You don’t have a social media problem, you have a reputation problem

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Deepwater Horizon

I’m really not a fan of the phrase: “you have a problem in social media”. It’s a phrase the online industry uses to describe companies who are having a rough time in the social space and, while it’s superficially accurate, it’s entirely misleading in its simplicity.

The phrase is misleading because it speaks to the social media outcome and not the business issue that caused the problem. This ascribes the blame to the wrong party and the ensuing remedies are then applied in the wrong areas. It’s not a new phenomenon, treating the symptom instead of the cause, yet the mistake continues to be made. You don’t have a reputation problem — the actual problem likely lies somewhere in your product, your business processes or your service delivery.

Online reputation management (ORM), the process of tracking, analysing and managing a company’s reputation in the online space, really came to the fore back in 2010 during the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. There was naturally outrage across all forms of media. BP’s brand took a beating at the hands of a vocally enraged public, as it should, but when you’re pumping 53 000 barrels of oil a day into the sea you don’t have an ORM problem, you have a ‘we-are-killing-the-planet’ problem. The two cannot, and should not, be compared.

When the brand attack happens, and it will happen, it is vitally important that you manage the situation as best as possible. Maddened crowds shouldn’t be ignored. But once the issue has died down your entire company’s job is to identify and work on fixing the true cause of the problem so that it doesn’t happen again.

As soon as you admit that your ‘social media problem’ is actually a manifestation of a core business problem, you can get more than just your marketing team around the table to fix the issue. Marketing may be responsible for handling your current social media problems but it’s operations, engineering, design, planning and customer service who are responsible for fixing your future ‘social media problems’.

Going back to the BP oil spill, it wasn’t a marketer who fixed the problem, it was a team of engineers who eventually managed to cap the well. The ORM problem slowly fixed itself from there. Your own marketing team, while potentially brilliant at what they do, are mostly equipped with band-aids, plugs and misdirection tricks when facing a tidal wave of social media hate.

The people who are responsible are the heads and employees of every single division you have. It’s called being a social business – where at your core you understand and have designed your business processes around the implications of this new social world. You listen, intently, and build your business, products and services according to the new rules that govern how people consume, enjoy, engage and share their experiences.

BP eventually agreed to pay a US$4-billion settlement on the damages caused by the spill. Their reputation has pretty much recovered. The Gulf of Mexico hasn’t.

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