Thanks to the Internet,
any crank with access can write something that spreads. If you're managing the
reputation of a brand, the factor working in your favor is there is so much material
being published that it is the rare message that cuts through the clutter.
But how do you recognize it before it starts doing its damage?
The following is
a piece I wrote for the Now Is Gone blog in April 2008, but now there is some
added backstory. (Most of what I write has a backstory. It makes it easier to
draw distinct conclusions; the trick is in generalizing them enough that you
can communicate it without tipping the backstory.)
At the most basic level, your participation in Social Media needs
to include monitoring and listening. If you don't know what's being said about
you, you'll never have a chance to correct misperceptions or
outright lies. Being functionally deaf makes you blind in targeting future
For those organizations that fail to even listen, the top
hesitation is the fear of finding "bad news," and not knowing how to deal with
it. Given the flood of information that you might find about yourself, it's
easier to play the ostrich and pretend it doesn't exist. While that might make
you sleep a little easier, your shareholders and stakeholders might see things
differently. So how exactly do you prioritize these potential "reputation
threats" as they circulate?
Let's say, for the sake of argument, you use monitoring tools to
find a knock against your company in a blog or public forum. Aside from simple
traffic statistics and site popularity, here are a few measures of "viral-ness"
you can use to determine which ones are capable of becoming a big problem down
Triggers, A through G
The message must give you the feeling that you now know something important
that will truly affect future decisions.
No one wants to read a manifesto. If the negative message is too
long, the average reader won't want to be the one to foist it upon his whole
A well-crafted message, to go viral, must be unambiguous. There can be no
question about where the author stands.
The position must be rooted in incontrovertible fact. A random message that
"Dell sucks" doesn't carry the weight of "Having used your product for 9
How well-written is the message? Does it make you feel as though you could be
just as passionate for simply passing it along?
The message must be about one thing, and one thing only. If it makes a reader
mentally wander he'll be less likely to feel compelled to pass it along.
One reason people like to pass on juicy little tidbits is the rush of knowing
that you knew something before (almost) any of your friends did. This places
you in a position of esteem and authority within your circle.
A quick glance can usually knock a couple of these factors out for
a particular instance, and you can move on. If you see a message that hits six
out of seven flags, you may want to do an Internet search for an unusual string
within the message, to see if this is already moving and where.
If you see one that hits all seven warning triggers, you probably
need to put it in the hands of whoever would handle your reactive messaging. A
direct response might be in order, unless it comes off looking like an attack.
But you need to be prepared for the likelihood that many people will see this
attack on your brand and reputation.
As with all things in Social Media, your mileage will always vary.
This tool is not scientific - but will empower you to concentrate your time on
the messages that matter. It beats getting caught in the paralysis of analysis,
or wasting resources on issues that will never materialize as real reputation
now, the Rest of the Story.
My advice is clear, but what
it lacked was an example to ground it.
In September 2007, tens of
thousands of protesters were to converge in Jena, Louisiana, to rally around
six teenagers they felt were being abused by the legal system after a string of
racial incidents and violence.
I have no position on the
matter, and never really bothered to dive into it like a legal scholar would.
At the time, I was the
Communication Director for the Southeast for the American Red Cross, and while
Louisiana was not in my territory, Mississippi was. September is an important
time of year for many of my Red Cross chapters, particularly those in military
communities where the Combined Federal Campaign raises a large chunk of the
yearly operating budget.
neutral organization, the Red Cross had no position on Jena either.
However, the arrival of that large a crowd on a small community threatened to
create some public health issues, namely dehydration, heat stroke, and simple
first aid needs that naturally occur when you have a group that size.
The official Red Cross position would be to have no position on Jena... until the
state of Louisiana made a formal request for aid.
The organization could not
follow the mandates of the charter and ignore the need, and the state had
followed proper protocol in asking for humanitarian assistance. The discussion
about how to handle the messaging of this tricky issue was several levels above
my pay grade - and many of my peers didn't understand it at first. But
eventually we were given a series of talking points to explain why we would be
there, and the justification for it, and that we would be asking the state of
Louisiana for reimbursement.
Every good infection story
has a Patient Zero, where the disease is first identified.
I recall getting a call from
one of my chapter executives near the coast, who was concerned about an email
that was spreading throughout the community. It was written by a James
Broadwell, an attorney in Jena, and read as follows:
I thought that
the mission of the American Red Cross was to help people in times of disaster.
I have a problem with what I saw happening in Jena, La. yesterday. My problem
is not with the people coming to Jena to march, they have that right, but with
the American Red Cross giving away supplies to the marchers. The newspapers
have stated that approximately 25,000 bottles of water were given out. I will
not mention any medical care that was provided, but we do have a local hospital
that offers excellent medical care, but not for free.
I sat on the
balcony of my office and watched the marchers arriving carrying no supplies,
but when they left Jena they were carrying bottles of water that was supplied
by your organization. These people were not in a disaster mode, they knew what
they were getting into when they came to rally, and should have planned better
and brought their own supplies.
I had a house
burn in 1985 and lost everything, including my cars and dog, but never got a
call or note from the Red Cross. I did not mind that I was not contacted by you
and have not ever given it a second thought until yesterday. I have donated
faithfully to the Red Cross for the better part of my 56 years, but no more.
