orders of magnitude more Google hits than “social media are.” I’m sure most social media users use “is.” Nonetheless, I’m sticking to the plural. Latin grammar aside, consider substance: Media became far less monolithic and more genuinely plural after the advent of social media.

Social media are better adapted to expressing and exacerbating outrage than to managing outrage. They are nonetheless a crucial outrage management tool – perhaps the most crucial.

Social media are not an equal opportunity communication vehicle. They are ideal for expressing strong emotions and telling personal stories. They’re less good at explaining factual details, justifying policies, or tamping down emotional storms. If you set out to invent a vehicle for arousing outrage, you’d come up with something a lot like social media. If you were trying to invent a way to ameliorate outrage, you’d produce something very different.

Tough. Outrage needs to be managed in the venues where it is being expressed. If people are shouting or weeping at a massive public meeting, then the massive public meeting is where you should pursue your outrage management strategy. There’s no point in wishing you could adjourn the meeting and talk to people one-on-one instead. The same is true of social media. That’s where the outrage is most frequently and most effectively expressed, so that’s where it should be managed. The fact that social media are better suited to the other side doesn’t mean you can afford to flee the field and leave the other side in uncontested control of this all-important venue.

An outrage management strategy that lacks a social media component isn’t much of a strategy. Period.

Precisely because social media are such a good tool for expressing and exacerbating outrage, they make it all the more important to manage outrage effectively.

Before social media, outraged people seldom had an effective vehicle for expressing their outrage. They could write complaint letters to the offending organization; they could try to interest a journalist or compose a letter-to-the-editor; they could attempt legal action; they could try to start an activist group. As ways of getting satisfaction, all were long shots. For most outraged people, the realistic choices were to fume silently or vent to family and friends.

The main effect of social media vis-à-vis outrage is to provide a timely, fast, cheap, emotionally appealing, accessible, searchable, permanent, worldwide vehicle for outraged people to attract an audience for their outrage. And one more adjective: mobile. Anyone with a smartphone – and by 2016 there will be more than two billion smartphones in the world – can now access, spread, and create social media content. Social media plus smartphones empower the outraged as never before.

Increasingly even the mainstream media rely on social media for content. For example, reporters used to conduct “man-in-the-street” interviews in search of interesting quotes that they thought (or at least could claim) captured the Zeitgeist. Now they simply harvest the most extreme social media quotes they can find, and then imply that the quotes represent the Zeitgeist.

Before social media, the target of a stakeholder’s outrage could ignore that stakeholder (especially if she was wrong or unduly extreme) with little likelihood of serious repercussions. The stakeholder was alone with her outrage, so ignoring her was comparatively safe, at least in the short term. Now she no longer needs to simmer in silence. She can post her outrage on any or all of dozens of platforms, and with a little luck she can mobilize a virtual movement, virtually overnight. Ignoring her is anything but safe, even in the short term.

When you manage outrage via social media, you’re not mostly addressing the outraged person for his own sake. You’re addressing him in front of an audience, potentially an audience of millions. Whether or not you can resolve his original complaint, what matters is what the audience thinks of your response. There are times when it makes sense to suggest continuing the conversation privately, especially if nobody else is chiming in anyway. But the audience is still paramount. So if you take the conversation private, always report back on the original platform, ideally in a joint post in which the original complainer concurs.

It is a blessing in disguise that stakeholder outrage has become more and more dangerous to ignore, thanks mostly to social media. But it’s a tough adjustment for many top executives.

The growth of social media is the biggest of many factors that have collectively made outrage management more vital than it used to be. Among the others: the expansion and globalization of activist movements; the emergence of socially responsible investing; the increasing strength of freedom-of-information, right-to-know, and whistleblower-protection laws; and the growing acceptance of the idea of corporate social responsibility, the value judgment that corporations should earn a “social license to operate,” not just maximize profits within the law.

As a result of these changes, the cost, even the short-term cost, of leaving stakeholder outrage unmanaged has gone up. Of course managing outrage has costs too. But for industry after industry, it is now costlier to ignore your stakeholders’ outrage than to address your stakeholders’ outrage.

It was never wise in the long term to ignore stakeholder outrage. But it used to make short-term sense, so companies did it. Now it no longer makes sense even in the short term, so companies are slowly learning to address outrage more effectively. This new alignment of companies’ short-term and long-term interests is a blessing in disguise, making it harder for managements to sabotage their companies’ futures by shrugging off unwise policies, unresponsive employees, emerging controversies, and early signs of stakeholder dissatisfaction.

