In Part 1 of this post, we did a quick recap of how Greenpeace and hundreds of outraged environmentally-conscious web denizens turned to Nestle’s Facebook wall to air grievances on Friday March 19, and essentially turned the company’s Facebook embassy into a battleground. If you missed it, check out the post (and the comments) here.

Today, we’re going to look at ways that this Social Media management disaster (and PR black eye) could have been handled by Nestle, had their Social Media team (internal or outsourced) been prepared for that kind of crisis. We already covered some of the major points of how to avoid this yesterday (hiring professionals to manage your Social Media outlets, planning for crises, training in crisis management and real-time PR, etc.), so – for the purposes of today’s post – let’s assume that Part 1’s advice was taken to heart and that trained, experienced professionals are now in charge of all of the company’s Social Media properties, including Facebook.

Some comments from nestle's wall

What to do if your Facebook Page comes under attack by an activist organization and/or scores of angry commenters:

1. Be there. You can’t gain control of the situation if you aren’t there, monitoring and ready to take action. So monitor keywords. Monitor channels. Expect attacks and crises to come, and be ready to act. In case your boss forgot to tell you, if you are charged with managing a company’s Facebook presence, you’re N.O.R.A.D. for them on Facebook. Keep your eyes on that radar screen at all times, and have a well-thought-out yet flexible plan of action if you spot missiles heading your way.

Recap: Nestle’s team was painfully absent when its wall was attacked on march 19th, and the result was a bloody trouncing of the brand that lasted not only hours but days. Whomever was being paid to manage that page essentially sat on their hands while it was taken over by hundreds of facebook users with – in many cases – legitimate concerns that needed to be addressed. Not exactly a stellar display of skill, professional savvy, or… presence, for that matter. Someone should have been there to at least try to manage the complaints.

2. Carefully but quickly gain control of the situation. (See 3 to 6.) Why is this here? Because it is important to realize that “response” isn’t enough. in order to be effective, you have to be more than simply reactive. You have to regain control of the situation. You have to regain the initiative. If you don’t, you will find yourself in a defensive position for days, and nothing will get resolved.

3. Introduce yourself. Put a face, name and role to your official presence. Don’t just reply from behind a faceless corporate identity and avatar. Be a human being. Talk like a human being. Feel like a human being. Engage on a personal level with commenters. Look at what Scott Monty does for Ford, for example, and how he does it.

Recap: Nestle’s “presence” on facebook on March 19th was remarkably corporate. This didn’t help establish the kind of rapport needed to begin a real discussion. Even if Nestle’s engagement had been stronger, its faceless approach put them at a disadvantage from the start. Humanizing its presence would have been a great first step.

4. Make a point to welcome the comments. Invite them. Keep it up. See number 3, above. This is important. Popping up with a comment every three hours won’t cut it. Get in there, ask your boss to go on a Starbucks run, and brace yourself for a long day/night. Like it or not, this is where you earn your pay, so strap in and enjoy the ride. Think Marathon, not 5K.

Once you get into the game, be cordial, be kind, be professional, and assume your role as the custodian of facts. Not propaganda: facts. If someone claims something about your company or products that is inaccurate, politely respond to their comment with a link to factual information that will help them reconsider their position. That infant formula comment in the screenshot of Nestle’s wall (the one about no nutrients) should be addressed. Without getting defensive or getting drawn into an argument, the facts need to be stated.

Recap: Nestle’s first attempt at “engagement” seems to have focused on the improper use of its corporate logo in commenters’ avatars. Not exactly an inspired way to get things rolling in the right direction. After a few unfortunate exchanges, Nestle backed off and went relatively silent, allowing a free-for-all of anger and in some case, inaccurate information that is now searchable on the web. This was not the most effective strategy.

5. If you haven’t done it already, create an area for Discussions on the Facebook page. This will give discussion topics their own tab on the page, and a place for people to go to start and participate in discussions that isn’t necessarily the wall.

Recap: Nestle did not have a Discussions section on its Facebook page on March 19th… and still doesn’t. And still doesn’t. And still doesn’t. (Nestle: You still don’t have a discussions tab on your facebook page. FYI.)

