Have you ever seen a social media firestorm in action?
Just like any other storm system, it’s both an awesome and terrifying sight to behold.
Recently, Amazon.com found itself in the middle of a big firestorm over a book for pedophiles which it had for sale on its site.
While I’m sure there will be many posts written in the coming weeks analyzing where Amazon went wrong during their firestorm (which is pretty much everywhere), I’m more interested in the other half of the equation.
As a student of communications and ethnography, during social media conversation firestorms, I like to watch the storm, not the ground upon which it ravages.
Social media conversation storms are swift, powerful and quickly growing, and studying them is a new science (which I, in no way, claim to have mastered). But I think it’s important to pay attention to them because they hold lessons on how we should respond to our own firestorms when they eventually arise.
While our firestorms may not pack the punch of Amazon’s, sooner or later all of us will feel a backlash for a mistake we’ve made (and we all make them, because we’re human). When that happens, how will we respond?
In watching Amazon’s community engage, some conversation patterns emerged that I have seen repeated before in social media firestorms -- from small flame wars to all out reputation apocalypses.
Below, I’ve described seven conversationalist profiles that seem most common in these situations.
Each of these types of people play a very different role in a firestorm and thus, may require different layers of attention and responsiveness from a company. By learning who these people are and what motivates their participation in the conversation, maybe we can better formulate our company's responses in return.
1. The catalysts
Catalysts are the people closest to the inciting incident (or the cause, recipient or beneficiary of whatever went wrong). These are the news breakers who bring an incident to life and give it shape and legs.
I’ve observed that catalysts are often bloggers, as that form lends itself well to storytelling. In a blog, a person has a platform to fully describe what happened, why it upset them, and what they intend to do about it. Often, (but not always) this is also the place where they include a call to action for their readers.
The catalysts are the many “faces” of a social firestorm. Some may not be directly related to the incident, but they've felt or formed a connected with the person who was. They originate the story within their networks and generally follow it through until some sort of conclusion is reached.
Posting a blanket apology on the company website is not an appropriate or effective way tocommunicate with a catalyst. Catalysts require (and deserve) personal contact from a company (on the phone, via email, etc.) where both the company representative and the catalyst can discuss the problem and next steps.
Conversations move extremely fast in social circles. Contacting catalysts as soon as possible is the most important thing you can do to manage your company’s online reputation in a firestorm.
Like a spark smoldering in the corner of an unoccupied building, ignoring your catalysts is just inviting a blaze to erupt.2. The shepherds
Shepherds are the people who hear or read about a catalyst’s inciting incident and are so moved by what they’ve learned that they immediately drop what they are doing and begin to do some homework to help build upon the catalyst’s case.
In the Amazon situation, the shepherds were the people who began investigating the background of the author of the offending book, the content of Amazon’s communication channels, and prior cases that involved Amazon publishing controversial content.
After they’ve done their homework, shepherds usually report their findings back to the catalysts and out to their own networks as well (making them, in effect, second-generation catalysts.)
The shepherds can be powerful players in a social firestorm. They have chosen to turn their anger into strategic action and may not be as easily placated as a catalyst (who might be simply looking for a personal apology or specific acknowledgment from the company in question).
I believe that shepherds are the people public relations departments should focus their firestorm communication efforts on, since these are the people who are not just concerned that a company made a mistake, they’re concerned that this mistake is part of a larger trend or problem.
If you have dirty laundry, a shepherd will air it for you. And if they see a catalyst start a relevant, relatable and reasonable fire, they will start chopping wood to feed it.3. The activists
Activists are moved to action by the catalyst’s story, but this action generally takes a very specific and predictable course.
In the Amazon situation, the activists were the people who canceled their existing Amazon orders or accounts, called Amazon on the phone to lodge a complaint or wrote blog posts of their own to share their feelings about the situation.
It’s often the front line communicators within a company who feel the wrath of angry activists. So, it’s probably wise to start thinking now about how to train and prepare those front line communicators to respond if/when a firestorm happens.
Most activists show their displeasure in a firestorm by taking one specific action (like calling customer service or boycotting a store) rather than launching a full-on disgruntlement campaign.
In some cases, it may be possible to predict those behaviors (and the channels activists will use to express them) in advance. (For instance, if you’re a store, angry people may share their feelings with your cashiers rather than your managers).
My observation is that activists are not people who have an axe to grind. They’re also not looking for a company to make a huge policy change on the spot. Activists just want their displeasure acknowledged and an assurance that the company in question is open to discussing and resolving the situation.4. The promoters
Promoters often fan the flames of a firestorm, but likely will not back up those words with action (for them, the retweet, the blog post, the mass email IS the action).
Promoters use the click of a button to express their displeasure, and then they usually move on.
Are promoters dangerous to a company in a firestorm?
You bet. Messages add up and word spreads fast.
So what can a company do to communicate with them?
I think that if companies reach out to catalysts quickly (which clearly, Amazon did not), and are effective in working things out with them, those catalysts can play an instrumental role in reaching out to promoters and changing the tone of the conversations which are being promoted.
Companies can also make use of the fact that promoters promote. They’ll quickly spread the news that a company messed up. But, they just as quickly can spread the word when its been fixed. too.5. The crowd
The crowd is the majority of people on social media. These are the people who read information updates, and may take a moment to share a comment on it, and then they move on.
Does that mean they don’t care?
Not by a long shot.
The crowd is the “public” in “public relations.” Even if they aren’t talking about a particular company or incident, (or saying much when they do), the crowd can see a firestorm and they’re likely going to have an ambient awareness of it until it dies.
Formal acknowledgments and updates during a firestorm -- like issuing a statement or apology or stepping up to publicly share the other side of the story -- make an impression on the crowd.
Even it if a company's response is perfunctory, it’s usually appreciated...though that sentiment will rarely be voiced.6. The contrarians
Contrarians seem to pop up in every firestorm to remind the masses that there are two sides to every story.
In some cases, contrarians can be an asset for a company, reminding people that they may be overreacting, moving to judgment too soon, or being unreasonable with their demands of the offending company.
Do companies need to reach out to contrarians personally during a firestorm like they would with a catalyst?
Probably not. A contrarian’s beef is usually with the situation and how it is playing out, rather than with the inciting incident at the core of it.
However, since contrarians are members of "the crowd" too, they still need to see, and will appreciate, formal acknowledgments and updates during a firestorm.7. The trolls
I didn’t capture any troll screen grabs during the Amazon storm, mostly because those people are not worthy of the effort.
Although there were probably a handful of troll comments that I saw this week, the ones that popped up were so ridiculously offensive (for example, “I don’t know what the big deal is, pedophiles are people too.”) that most people just ignored them.
Trolls feed off of storms and are attracted to fire like moths. So they invariably surface during any public debate hoping to bait people into argument, stir up emotions and just piss people off in general.
The old adage of “don’t feed the trolls” is true. And few do during a genuine firestorm, especially (and appropriately) representatives from the company being called out.
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