(Don’t) Fight Fire with Fire: Handling crises online

Handling online social media crises using emotional intelligence
It’s what you say and how you say it

Prof Edgard Barki, FGV-EAESP, and business consultant Clémence Vignal Lambret, SciencesPo, demonstrate that emotional intelligence can help firms save face when confronted with netizen reactions on social media.

By CoBS Editor Guragam Singh, based on the paper Social media crisis management: Aligning corporate response strategies with stakeholders’ emotions online, Wiley.

(Don’t) Fight Fire with Fire: Handling crises online. The rise of social media has given a platform to individuals to express their views—good, bad, or just plain ugly—in ways unimaginable before the rise of the world wide web. The interconnected mesh of users on social media allows not only the voicing of personal opinion but also the amassing of this opinion to set trends – that is, ‘influence’ the debate. So much so, that these ‘influencers’ are able to charge anywhere from between four to six-figure dollar amounts per social media post as part of what is known as influencer marketing.

Given how social media has proven itself to be capable of affecting the outcome of a US presidential election, it is well worth considering this soft power’s effects on companies who are willing to pay an arm and a leg to project and preserve a favourable online presence.

Consider Volkswagen which, following the revelation of its vehicular emissions cheat-sheet, within a week witnessed almost twenty times the number of negative tweets while losing its CEO and 35% of its market value. As such, social media can be a breeding ground for corporate crises to manifest and once that has happened, it is only a matter of time before its proponents will come out with the verdict—not born out of logical reasoning that should be expected from today’s internet-savvy users, but one that more often than not is essentially an emotional outburst.

Handling online social media crises using emotional intelligence
The days of the old smokers have gone

In light of this, it is important for firms—facing reputational threat—to be fully aware that their communications to the outside world may well be garbled, lost, or distorted among the noise of those very outsiders they wish to reach. With this in mind, Prof Edgard Barki and consultant Clémence Vignal Lambret studied instances of how firms responded when confronted with varying user reactions and with what degree of success—if any.

Online crises: A walk down history lane

The underpinnings for this study stem from how crises have traditionally been categorised along the lines of their nature—technical, political, etc.—origin, whether inside the organisation or out, and intensity—determined by the length and impact. Given the rise of social media, it is important to factor in its effects to the firm and its stakeholders.

Moreover, in the past the standard approach was to view crises management as a process under the control of the firm. However, starting from the end of the first decade of the 21st century, a view was proposed that stakeholders online were too disjoint and spread across space and time, and that online and offline communications could interact and impact each other. As such, social media could showcase and amplify not only a firm’s dirty laundry but also how its practices were perceived.

Handling online social media crises using emotional intelligence
A net increase in social media users

The way social media has proliferated—with more than 15% of the world’s population on average having at least one online account—has radically altered how companies and stakeholders communicate with each other. To this end, these challenges have been deemed important enough to be properly addressed via the firm’s corporate communication strategy, the efficiency of which is impacted by social media.

While various strategies exist, they have effectively been clubbed into two that are relevant to the study —accommodative and defensive—and linked with the dynamics of stakeholder emotion.

Game theory

This takes into account the best response strategy, based on the width of the reputational threat—the interplay between the origin of the crisis, the extent of responsibility and of course, stakeholders’ emotions.

It’s used to form a framework, which helps to determine whether to use an accommodative response—generating, improving, developing reputational assets by compensation, symbolic or material, to the stakeholders. By contrast, the defensive strategy aspires to either detach the organisation from the crisis or reduce the role of the organisation in the given crisis.

Subsequently, stakeholders’ emotions are arranged in relation to the extent of reputational threat. As such, this spectrum includes less negative emotions such as sympathy and sadness to fright and anger which lie on the more negative end of the spectrum.

Handling online social media crises using emotional intelligence
What’s your game?

Solving for X

Knowing the crisis helps in determining the kind of emotions being experienced, and consequently, the reputational threat. This can then be used to respond in the most suitable manner.

Crises arising purely from within the organisation are preventable, pose high levels of reputational threat, usually elicit highly disapproving emotions, and are therefore best dealt with using an accommodative stance. They reflect the fact that the organisation acted in a certain manner knowing fully well the consequences of such actions.

On the other hand, there are crises that the organisation itself falls prey to. These fall into what the researchers call the victim cluster. They are external and are posited to evoke feelings of sympathy and sadness, and thus, ostensibly require the organisation to present a strong defence.