The change is a difficult adjustment for many top executives. Imagine yourself a CEO who learned the business back when ignoring outrage was cheaper (in the short term) than managing it. Learning this lesson meant accepting that business ethics were significantly different from Sunday School ethics. Maximizing profit sometimes seemed to require treating people harshly. After a few decades of telling yourself that’s how it’s got to be, you become understandably resistant to learning that treating people harshly is no longer the way to maximize profit … and maybe it never was.

Social media don’t change how you manage outrage: It’s still about validating valid grievances, not rebutting crap.

While the rise of social media has made outrage management more important (more obviously important and more short-term important), it hasn’t affected the basics. When outraged people are venting, what they have to say invariably includes a lot of crap. And it invariably includes valid grievances. In social media or anywhere else, the core of outrage management is still paying attention to people’s grievances, then echoing their grievances to show you have understood them accurately, and then validating the aspects of their grievances that have some validity – avoiding the temptation to rebut the invalid aspects (the crap) instead.

Outrage management is pretty obviously the right thing to do vis-à-vis the outraged person herself. Outraged people get more outraged when you ignore them or rebut them (even if – especially if – you’re right). But they often calm down when you validate their valid complaints. They may even turn around entirely. One 2011 study link is to a PDF file looked at consumers who had posted negative reviews on social media about a poor holiday shopping experience. When the store responded apologetically:

  • 34 percent deleted their original negative review.
  • 33 percent posted a positive response to the company’s response.
  • 18 percent bought more and became more loyal customers.

But outrage management is more importantly the right thing to do vis-à-vis everybody else, those who are following the complaint via social media. If you ignore the complaint (or worse yet ignore its valid aspects and focus on rebutting the crap), the audience will usually side with the complainer, and your reputational problem metastasizes. If you’re responsive and the complainer expresses gratitude for your response, the audience will usually join in the consensus that you have redeemed yourself and all is forgiven. And what happens if you’re responsive but the complainer ignores your responsiveness and keeps right on complaining? More often than not, the audience will switch sides, and start criticizing the complainer for failing to acknowledge your good-faith effort to make it right.

Don’t be misled by my use of the terms “complaint” and “complainer.” Everything in this column about outrage management via social media applies just as much when an activist group is conducting an orchestrated campaign as when an individual consumer has posted a personal complaint. I realize that individuals’ outrage is likelier to be genuine, whereas for activists the expression of outrage is often a calculated strategy to expand a controversy or advance an ideological cause. So what? It’s the audience’s outrage that matters most, and the audience’s outrage is always genuine.

Addressing the outrage matters more than just solving the substantive problem.

When stakeholders describe problems that can be solved and deserve to be solved, of course you should take steps to solve them. Any response that fails to address a substantive problem substantively is by definition not a serious response. No matter how apologetically it is framed, it’s going to come across as empty and insincere.

On the other hand, if you give a complainer exactly what he asked for – a new this, a free that – in a way that seems churlish, reluctant, patronizing, disapproving, or dismissive, your response can easily do more harm than good. Both the original complainer and the social media audience can end up feeling you weren’t really responsive. Typically, complainer and audience alike are exquisitely attuned to whether your response validates and vindicates the initial complaint. Making the complainer whole is essential when it’s feasible, but it’s never sufficient. Responding empathically is essential too. To help you understand this, try to recall instances when you were in the complainer role and got what you wanted without feeling validated and vindicated … and without much amelioration of your outrage.

The most serious, reputation-threatening social media complaints sometimes raise issues you can’t solve, not because the complainer is wrong about the facts but because there isn’t a mutually acceptable solution. Say you’re a hamburger chain and the complainer thinks animals have a right not to be eaten. Since you’re not about to stop selling meat, you may figure there’s no point in responding at all. But there is a lot of value to crafting a respectful response: Acknowledge the inevitability that animal rights activists disapprove of hamburger chains; then describe your company’s ongoing efforts to source your meat from suppliers that treat animals more humanely; then give credit to critics for successfully pushing you toward ever-tougher animal welfare standards; then admit that your standards still have a ways to go; then acknowledge again that no animal welfare policy could ever make a hamburger chain acceptable in the eyes of an animal rights activist.

