Of course, the viral wish always comes with positive intent, as in Nabisco’s creative Oreos tweets during the Super Bowl blackout, Red Bull’s impressive kluge video, and a personal favorite, the Grand Rapids lipdub. On the other hand, no one wants to go viral in the manner of Domino’s Pizza or Burger King.
The reality is, nothing goes viral on demand. As with an actual virus, the circumstances must be just right for it to spread. What grows with a bang today might have died with a whisper yesterday. That’s why I’m skeptical when a PR or marketing consultant promises a client to take a story viral; some people have the creativity and resources to increase the odds of a viral story, but in my experience few are powerful enough to make that guarantee.
At the same time, a negative viral experience is not beyond managing. Social media provide equal opportunity for the naysayer and the business to engage the conversation. Indeed, a business facing a social media crisis does itself a grave disservice if it chooses to go silent.
That was the painful lesson learned by a day spa in Portage, Michigan, this week. A customer shared an alleged incident on Facebook involving the shop owner and an autistic child, and the story took off. In short order there were tens of thousands of shares, national media interviews and demands from around the world for a boycott of the business. Instead of speaking for itself, the business shut off its Facebook page, refused to respond to queries and hired a lawyer to speak on its behalf. The shop owner eventually issued an apology—six days after the incident.
As an analysis by MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette pointed out, it was a classic example of a public relations misfire. I had the opportunity to comment for the story, and while I chose not to speak specifically about this situation, I noted how social media has change the rules completely. A decade ago, the idea that a small business in a small community would be vilified by people on the other side of the planet for a customer issue was a fantasy; today, it’s a daily event.
Businesses no longer have the luxury of ignoring a bad story, or taking their time to deal with it. News today—much of which wasn’t news a few years ago—spreads at warp speed through cyberspace. Treating a bad viral story means having a solid social media strategy and engaging the conversation quickly. Those are requirements for every business, regardless of size.