I know that in
the scheme of things I am just a small drop in the bucket, but I will tell
everyone that I know what has happened here, and maybe this small drop will
turn into a flood. And yes you can use my name it is James L. Broadwell
111, my address is 329 Pleasant Hill Road, Jena, La. 71342
If you want to learn about
how a virus spreads, you have to isolate its path. Then you can determine the
mechanism most likely for transmission, incubation and illness.
If you want to learn about
how a viral email spreads, you need to do the same thing.
When I first saw this email
from Mr. Broadwell, I knew we were going to be in for a rocky ride. Compound
that with the Combined Federal Campaign, and how this would resonate with those
who had been very supporting of us.
I got the exec to forward me
the email, and I sent it up the chain to National Headquarters. They looked at
it, cataloged it, and I didn't hear back.
The next day, I got a call
from the chapter executive in Jackson, Mississippi. She was worried about this
email that was circulating in her community. Same one.
I had her forward it to me,
because now I could compare it to the one I had the previous day from the
coast. The message was completely unchanged. (That's more rare than you think -
often people will tweak a detail or two, or something gets lost in the
translation, and you end up with a mutant variant strain.)
What I was really interested
in was the epidemiology. Where had this message been? Among the headers I found
government agencies, politicians, media, members of the chapter board of
directors, and others identified as real movers-and-shakers in the
community. This was moving quickly through the heavy hitters, the
potential big donor crowd.
Even more alarming was the
speed. The Jackson version was three generations removed from the coastal
message. It was spreading fast, and going wide. I called National Headquarters,
and I was told not to worry, that they had only received two calls into the
public inquiry line about it, and saw no reason to over-react.
I felt like I was the
protagonist of a Hot Zone movie. Patient Zero was a walking zombie, going
straight for the brainzzzz of the organization.
The next day, a Friday, I
heard from my executive in Meridian, the far eastern side of Mississippi. Her
version was still pristine, and had the same forwarding signature - heavy
hitters, and fast delivery times. When you start dumping a message into the
Send All on your address book, three times a day will hit a broad distribution.
I called NHQ again, this
time begging for an updated set of talking points. My chapters were getting
hammered with questions they were not equipped to answer. Furthermore, because
of the sensitive nature of the issue, they were instructed to not go off the
talking points, for fear of making things worse. (A tactic I did agree with,
because in this instance inconsistency would have been even worse.)
The original talking points
were not bad, they just weren't specific enough. And they certainly didn't
answer Mr. Broadwell. I knew full well that if I could sit down with any one of
these people, I could explain it to their satisfaction. Even then you would
have a percentage that will believe what they want anyway, but often those are
the people who are just looking for an excuse to not donate to begin with.
I could answer the questions
Broadwell raised. The crew at NHQ could do it, too. But it was thought too
risky to jump out with even more communication on it until it was necessary.
Give it a chance to blow over. The last thing I said was "Just please have
someone get a deeper set of reactionary talking points approved, by Monday this
thing is going to blow up, not blow over."
Not five seconds after
hanging up the phone, I got a call from Tuscaloosa.
"Ike, we've got a little
problem down here. There is an email circulating through the community,
apparently written by this guy in Louisiana..."
By Monday, we had a set of
reactive talking points, that more keenly addressed the issues raised by Mr.
Broadwell. That didn't salve the sting for the chapters immediately, but they
At the time I wrote the
original "Seven Signs" piece for Now Is Gone, I knew that my days were numbered
with the Red Cross. My entire field office - and the entire regional structure
as we knew it - was being shed as part of a massive layoff. I was one month
away from my end date.
Clearly, I wasn't in a
position to air inside scoop. I tell the story now because there are
instructive elements I left off the table.
Everything he said in the
letter was true, but it wasn't the whole truth. There were facts we didn't put
out initially because they had the potential to confuse, but by the time
Broadwell's interpretation was circulating there was nothing to lose in
And I do stand behind the
decision to play this one carefully - when you have hundreds of individual
spokespeople across the country, any variation in such a sensitive message can
come back to haunt everyone.
My seven viral triggers were
not some homily, some cute link-bait way of getting attention. (If that were my
aim, I would have published it here on Occam's Razr two years ago, instead of
Geoff's "Now is Gone" site.) They were based on an exacting examination of the
Broadwell letter. What was it about that email that
resonated with so many who forwarded it on? There is value in isolating
those factors, so you can prioritize your time to the things that
matter (and not waste effort preparing reactive talking points for every
conceivable crank.) Most importantly, by honing the list I was creating a
process whereby others could help me find the trouble before it starts. No
sense in having only one soldier in a platoon equipped with binoculars.
I read that letter dozens of
times, looking at the way it was written. It told a story. It used proper
grammar. It was quick and clean and focused. I looked at the variations as it
spread, looking for the tell-tale clues, like the person who felt the need to
highlight parts of it with bold or italics. What made this such a delicious
thing to spread?
After much consideration, I
found seven things this email had going for it, that set it apart from the
rabble. And I found a way to definitively describe those characteristics using
the letters A through G, as a mnemonic. Then I published it.
Ike Pigott, a Birmingham-based communications strategist and crisis coach, is principal of Positive Position, which specializes in media training for schools. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.