That’s quite the contrast to the attention M Spa received in May 2013 when a customer claimed on Facebook that the owner berated another client and her autistic toddler over the child’s behavior. The post went viral, sparking days of online rage and worldwide news coverage. Although the owner eventually apologized, M Spa’s seemingly unsympathetic actions—including using a lawyer to issue defensive statements—made it a local and global pariah.
It’s hard to know if the incident led directly to M Spa’s closure, though reportedly its business declined significantly afterward.
I was among the PR people interviewed by news media about the firestorm. I made the point that businesses choosing to have an online presence need to do so with eyes wide open. A seemingly small dust-up can erupted into a global online crisis in mere hours.
Consider Justine Sacco, a communications professional who headed off on vacation in December 2013 with this post on Twitter: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m White!” She later claimed she was mocking prejudices and stereotypes. Maybe she was, but it didn’t matter. Devoid of context, her tweet sparked a worldwide campaign of fury and ridicule before her plane even landed.
In a recent NYT piece on the Sacco incident, author Jon Ronson points out the not-so-subtle shift that’s occurred in online criticism over the years: “Still, in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment.”
A study from the University of Manitoba found nearly 6 percent of people surveyed said they actually enjoy trolling—that is, deliberately criticizing and upsetting others online. The same study found a number of serious behavioral disorders associated with these people, including a professed willingness to manipulate or deceive, narcissism, sadism and psychopathy.
Granted, chronic trolls are in the minority. But to Ronson’s point, the ability to express outrage on social media bestows a power and a global platform that the average person never had before. And the temptation to wield that power can be overwhelming, even addictive. There are those who use that power simply to protest, and there are those who use it to protest and destroy anyone who disagrees.
All of this has meaning for organizations with a social media presence. Facebook, Twitter and their online siblings are not digital handbills; they’re conversations. They’re less about telling and more about dialogue.
Yet too many organizations still treat social media like free ad space. A survey by Social Media Marketing University found more than half of brands don’t have an effective social media policy, meaning they aren’t prepared to handle a crisis such as M Spa’s. (It’s worth noting that SMMU’s survey was used to promote a training course it sponsored. But given the almost daily reports of social media crises, it’s not hard to agree with the survey’s results.)
Playing in this space means being relational, being transparent, being fast—and being apologetic when necessary.
Not long ago, an organization I know got some harsh criticism online. As with most issues, this one was more complex than it appeared. Nonetheless, the client quickly issued a personal apology online, pledged to find out what happened and to make changes so that it never happened again—all of which was done within a day. That’s an example of a potentially serious social media issue quickly and positively resolved.
Of course, not every critic is reasonable. Not every reaction is manageable. And so long as the temptation to joyfully savage others remains, social media will be a minefield where wise organizations will tread lightly—and wiser heads will pause to reflect before hitting the “Send” button.