Why is having a Discussions area important? Several reasons:

First, it helps move a lot of the traffic and activity off the wall, which isn’t a bad thing for obvious reasons. (Not all of it, but a good amount of it.)

Second, it helps keep all of the conversations focused. Instead of a mess of anger and random grievances, you can create a discussion thread for each specific grievance. In the case of Nestle, these individual discussion topics could be: Saving Oranguntans. Preserving Borneo’s rain forests. The health impact of using palm oil in candy bars. Baby Formula. Etc. When the mess of noise can be turned into specific discussion threads, the company can better listen and better respond. Now you’ve created order out of chaos for both the company AND the angry commenters. It works for everyone.

This is one of the first tangible ways that you will regain control of the situation: Manage the influx of comments. Organize it. Redirect it. Refocus it. Give the discussions purpose and focus.

Notes on tone, self control, and gaining control of an unstable crowd:

A) DO NOT GET DEFENSIVE. Ever. Don’t get drawn into an argument, don’t argue. Listen. Acknowledge. Treat every commenter with respect. Be professional. A lot of angry commenters just want a fight. Don’t give them one. Offer them your ear, a platform, and hopefully a solution.

B) Don’t be a push-over either. Don’t let the angry numbers fool you: You’re the community manager. You can and must  assert your authority when people get out of line. Do it calmly, do it politely, but let commenters know when they are out of line. Don’t worry too much about the improper use of logos or “rules,” the way Nestle did early in their ordeal. It’s a weak position to try and defend, it serves no purpose, and it may only add fuel to the fire with a mob looking for weakness. (So pick your battles carefully.) That said, threats against company employees, deliberate personal insults, etc. should be met with a courteous but firm response. Example:

C – “Your executives should be hanged for what they’ve done! Baby killers! And you’re a soul-less sellout!”

R – “I understand your anger. I really do. (I wouldn’t be here talking to you if I didn’t care, and if my bosses didn’t care. We WANT to have this dialog with you.) But please let’s keep things from turning into… that. It’s just not constructive. Let’s talk about what we can do to fix these problems: What’s the first thing we should focus on?”

What you have to understand is that an angry mob looks for two things: Strength, and weakness. Show strength and they will respect you. Show weakness and they WILL tear you apart. Any loss of control (fear, anger, not knowing how to manage a Facebook crisis, etc.) is weakness. A calm, collected, confident, patient, open to dialog, knowledgeable attitude is strength.

6. Recruit your detractors’ help in fixing the issues they are angry about. Don’t just give your angry commenters lip service. “Thanks for your comments. We will review your suggestions and share them with management” doesn’t cut it anymore. Instead, ask your audience for advice and suggestions. Right there and then. Don’t wait. They want to express themselves? Great! Redirect their energy: Shift them from anger to deliberate empowerment. They’re angry at your company? There are specific things they want you to stop doing? Perfect. Take the discussion a step further and ask them to give you better alternatives to what you’re doing now. No, really. Do it. Keep probing. Keep asking. Make them think about practical solutions together.

If Step 5 gave the conversation order, Step 6 gives the conversations purpose. Do this, and you’re already half way there.

Why is this important? Several reasons:

First, it refocuses the angry mob’s energy. The passion that drives their anger and outrage is still, at its core, passion. Use that. Remove anger from the equation and channel that passion to a more constructive end. Lead them from the path of anger to a path of passionate, constructive discussion. In a matter of hours, the traffic to your facebook page will no longer be an endless churn of insults and angry attacks, and that’s a pretty important objective to accomplish.

Second, refocusing the mob’s mood and energy further shifts control of the conversation to you, the community manager – and by default to the company/brand as well. How? One word: Initiative. The moment your questions begin to drive the discussion, you’ve gained the initiative. You’re finally in the driver’s seat. You can safely land that previously unmanned 747 anywhere you want. Lose the initiative and you lose control. You don’t want things to go back to a mob of angry comments and insults, do you?