But as with most things in life, there are shades of grey in between. Here, these represent actions that were not intentional, and may require a mixed strategy.

Handling online social media crises using emotional intelligence
Being emotionally intelligent

(Don’t) Fight Fire with Fire: Live—to fight another day

Barki and Vignal Lambret used this framework to analyse 6 real-world crises faced by companies operating in Brazil and France. As such, the analysis offers insights to crises management in disparate cultural contexts and compares company responses with the proposed strategies.

For instance, in 2015, the Parisian public transport company, RATP, decided to remove part of an advertisement banner used by Les Prêtres, a French music band. The banner was supposedly controversial because it showcased a leaning towards a particular religious group, which at that time was facing suppression by ISIS. The public was, however, outraged, and considered RATP’s decision—aimed at maintaining neutrality—condoning massacre in the Middle East.

And even though this reaction, coupled with the internal origin of the crisis, should have precipitated an accommodative response, RATP defended itself, mostly using legal jargon, which served only to antagonise further – including the French Prime Minister. A week later, RATP had to reverse its decision, and allowed the banner to be displayed.

By contrast, Skol, a popular beer in Brazil, characterised by a fun and frolic message, had a different approach. Skol’s posters released ahead of the Carnival in Brazil did not go down well on social media due to the innuendo nature of their slogans, perceived as sexist. These strong negative public reactions duly precipitated an accommodative response – successful because Skol, while making their marketing director a scapegoat, apologised, and claimed innocence of intention, and changed the slogans for the festival.

Handling online social media crises using emotional intelligence
Framing it correctly

At the other end of the spectrum, accidental crises—one on the French railway system and one mining dam collapse in Brazil—were studied. The SNCF, the French transport company took quick measures and effectively took ownership of an accident that claimed 7 lives and injured more than 30. As such, it was rendered preventable. Moreover, in response to the sad tones conveyed on social media, SNCF quickly labelled the crisis a railway accident, thus ensuring externality of origin. While the enquiry found insufficient maintenance as the root cause of the accident, the SNCF was able to tide over a difficult time period and media crisis to live to fight another day.

However, the response to the dam collapse overwhelmingly conveyed anger, which means it should have been treated as preventable. The company, Samarco, however, categorised it as an accident, and responded with a defensive strategy—praising their actions to support affected communities and denying knowledge of what went wrong. As such, it prevented Samarco from effectively engaging with its stakeholders.

Companies that are (purportedly) victims of crises have another story to tell. Air France, which had been plagued with debt, was planning organisational reform that fell through when a union strike turned violent. Since theory posits that workplace violence be considered as victimisation, it was. Unfortunately, social media thought otherwise and conveyed anger.

To this end, the researchers argue, it should have been named preventable and an accommodative response tailor-made to the situation, instead of making matters worse by downplaying the incident with a light-hearted video that seemed to make it all look like a joke.

Yet, Coca-Cola was successful in its handling of media crisis online. After a customer claimed online to have developed handicaps after consuming a ‘bad-quality’ version of the beverage 13 years ago, they posted a video—showcasing a seemingly unopened bottle with a rat’s heart inside—that went viral. In this case, social media thought Coca-Cola was in the right and doled out sympathies. This gave the company time to analyse the situation and react accordingly. To this end, Coke invited influencers to film their safety measures thereby became the wax-seal of authority over Coke’s quality, and successfully exonerating them in the process.

Play your cards right – handling crises online

The variety of crises showcased is proof that social media can make a mountain out of a molehill. As such, it can be explained by the irrationality of responses that social media provides a refuge for. As such, economic theory that espouses the cause of the rational person need to be reconsidered by organisations looking to keep their reputations intact.

Handling online social media crises using emotional intelligence
It could bring you out in a flush

To make matters worse, social media – said to have a hand in polarising debate – has unfortunately engulfed crises management as well. Vilification of large corporates seems to be the new normal, without waiting for formal enquiry results, and sometimes with serious disregard for due process. So much so, that a corporation is seemingly required to treat genuine accidents as preventable crises that the organisation failed to foresee.

A further insight is that the origin of the crises is insufficient to determine the proper response. As such, companies wishing to face the 21st century head-on will need to develop strategies that flexibly manage stakeholders. To this end, they need to predict and adeptly handle emotional responses online, regardless of how irrational they may appear to be. Or risk the same fate as that of Volkswagen after Dieselgate.

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