The 1 percent solution: Managing online controversy

October 29, 2010

Social media makes it easy for outraged consumers to broadcast their dissatisfaction around the world — sometimes in minutes.

There are many examples. For instance, this past April, environmentalists overwhelmed Nestlé’s official Facebook page with posted messages claiming the Swiss food conglomerate’s use of palm oil in KitKat candy bars is damaging Indonesia’s rain forest.

It can be overwhelming to imagine managing an online controversy when you see social media causing this much havoc.

The good news:  Among all visitors to social media sites, only about 1 percent contribute any content (such as text, photos, audio or video), according to Chicago-based consultant Jackie Huba.  Thus, online controversies usually start out as isolated attacks on a company’s policies or products.  These attacks tend to evolve into a raging crisis only when the company fails to effectively address the criticism in its early stages.

The bad news: Despite their small numbers,  “One Percenters” can wield enormous influence when they are outraged by your company’s behavior.

“CEOs should care about the ‘One Percenters’ because they can affect whether customers buy from the company or not,” says Huba, author of the book “Citizen Marketers.”  “[Their] content appears very high on Google when prospective customers are researching online. Worse yet, those blog posts and tweets might spread, where mainstream media will see them and write stories, thereby amplifying the negative message.”

Take the FOUR Step approach
The best way to manage an online controversy is to detect it and manage it before the crisis becomes unmanageable. Consider adopting the FOUR Step Approach: Focus, Observe, Understand and Respond.

  1. Focus — It’s impossible for any organization to watch everything. Narrow your focus to a manageable number of  Web platforms and search terms. Identify the most influential bloggers in your market.  Try to pinpoint where controversies are most likely to erupt or to gain credibility.
  2. Observe — Use social media monitoring tools to discover relevant online conversations that are taking place in real-time.

    “Many crises start bubbling up online on Twitter or blogs before mainstream media find them,” Huba says. “If a company has resources in place to monitor what’s being said about them 24/7 online, they have a better chance of averting a crisis.”
  3. Understand — If you detect a potential controversy, make the effort to analyze why your customers are angry. There is always a reason when folks get upset. But don’t dawdle. Online controversies move at the speed of the Internet, not of the corporation.
  4. Respond — Communicate directly with the angriest customers on whatever social media platform they have chosen.

    “When a crisis is brewing, it should be addressed ASAP and should be addressed in the same forum in which it began — branching out to other social media properties and online outlets as needed,” says Terry Dry, president of Fanscape, a Los Angeles agency that specializes in digital word-of-mouth marketing. “So if  Twitter is the culprit, the brand should address the concerns via Twitter through your brand’s official Twitter profile.”

Respond with feelings
Your first instinct may be to respond with an official review of the facts as your company sees them. That’s a huge mistake. You will sound like you are making excuses — and excuses usually ratchet up the outrage that drives an online controversy.

Outrage (a potent combination of anger and fear) has nothing to do with the facts; it has everything to do with feelings and perceptions. These tips can help you calm the outrage and manage an online controversy:

  • Approach your customers with humility — Suppress the urge to act as if you know all the answers. Even if you’re right, angry stakeholders won’t believe you. Instead, ask questions. Seek suggestions for solving the problem. Giving customers a voice in the process also gives them a reason to let go of their anger.
  • Express empathy for their position — Listen carefully to what your consumers are saying.  Ask questions. Let the consumers define the controversy, and act accordingly. Resist the urge to restate the controversy in your own terms. When you respond, do so in a human voice, not a corporate PR voice. If you want to calm the outrage, then you must be willing to sacrifice some of your pride.
  • Acknowledge their anger — This is not the same as admitting liability. It’s simply a matter of saying, “We understand you are upset with us, and we will do everything we can to make things right.”  Just knowing that someone at your company is listening and is working on the problem goes a long way toward soothing the outrage — and managing the controversy.

Monitoring social media with free tools from the Web

There isn’t a simple answer to the question, “How do we monitor social media?” Comprehensive, fee-based tools tend to be expensive.  And no single free tool offers complete coverage of blogs, microblogs, vlogs, forums, social networks and other platforms.

Stefan Betzold, a managing partner at the German digital marketing firm pier 314, divides these free tools into four categories: blog searches,  Twitter monitors, search tools and aggregator tools.
Here are some sites to help you monitor your brand:

Blog searches

  • Technorati — Considered the gold standard among search engines for both blogs and blog posts
  • Backtype — Similar to Technorati, but focuses on blog comments
  • Yacktrack — Searches for comments across a spectrum of platforms, such as Digg, Blogger and Wordpress
  • BlogPulse — Generates line graphs to show how much chatter your brand is generating
  • Boardtracker — Searches discussion boards for comments about your brand

Twitter monitors

  • Search.twitter  — Searches for terms beyond your own Twitter timeline
  • Tweetbeep — Delivers alerts to you by e-mail

Search tools

  • Howsociable — Measures your brand’s visibility across 32 platforms, including Google, Facebook and flickr
  • Collecta — Monitors update streams of news sites, blogs and social media, and shows results in real-time
  • Wowd — A peer-to-peer search engine that posts what other Wowd users are viewing online
  • Socialmention — A broad-based search engine that includes microblogs, images, audio and video

Aggregator tools

  • Addict-o-matic — Creates a custom page to organize the latest buzz on your topics
  • Pipes —  Allows you to set up automatic feeds for news alerts related to your brand   — R.C.


No comments have been submitted yet.

Post a Comment

Editor’s Note: Please limit your comments to the specific post. We reserve the right to omit any response that is not related to the article or that may be considered objectionable.


To help us ensure that you are a real human, please type the total number of circles that appear in the following images in the box below.

(image of four circles) + (image of six circles) =