Earlier this month, Versace joined the growing list of companies that have experienced consumer-led brand assaults via social media channels, as scores of people posted messages to Versace’s Facebook wall in support of a protest against the company’s practice of sandblasting jeans. Versace reacted by deleting the comments and eliminating the option for fans to post comments to its wall (although it has since discontinued the practice of sandblasting).
This response has been widely criticized as not only a sign of panic in the face of a crisis, but also as a signal that the company doesn’t “get” the conversational spirit of social media. But despite the wide availability of playbooks for overcoming these shortcomings and handing social media-fueled crises — including specific plans for managing attacks within Facebook — there are still important lessons to be learned from this event.
First, never miss an opportunity to educate (and re-frame the conversation)
Unfortunately for Versace, the debate over the ethics of deleting online commentary overshadowed a simple fact that surfaced during this event: The company does not manufacture sandblasted jeans in locations such as Turkey and Bangladesh, where workers from other companies have died due to improper safety precautions. Instead, Versace sandblasts its jeans in Italy and follows the safety regulations that are mandated by Italian law.
But rather than meeting customers and protesters head-on within their chosen venue (Facebook), Versace took the tired path of trotting out a communications professional to issue a formal statement regarding the controversy (at least it was to Mashable). This approach represents a missed opportunity to re-frame the conversation.
Imagine instead if Versace had drafted a blog or filmed a video to: (1) Detail the safety measures that it has in place to protect its employees, and (2) Highlight its safety record. Posting this content to its Facebook Wall and then inviting stakeholders to view it in order to understand how Versace differs from other companies (that have made fatal safety mistakes) would not have ended the debate over sandblasting. It would, however, have educated all interested parties on the facts (which favor Versace). It also would have effectively planted the seeds of trust, respect and understanding within their minds.
Second, specify community guidelines in advance
While Versace has been roundly criticized for deleting comments on its Facebook wall, it’s not necessarily a sign of a savvy social media brand to allow uncontrolled commentary on a Facebook page or another digital outlet. If the purpose of a social media channel is to interact with real customers and fans, then unfiltered flaming dilutes the value of the channel for both the brand and its stakeholders (loyal customers, employees, prospective customers, etc.).
However, deleting comments arbitrarily (as Versace did, without explanation) will likely initiate a storm of criticism and detract from efforts to develop relationships with true fans. For this reason, organizations need to offer detailed community guidelines and feature them prominently on their Facebook pages and other social media outlets. These guidelines should specify the boundaries for conversations within brand-controlled social media outlets and call out actions that are off-limits, such as abusive language, bullying of other community members, and yes, even coordinated brand attacks by politically-motivated entities.
If guidelines are clearly outlined and consistently enforced, a perception of both fair play and protection of the community will outweigh charges of censorship.
Third, clearly explain the controversy and provide a forum for related conversations
A brand-jacking (to borrow a term from Jeremiah Owyang) attempt is also an opportune moment to cement a reputation for transparency. Instead of shying away from controversy, then, companies should instead provide forums for detailed discussions pertaining to all brand-related topics — even issues raised via coordinated attacks from third parties.
Within Facebook, a dedicated Discussion tab suits this purpose. In the face of a social media crisis, brands need to acknowledge the controversy on their Facebook pages, re-frame the issue with a educational post (see my first point above), and then also promote an off-wall environment where fans and other stakeholders can debate the issue.
In addition to transparency, this approach has the additional benefit of maintaining the brand’s Facebook presence as a place for relationship development between the brand and its fans, and between the fans themselves. This latter benefit is crucial, because it’s important o remember that part of the intent of social media and social marketing is to develop communities by fostering relationships not only with customers, but between customers.
It’s easy to see the power of a crisis response plan that not only re-frames an event through education, but also promotes confidence in the brand’s position by acknowledging an issue and encouraging discussions between stakeholders.
Although past high-profile social media controversies — such as those involving Nestle, Amy’s Baking Company & Bistro, and Southwest Airlines — have provided numerous takeaways to guide brands through similarly troubled waters, this most recent case offers a fresh set of lessons learned. Specifically, it’s important for companies of all sizes to have a social media crisis management plan in place that focuses on educating stakeholders, referring them to community guidelines, and providing a place where they can debate issues while not diluting the relationship-making value of critical social channels.