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Protect your business from a social media attack
By feature writer Daniel Edward Craig
The examples of the damage that can be done through social media are piling up, and they're guaranteed to make hoteliers and travel industry professionals shudder.
The latest casualty is a small hotel in the UK that refused to refund the deposit of an army veteran who canceled his 50th wedding anniversary celebration after his wife died. The story hit mainstream media and quickly went viral on social media.
Within days the hotel's Facebook page was bombarded by hundreds of scathing comments and over 2,000 one-star reviews. On Twitter the tone was similarly vitriolic, and a spate of nasty reviews cropped up on Google Places and TripAdvisor.
No question, management made a bad judgment call. But the resulting social media witch-hunt was far more disturbing than the initial offense. It's doubtful the hotel will ever fully recover.
So how do you protect your business from a similar fate? Whether it's a rumor about bedbugs or an offensive comment made by an employee, following these guidelines will help you manage, mitigate and avert a social media attack.
1. Train and empower staff
Businesses are well aware of the perils of external attacks, but often the real threat comes from within. We have never been more vulnerable to errors and misjudgment on the part of employees.
As an example, in 2012 a major international hotel brand was assailed on social networks after a front desk employee allegedly mocked a disabled U.S. army veteran who requested assistance during a power outage. He got down from his room by throwing his wheelchair and suitcases down three flights of stairs and sliding down on his behind. Then he went straight to the media.
Staff must understand that social media has raised the stakes. The costs of mistreating customers are significantly higher. Employees and managers must be trained and empowered to identify and resolve issues onsite before they escalate to online channels.
That said, we can't allow ourselves to be held hostage to threats and unreasonable demands. Staff need to know how far they should go to appease upset guests and that management will support them if they hold their ground. In any scenario, professionalism, courtesy and a sincere effort to make things right will go a long way to preventing issues from taking flight on social networks.
2. Have a social media policy and guidelines
Your social media policy should clearly outline guidelines for employee conduct and stress the importance of responsiveness, respect and integrity in all communications. Include a crisis management component that identifies responsibilities and communication channels.
Before boarding a plane to South Africa last month, the PR manager of a major brand posted a tweet about AIDS intended to be funny and ironic but that many found offensive and racist. By the time her plane landed, a virtual mob had assembled on Twitter, demanding that she be fired. (She was.)
If employees represent your business or comment on related topics on personal social profiles or blogs, they should add a disclaimer that says the opinions are their own. They must read content thoroughly, think hard before sharing and commenting, and consider all social communications as public.
3. Keep a tight reign on access
Prevent hacking by creating strong passwords, maintaining different passwords for each social network, and changing them regularly. Limit admin rights to administrators and senior managers.
If an employee resigns or is dismissed, withdraw admin rights promptly. This should help avert the plight of the major international brand whose employee live-tweeted a mass firing of staff (including him) on the company's official feed. A company executive was quoted saying frantically, "How do I shut down Twitter?"
And then there's the U.S. state tourism bureau whose employee posted "F this job" to its official Facebook page, mistaking it for her personal page. The comment quickly went viral.
Administrators and contractors must be fastidious about maintaining separate personal and business accounts and ensuring they're posting the right content to the right account.
4. Monitor and respond quickly
Use alerts and monitoring tools to keep track of mentions, and conduct periodic reputation audits by searching your brand name on Google and major social networks. Be on high alert for signs of trouble, especially concerning hot-button issues.
If a crisis hits, it won't wait until Monday morning. Monitor activity on evenings and weekends, and know how to reach your administrator at any time of day. The rapid-fire pace at which news can spread means there's no time for bureaucracy. The longer you allow things to fester, the higher the price you're likely to pay. Act quickly, but weigh options and potential consequences first. If risks are considerable, consult an attorney or public relations firm.
5. Fix the problem
The days of sweeping issues under the carpet are over. If you're getting complaints about staff or policies, don't wait for things to escalate to fix the problem. If you can't fix it, be transparent with customers and compensate generously when you fail to meet expectations.
If there is content about your business online that is false and damaging, depending on the source you may be able to dispute it, flag it as unhelpful or inappropriate, or ask for it to be removed. Avoid "sanitizing" your Facebook page by deleting negative comments; it may only further provoke. And don't perform multiple searches of the issue (e.g. "ABC Hotel bedbugs") as it will only perpetuate the problem.
When asking for content to be removed, don't be heavy-handed; it may only make things worse. Legal action should be a last resort-it's expensive, there's no guarantee of winning, and it may attract more negative publicity.
To push negative content down and out of sight, generate new content. This may involve asking guests for reviews, creating profiles on major social networks, or generating news that will be covered by high-ranking news sites and blogs. Charitable work can be a strong antidote for bad publicity.
6. Publish a response
People can be quick to condemn but may change their mind when they hear your side of the story. Publish a statement to explain what happened, how you feel about it, and what you're doing about it. Post it to your website, blog or wherever you're receiving the brunt of criticism, and direct inquiries there. Call on fans, employees and industry partners to help clear up misinformation.
This "zero tolerance" response example is a bit harsh, but it gets to the point in under 140 characters.
7. Know who you're dealing with
As a rule, engage detractors and try to appease them. Thank your advocates, report hackers and ignore trolls. Trolls are people who post offensive or off-topic comments intended to provoke a reaction. You may also choose to disregard irrational and malicious people-others will see them for who they are. Make customers the priority.
After you've followed these steps, if it seems that no matter what you say or do it only provokes further hostility, it may be best to go dark on social channels until the storm passes. The good news is social media controversies tend to flicker out as quickly as they flare up.
While these safeguards will help to prevent and mitigate social media attacks, the best way to protect your brand reputation is to be unfailingly respectful and ethical in business practices, to take great care of customers, and to quickly make things right when you drop the ball. Do this, and your reputation will weather any storm.
As for that UK hotel, management has since issued an apology, refunded the veteran's money, and donated to a charity on his behalf. This hasn't appeased everyone, but it has helped to change perceptions and has set them on the road to recovery after a harrowing start to the year.
About the Author
Daniel Edward Craig is a former hotel general manager and the founder of Reknown, a consultancy specializing in social media strategy and online reputation management for hotels and the travel industry. He collaborates with ReviewPro as Industry Advisor, Engagement. Visit www.reknown.com.
Copyright: © 2014 Daniel Edward Craig
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