Even more often, social media complaints raise issues that are complicated, with some right on both sides. Say the complainer thinks your airline’s flight attendants should have quieted down those noisy fellow passengers on her trip. But the attendants correctly followed your policy, which aims to find a middle ground between laxness and censoriousness. It’s important to acknowledge that the complainer’s concern is legitimate, that trying to sleep or work in a noisy cabin can make for a very unpleasant flight. But you must also find an empathic way to say that you don’t have a good solution. You’re more than willing to offer the complainer a discounted future flight, and your policies are always up for periodic reconsideration. But you already know your current policy is a compromise that sometimes irritates both your noisier customers and your more quiet-seeking customers, and you’re pretty sure any policy change would irritate one group or the other even more.

Empathically explaining why a policy probably won’t change is hugely different from ignoring, disputing, or disparaging the complaint. The complainer is right. You’re also right. You don’t see a viable solution. Such a response may or may not ameliorate the complainer’s outrage. It will surely provoke less audience outrage than the alternatives (assuming changing the policy isn’t an option).

To be able to respond via social media, you need to monitor social media. And once you start monitoring, you ought to respond.

Social media monitoring isn’t my area of expertise. It probably isn’t yours either. Doing it right means monitoring scores of social media platforms, quite possibly in multiple languages, with new ones emerging every day. It means searching not just for explicit criticisms of your organization, which are comparatively easy to find, but also for emerging controversies that may pose challenges to your organization’s reputation even if they’re embodied in posts that don’t mention your organization by name. It means reporting the information comprehensively, but also summarizing, interpreting, and prioritizing the reports so key actionable items don’t get lost in the glut of detail. And it means doing all that 24/7, with the fastest feasible turnaround time, so hostile posts aren’t outdated before they reach the desk of the person who needs to respond.

In short, doing it right is going to cost significant money, whether you build an internal staff for the purpose or farm the work out to a contractor.

I doubt there are many reputation-conscious organizations left that don’t at least try to monitor what’s said about them on social media. But there are a lot of organizations that pretend they don’t – that have policies of never responding to social media complaints and feigning surprise when interviewed about those complaints by a journalist. When I ask my clients why they have such a policy, they invariably say that responding to social media critics would only encourage them … and encourage others to do likewise. Better to feign indifference, they think. A 2011 study found that only 33 percent of customers who tweeted complaints received replies. A 2013 study found that 57 percent of companies “do not officially use social media as a [reputational] crisis management resource,” whereas only 8 percent of respondents said they believed that social media had become “an enabler for their organization to identify and respond to crisis events.” And a 2014 study found that nearly all top brands tweeted routinely but most very seldom used Twitter’s @-reply capability to respond to user comments.

Responsiveness to consumer complaints is highly variable. Some companies (Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, Xbox) respond assiduously – providing models that are there to be copied. Other companies virtually never respond, or respond in ways that are notoriously unresponsive. One hundred top global brands were assessed in the Twitter study I just cited; roughly half the three-month total of 68,000 @-replies came from one company, Pizza Hut. Responsiveness to policy controversies and activist criticisms follows the same pattern, I think. A few companies are known for taking opponents’ concerns onboard. Most others characteristically ignore or debate their critics. Some, but surprisingly few, have intermediate or inconsistent responses to complaints, controversies, and criticisms.

The choice of so many companies to feign indifference to social media outrage always reminds me of the 1960s U.S. demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. We know now that President Lyndon Johnson was paying assiduous attention to the antiwar movement. But he pretended he wasn’t out of fear that the movement would escalate if it thought it was having an impact. Johnson hoped to discourage the demonstrators into giving up. His pretense worked – the demonstrators thought he wasn’t listening – but his understanding of outrage was deficient. One reason the antiwar movement escalated and its violent wing flourished was because it (wrongly) thought Johnson wasn’t paying attention. I think organizations that pretend they’re not tracking their social media reputations are making the same mistake President Johnson made.

The core dilemma of outrage management via social media is how to respond fast.

In the old days someone who sent you a letter of complaint hoped for a response within a couple of weeks. Now, thanks to social media, the complainer starts getting responses within minutes. Long before a couple of weeks have passed, the conversation is over … with you or without you. So if you want to be part of the conversation, you need to respond within hours – within minutes if you can. And that’s just your first response; if the conversation keeps going, you may have reason to keep responding, each time within hours if not minutes.

