Preparing for the Next Social Media Crisis

You can't escape social media. That's where your clients are, and social media leverages your marketing resources a thousandfold. However, social media is a two-edged sword. When it works in your favor, it is extraordinarily cost-effective; however, when events turn against you, its effects can be devastating. Think about the video of BP's oil spill and the blogosphere, or more recently, lululemon athletica becoming the butt of jokes (sorry) for its yoga pants fiasco. Bad news travels fast on the digital grapevine. Social media also contributes to an overwhelming amount of information, loosely called Big Data, which must be part of your planning. How do you prepare for such PR disasters so that your good name doesn't suffer irreparable damage? What is the role of technology? Are there any common-sense techniques often overlooked that can make or break your preparations? In this column, I'll explore the softer side of social media crisis mitigation; in a future column, I'll assess the state of predictive text analytics.

I consider Adobe to be one of the experts in managing and analyzing social media; its social media solutions are diverse and well-integrated, something that always appeals to CIOs, since integration cuts costs. Forrester Research, Inc. recently ranked Adobe tops in web experience management. I asked Adobe's Loni Kao Stark, director of product and industry marketing, for her views about mitigation strategies and the impact of new media on digital marketing. She listed speed and reach as two factors abetting the viral nature of social media. I'd add the nature of Big Data to that list. Larger datasets lead to unexpected interactions.

In the International Data Company's (IDC) Digital Universe study sponsored by EMC and released in late 2012, IDC projected that by 2020, there will be more than 5,200GB of data for everyone on the planet. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo estimated that there are a half billion tweets per day. I used to think that the limiting factor in the exponential growth of data would be storage itself. Surprisingly, the idea of viral applies to possible biological storage technologies too. The European Molecular Biology Laboratory reported that it created a way to store information in DNA that could hold at least 100 million hours of high-definition video in a cupful of DNA. It isn't hard to imagine storing Big Data for years to come in something the size of one data center-without requiring power to maintain it and with reliable storage for 10,000 or more years. So, Big Data is here to stay, and social media will be a part of it. 

Before you are on the short end of the social media stick, you'd better have mitigation plans that have been rehearsed by key players and approved at the highest levels. Reacting without a plan in place is like trying to recapture all the oil spilled into the Gulf. It's not a pretty sight, and it's a costly effort that likely will hurt your brand for years to come. Stark told me that predictive analytics "can help marketers extrapolate into the future given information about the past and present. Detecting a possible viral problem quickly is the first step to mitigating it."

However, Stark also believes that message rather than technology or medium is key: "As easily as misinformation can spread, useful information can also be shared. Thus it is not the medium, but the message that needs to be the focus." Although marketing oversight, governing the message, is important, she warned that it must be light-footed and not be a drag on quick response.

All the technology in the world is only as good as your planning framework. A simple, but critical and often overlooked, information technology concept is important: the RACI matrix. Simply put, it means naming specific people, before disaster strikes, who will be Responsible, Accountable-one person who answers for success or failure-Consulted, and Informed on the social media crisis management team. Want to facilitate mitigation team relationships? Become familiar with RACI. At a minimum, responsible team members include the CIO, the CMO, and a legal representative. All those responsible for executing the plan must know who the team members are and must have practiced their roles before disaster strikes. Keeping the plan and its participants current is critical, since every enterprise has turnover. Although an obvious administrative need, somebody must keep the RACI list up-to-date. Absent comprehensive planning and the right message, your supporting technologies are just part of cost centers ... and we all know what happens to costs.