Third, you aren’t arguing anymore. You aren’t fighting or protecting or defending. You’ve potentially turned your enemies into allies. Even if that good will is tentative, it sets the stage for what could come next, and there is tremendous value in that. Very good things can come of it if you follow that path. Plant that seed, prove that with trust and good will, good things can happen, and build on that proof of concept.

Fourth, in the case of Nestle, an army of environmental conservation experts is right there, screaming to be heard. Why not benefit from their combined expertise and their willingness to share? Maybe the mob of activists can provide you with ideas that will help you adopt cost-neutral, sustainable methods and processes that will solve some of your resource management challenges, make your company more environmentally-friendly and improve your position in regards to consumer sentiment. There could be a huge practical win in this kind of dialog.

Fifth, the way your Social Media team turned an explosive and completely chaotic situation around in a matter of hours will not go unnoticed. Instead of being another case study in failure, you could be one of the still rare case studies in “this is how it’s done” success.

7. Follow-through. What starts on facebook or twitter or wherever doesn’t stop when you get to the other side of the activity bell curve. Once the crisis is averted, you have to take advantage of that little bit of trust and collaboration you’ve helped your detractors (and your bosses) glimpse.

Step 1: Once the crisis is over, thank the commenters for their help and invite them to continue what they started. Continue to be a good host. Build the community as a community, not as a fortified brand embassy.

Step 2: Convince management to let you turn the feedback from your new virtual think tank into something a little more formal. Form a team to look into how to take those ideas and make them happen. That kind of review process will identify what ideas have merit, and what ideas don’t. It’s a valuable exercise in that alone.

Step 3: Consider creating a crowd-sourcing mechanism like BestBuy’s Idea-X and Starbucks’  My Starbucks Idea. In the case of Nestle, a specific category, tab, or even separate microsite focusing on sustainable and responsible environmental practices might not be a bad idea. Don’t just rely on Facebook discussions to take care of it. Give solid feedback the home it deserves.

Step 4: Invite your detractors’ chosen experts and think tanks to the table. Recruit their help to propose solutions. This is a more professional and official extension of the crowd-sourcing element of the follow-up, and one that obviously needs to happen at a much higher level than Social Media management. (So yes, this requires real buy-in from the C-suite.)

The idea here isn’t just to pacify your opponents and get good press out of the effort. It’s to leverage their expertise and resources to actually find solutions to the business challenges that were at the root of the attacks to begin with. In the case of Nestle, this would mean inviting Greenpeace and key environmental action think tanks to work with senior Nestle supply chain execs on finding realistic alternatives to current methods of production.

Is there a PR component to this? Of course. You can turn anything into a media circus if you want. (That’s what conferences, summits and ground-breaking ceremonies are for.) But sometimes, less is more: Focus on finding solutions, focus on genuinely doing the work, and let the PR department do its thing. If you do that, it’ll all pretty much work out.

Step 5: Build on the momentum and trust you’ve earned, and keep going.

Is all of this difficult? Does it require A LOT of hard work and tireless effort? Yes. It does. I’m not going to tell you any of it is easy. It’s incredibly difficult to do all of this, and the bigger the organization, the more corporate, the more vertical the hierarchy, the tougher it will be for everyone. There’s no magic pill, no cool new app, no bit of enterprise software that will transform your organization overnight for you. Success requires hard work. It requires dedication. It requires vision, leadership, courage and A LOT OF WORK. But it also isn’t brain surgery. From crisis management to community management to change management, it’s all pretty simple, really. You can map it all out on a cocktail napkin. The trick lies in a) deciding to make it happen, and b) making it happen.

The alternative is… well, going through what Nestle just went through. And going through it again and again and again, until something finally gives. Not exactly a golden plan.

So remember:

Be there -> Monitor -> Introduce yourself -> Acknowledge -> Engage -> Take charge -> Redirect -> Manage -> Follow through.



Update (25 March, 2010 – 21:15GMT) : For a similar perspective expressed in white-board “war room” format, check out Jeremiah Owyang’s Social Warfare Analysis here. (image) Really nice exercise that, remarkably, touches on many of the points we discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this feature. Consider it a solid “second opinion.”