A quick look at the Weber-Shandwick publication, The Good Book of Badvocacy, reminds us that the internet isImage crawling with people just waiting to launch an online campaign against you, should you make them mad. 

According to the research, up to 20 percent of online adults are badvocates, "people who stand on a virtual soapbox to criticize or detract from companies, brands or  products." Their influence is far-reaching: on average they tell 14 people of their dissatisfaction.  The research also found that nearly four in 10 global executives fear that a dissatisfied customer or critic will launch an online campaign against their company. Badvocates are social media engagement's nemesis. 

On the flip side, Pew Internet just released research showing that the majority of adults (85%) that use social networking sites (SNS) view their experience as mostly kind. Also, 68 percent said their experience on SNS made them feel good about themselves.  So for most, social media is a positive experience.

Organizations may find themselves at the mercy of badvocates when a crisis pops up if they haven't invested time and effort in developing a loyal community of brand ambassadors.  At CKSyme.org, we use a system called "Listen, Engage, and Respond"  to help organizations build an effective crisis communications strategy.Developing an effective listening strategy is the first piece.  Listen and monitor the important conversations to find out what is being said about you and your sector.

After establishing an effective listening program and finding out where your fans are, you are ready to build an effective brand ambassador program via social media. There's a debate raging among social media pros on the quality versus quantity of fans. Some say your chances of engagement are better with more fans and likes. Popular, but controversial applications like Klout have helped promote this philosophy. Others say it's the quality and engagement level of your fans and followers that matter, and not how many people "like you."  Mark Smiciklas from Social Media Explorer recently wrote on the need to move past acquisition to advocacy. From a PR standpoint, social media strategies that aim to develop engagement coupled with identifying key influencers are your best protection in a crisis. More might be merrier, but it isn't a guarantee of engagement levels.

Friends Carry More Weight Than Foes

While working in a university athletic department that experienced a series of crises which culminated in a rather ugly, public event, I was tapped to lead the department team tasked with reputation recovery. One of the first things I did was establish a brand monitoring program. There was no Twitter or Facebook yet, but that didn't mean people weren't talking online. The school had a rather large and vocal fan message board  that the department did not participate in. After all, if you don't hear people saying bad things about you, you don't have to deal with them, right? I quickly established a spreadsheet noting the comments and tracking sentiment on the message board. I found out who was talking, and pinpointed the key influencers. Then I established an "official" account and made myself available to answer questions and address concerns on behalf of the department.

An interesting thing happened. Once we became a supportive part of the message board community, the conversational tone about our brand became decidedly more positive. Rants lessened and thoughtful questions emerged. We were there to take our licks, and our invested fans valued that. The number of people coming to our defense increased and the number of badvocates decreased significantly in a short period of time. We made our leadership available to answer questions through a live blog. People settled down. I saw the same phenomenon when I was tracking the social media interactions during the recent Penn State troubles. People will come to your rescue if you have taken time to value them and build a relationship. Will you take a hit? Probably. But will you bounce back quicker with the help of a loyal group of advocates? Definitely.

Make Your Goal Engagement, Not Numbers

If you build a social media following to build your reputation, your goals will look different than if you are building strictly for numbers. Likes and fans can be bought (literally) with gimmicks, contests, and free stuff. Fight the desire to give in to these "paid growth" strategies. Determine to build a community of loyal brand ambassadors that like you because they like your products and services (organic growth), not because you give them free stuff. Basic goals for organic engagement include the following:

  • Develop social content that adds value to your followers and/or provides answers to questions they struggle with--content that enriches their life. Remember, it's not about you. Empower your people with solutions to their problems.
  • Crowdsource your followers and internal constituencies to solve problems. Give people the opportunity to add value to you.
  • Fix it when it goes wrong. If you sell a product or service, make a commitment to use social media to solve problems quickly. It's the fastest and cheapest way to foster positive word-of-mouth.
  • Spread the wealth. If you can't do it, tell them who can. Remember Miracle on 34th Street--the original version?  In it, a store Santa, Kris Kringle, raises a stir by sending customers to other stores that undersold Macy's. Customers loved him--store leadership hated him. Remember, you are solving people's problems. It's probably a good reality check to realize you can't solve them all.
  • Reach out and touch someone. Give your advocates a nod. Let them know you are there listening and give them something of value, whether it's a tangible reward (book, discount on products, early registration to an event) or  just authentic generosity by promoting them on your platforms. This isn't offering a reward for a "like." It's rewarding those who influence others on your behalf.
  • Give others a platform to talk about what you do well. Here is a sticky wicket. McDonalds and Blackberry got into trouble recently trying to pull this off. There's a way to do this, but make sure you find a method that fits who you are, I mean who you really are. As my grandma used to say, "don't think of yourself more highly than you ought." McDonald's tried to pull on people's heart strings asking them to recall warm, fuzzy McDonald's experiences on Twitter. Not a bad idea, just wrong execution. People have pretty sophisticated bullshit monitors these days, especially in social media. 

 The best PR strategy in the world will be laid bare by social media.  When it comes to crisis communications, the best organizations use social media to build brand ambassadors, not just numbers. If you've been measuring your engagement levels by numbers, it's time to redefine what engagement means. Develop brand ambassadors, and they will be your advocates in a crisis.