No matter how speedy your social media monitoring operation is, if your social media response policy requires signoffs from three senior executives in three different departments, you almost certainly can’t respond fast enough to meet the needs of a social media conversation. Such a policy is also likely to yield a response that doesn’t sound right for social media. Social media conversations have a casual, personal, spontaneous tone. A ponderous process typically produces a ponderous response: legalistic, abstract, humorless, and impersonal as well as far too late.

Organizations determined to do social media outrage management need a dedicated team, authorized to respond autonomously and thus able to respond quickly. The C-suite has no practical choice but to relinquish control to the social media response team.

Here’s an even more terrifying alternative I often recommend to clients – with no takers so far. Decentralize your social media response. Give your local frontline managers some outrage management training, and then authorize them to respond to social media complaints without needing to clear the response with corporate or legal. Or go whole hog: Authorize everyone in your organization, top to bottom, to participate freely in social media conversations about your organization – not as spokespeople but just as themselves, contributing their own knowledge, experience, and opinion. This guarantees the speed, spontaneity, and credibility that social media require and formal organizational responses can’t provide.

It also guarantees that from time to time some employee will say something way off the mark, arousing brand-new outrage the organization will need to manage. I nonetheless believe this is what the future will look like: a conversational free-for-all via social media in which your organization’s formal voice will be just one of many, and your employees’ desire to join in whenever they choose will be unstoppable. That’s not such a bad future if your employees are well-disposed toward your organization and understand how to manage stakeholder outrage.

Unfortunately, this era of decentralized social media responsiveness probably won’t come to pass until millennials take over your organization. A possible compromise in the meantime: Identify the most common complaints and criticisms and train your frontline staff to respond autonomously to those (perhaps with the help of templates). Grievances that fall outside that framework still get pushed up the chain of command, ideally to a dedicated social media response team. Meanwhile the frontline manager lets the online complainer (and the online audience) know the response is being worked on … which helps make sure it comes down promptly.

Your organization needs social media platforms under its control that are conducive to controversy.

The hottest thing in marketing and public relations is something called “brand journalism” – creating content of interest to an organization’s stakeholders, linking that content (but not too directly) to the organization’s core activities (its products, services, or policy goals), and then putting that content out on multiple social media platforms that are under the organization’s control.

Understandably, organizations are rarely willing to contaminate their brand journalism with controversies or complaints. That’s as it should be. People who are enjoying your brand journalism don’t want to stumble on some tough issue you’re grappling with, nor do you want them to.

But people who are looking for information about that tough issue should find what they’re looking for not just on your critics’ social media platforms, but on your own as well – separate platforms. So if is devoted to brand journalism, I think you should launch as well, with at least five kinds of content:

  • News of controversies and complaints involving your organization, reported as objectively as you can manage. If you’re going to lapse into one-sided propaganda, don’t bother setting up the site at all.
  • Your take on those controversies and complaints, produced with outrage management in mind (less crap rebuttal, more validation of valid criticisms).
  • Links to everything else of relevance you can find – news stories, editorials, legal documents, websites, even your worst enemies’ most scurrilous attacks.
  • A forum in which you respond to questions and comments, including very hostile ones – again with outrage management in mind.
  • A second forum in which people dialogue with each other about you, and in which you intervene only rarely and only to provide a link to a relevant segment of the other forum.

The goal is to make the best place to learn everything worth knowing about your organization’s dark side, real or alleged. If you do it right, no one will see a need to visit – or create – (And yes, I know websites are passé; this is just an example. While you’re rolling your eyes, imagine how outmoded 2015’s hashtags will seem in a year or two.)

Note that hosting your own social media platforms for complaints and controversies isn’t a substitute for responding to criticisms elsewhere in social media. You need to do both.

Deciding when not to respond to social media criticisms is a tough call, but responding too seldom is a far more common mistake than responding too often.

Responding to social media criticisms by validating the valid complaints has one key benefit: It reduces stakeholder outrage. That is, it calms people who are outraged at you already and makes others less likely to join in.

It has two main downsides. It irritates your supporters, who typically don’t like seeing you acknowledge that your critics are right about anything. And it’s expensive in time, money, and effort.

