This was written ahead of the general election in collaboration with my esteemed colleague Iain Bundred of Ogilvy PR. It was originally published in The Drum on January 21st following a couple of absolute social media clangers from politicians who had been given a caning in the press.
Iain used to be Gordon Brown’s spokesperson so I figured he’d have an idea of WTF they might have been thinking when they posted what they did. Turns out he was as mystified as I, but we cobbled together some sage advice;
For decades, comms advisers have loved that catch-all phrase when prepping their spokespeople for a media meeting: “You’re never off the record with a journalist.” Is the problem for the modern age that there’s no one there to whisper this in your ear as you open your social media channel?
Over the festive break, we saw yet more examples of how any online user who takes to social media and puts their foot squarely in their mouth can seriously impact a brand’s reputation. We call it foot-in-keyboard disease.
The best way to treat this terrible infection is to be ready for it. All crisis comms consultants make their shilling by forecasting, preparing for and mitigating against likely issues a brand may face.
But sometimes, the onset of foot-in-keyboard is so virulent and so sudden, you can’t be prepared.
After all, who would have drafted the scenario plan that predicted a senior brand manager get off a plane back from China, and tired and emotional, open the brand page and start firing off poor taste comments?
This isn’t the first time. For years we have seen accidental examples of foot-in-keyboard. And even some on purpose.
Nor is it only commercial brands who are under siege from this nasty virus. After months of outrage at UKIP candidates’ shocking online comments, the Lib Dems – traditionally seen as the most harmless of the political parties – have had to distance themselves from crass comments from a local councillor. As so often with cases such as this, the second you read Drury’s horrific comments, you can almost hear the collective noise of 50 hands slapping their forehead in the Lib Dems’ Cowley Street office as the whole operation repeat after each other: “He said what?”
Here’s a thought for every social media user with a position of responsibility out there: next time you are about to post something when half cut, put down your drink and call out to your partner, “Hey, I’m thinking of running this <insert inane, possibly offensive comment> on a billboard on the A4,” and see how they respond.
If they run in and yank your device out of your hand you have just been provided with a moment to pause.
For the company or political party that has been left flabbergasted by such offensive stupidity, it’s not good enough to just disown the comment. Quickly, consumers (and voters) will start to ask the question: what does it mean for this brand if they are represented by horrible people such as this?
The lesson here – whether for politicians, celebrities or brands – is that you and your employees are NEVER off duty if you are online. And online you are never off the record.
Regardless of how personal, humorous or off-the-cuff the comment is, you will be judged by it. For ever.
Once the infection has broken out, there are some medicines you can take to reduce the pain.
Anything a brand or politician says can and will be used against it (every brand has haters), and it can work to point out where your hater’s agenda is distorting the response to any foot-in-keyboard moments.
In order to do that, you must immediately track how these comments are being amplified and start to address these concerns. By closely tracking your online influencers, you can cut through the wall of noise that hits you and start to identify those significant criticisms you face. That doesn’t mean you can ignore general outrage, but it does mean you can separate those who are recurrent detractors from those who are genuinely concerned about what this means for your brand.
Even then, the news agenda can work against you – there may be meta news narratives that your story plays into that mean it gets picked up in a way that it wouldn’t normally. #Foxnewsfacts would hardly have been trending this weekend if the entire British establishment didn’t despise Rupert Murdoch’s neocon agenda, as personified by Fox.
And so, sometimes, the media agenda will seize on your foot-in-keyboard outbreak and all you can do is manage the infection with an ongoing (antibiotic-style) round-the-clock crisis response.
Too often, companies and politicos seek to apologise and consider the matter closed, quickly looking to move on. Any crisis – on or offline – will continue to be raked over hot coals until every last strain of your foot-in-keyboard attack has worked its way out of the system.
You must therefore do all you can to both own the narrative and close down your story by showing genuine contrition before you even think about moving on with your communications efforts. If you really are sorry, what are you doing to stop it happening again?
The reality of crises in an always-on social media environment is you can never say you won’t do it again, so what processes can you put in place – beyond the odd bit of disciplinary action – to ensure your brand doesn’t cause offence in this way again?
Here’s a clue: having someone whisper “it’s all on the record” to every one of your employees is never going to work. Instead, you must do the heavy work of ensuring your company culture fits your brand values, educating your employees about the risks of social media use and ensuring you have in place the proper crisis response mechanisms to manage any issue that arises.
Only then can you consider yourself vaccinated against this nasty illness. And even then, remember to stay vigilant because – like every good virus – it is mutating all the time.