When Social Media and Crisis Communications Collide
For the last several days, news outlets, blogs and industry sites have been abuzz about a customer relations misstep by Progressive Insurance. The dust-up surrounds a coverage conflict and lawsuit triggered by the death of a young woman in a car accident in 2010. And it puts a spotlight on the need for integrated social media and crisis communication strategies in industries prone to legal action.
Prior to this event, Progressive's robust social media use was a case study in brand affinity. The Twitter account for Flo, the company's quirky spokesperson, has nearly 18,000 followers, while the main corporate account comes in at 14,500. On Facebook, the company's page has more than 53,000 likes. All of the accounts are active, with a variety of posts ranging from fun to informative, actionable to promotional.
But the recent public relations melt-down exposed the gaps. When a company has an active social media presence, that often becomes the default first line of crisis communications. Unfortunately, many companies neglect to outline how social media interaction will change during heated moments, so they're caught unprepared, and—as Progressive did—find their social media presence working against them.
Some companies in legally active fields, such as insurance and financial services, avoid online interaction entirely to prevent situations like this one. However, they lose a critical tool for building brand affinity and continually measuring customer opinion.
In fact, it's not an either/or proposition. When setting up social media accounts, companies can write escalation policies for certain situations, allowing the accounts to function in a marketing capacity, flex to accommodate a limited range of customer service concerns and avoid exacerbating public relations problems.
For example, when Progressive posted statements about the lawsuit on its blog, it didn't intend to start a discussion, so leaving the comment feature active on those posts created a self-feeding frenzy of discontent. Companies can establish hierarchies of content with permissions attached. So certain classes of posts might trigger the disabling of comments. The policy should be consistently applied and clearly documented so that restrictions go into effect when the post goes up, not after criticism begins to appear.
Similarly, if a company’s legal position or regulatory restrictions cause it to take known unpopular stands, then Twitter may not be the most effective place to put out the flames—particularly when a company, like Progressive, resorts to auto-response style language to counter high-volume negativity. From the beginning, it's important to document the types of complaints that get responses, as well as those that will go unopposed.
One last thought: Bringing in the company's legal team when the policy is being created helps in the long run. In addition to helping to clarify when social media restrictions should be activated, it helps ensure that the company's online voice remains consistent in good times and bad.
Senior Content Editor JoAnn Gometz routinely navigates the delicate space where engaging content meets regulatory boundaries. She has developed content strategies for many leading insurance companies, banks, investment firms and and managed care organizations.