A third downside is often alleged – that it fuels the fire. The claim is that taking a criticism seriously encourages the critic to persevere and maybe even escalate, draws new observers and new participants into the controversy, and creates an issues environment in which other controversies are likelier to emerge as well. There is some truth to this claim. Really small controversies sometimes die out if they’re ignored but can flare up if they’re over-responded to. Once they flare up, more people start paying attention. And stakeholders with other complaints may be inspired to come forward too.

On the other hand, as I have already noted, critics sometimes escalate precisely because they feel ignored, whereas they might have calmed down had they been treated respectfully. The audience that grows because you took a criticism onboard might have grown even bigger in reaction to your stubborn indifference. And does responsiveness really encourage more new attacks than intransigence? The fundamental bet that outrage management makes is that it’s better for your reputation to let people (even lots of people) see that you are responsive when criticized than to refuse to respond and hope that not too many people see the criticism. The rise of social media raises the stakes, but it doesn’t change the bet.

I suspect most of the experts who say ignoring a criticism is wiser than responding are envisioning a crap-rebuttal response … in which case I agree. Better to let the criticism stand unanswered than to counterattack or get snarky and defensive (or delete it if it’s on a platform you control). Are there occasions when no response is preferable to even a well-done outrage management response? Probably there are. But they’re very difficult to distinguish, even in hindsight. Most organizations respond to social media controversies and complaints too seldom, not too often. So when in doubt, respond.

It’s probably time to start developing different strategies for the different types of social media outrage.

I sent Rusty Cawley a draft of my “9 Things You Need to Know about Outrage and Social Media.” His response included a proposed taxonomy of social media outrage. So now it’s 10 things you need to know. Here’s my summary outline of Rusty’s taxonomy.

  1. Acute outrage
    1. Flash outrage – “a community within a social media platform quickly becomes both outraged and aggressively vocal.”
      1. The self-inflicted wound – someone inside your organization “posts something insensitive or stupid, or is caught doing something insensitive or stupid by someone with a smartphone.”
      2. The hijacked campaign – critics exploit your marketing campaign’s use of “crowd-sourcing techniques such as hashtags, photo memes, or live forums.”
      3. The digital infiltration – somebody hacks your website or Facebook page, installs malware on your organization’s computers, steals your customers’ personal information, etc.
    2. Stakeholder complaints – an individual, typically a customer, uses social media to complain about how your organization treated her.
  2. Chronic outrage
    1. Community activism – an activist group tries to build a movement to oppose something about your organization, via social media.
    2. Political sniping – entrenched opponents keep taking shots at your organization, mostly for the entertainment of equally entrenched audiences.
    3. Trolling – “This is using social media to generate outrage for the sake of outrage, a nihilistic version of political sniping.”

Mainstream media interest is highest near the top of this taxonomy. Flash outrage is especially likely to become grist for content-hungry journalists, which of course exacerbates the social media problem. As Rusty explains: “Sometimes an online controversy reaches critical mass on its own. But more often online outrage will get a significant boost in public awareness from the large-scale broadcast, print, and digital media…. An online food fight is almost always interesting and generally easy to explain.” Note that MSM coverage doesn’t mean you should shift your focus to an MSM response. Respond to flash outrage mostly where it’s being expressed, in the social media. MSM reporters should have no trouble finding your response.

By contrast, stakeholder complaints don’t usually make the transition from social to mainstream media unless/until they have metastasized. So complaints are a three-stage process. A badly handled situation in the real world leads to a social media complaint, thereby acquiring an audience. A badly handled social media complaint earns third-party attention: People blog and tweet about it and pretty soon the MSM start covering it.

Activists try hard to convert their social media attacks into MSM news. But activists use social media mostly to organize and hearten their natural constituency, not so much to reach out to newcomers. Don’t dismiss that as “preaching to the converted”; it’s movement-building. But do realize that when you respond to the attacks, you’re talking mostly to “attentives” – that is, to your opponents’ natural constituency, not your own. That makes an outrage management approach all the more appropriate.

As for political sniping and trolling, these are largely self-sustaining activities, done mostly by people who relish the battle for its own sake. Lots of experts think you shouldn’t respond at all. I lean toward responding at least for a while – not by firing back but (as always) by validating their valid concerns. Once you’re convinced there’s no audience left that’s trying to decide where to stand, then and only then would I think about transitioning to eloquent silence.

Copyright © 2015 by Peter M. Sandman

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