Hands Up! Don’t Tweet!

I’m a brand. Are you one, too? If a social media disaster finds you, what ya’ gonna do?

Every brand needs a strategy. And in the Age of Nefarious, a public relations crisis management plan better be part of yours: knowing when to respond to negative media and how that can make you or break you, especially if you’re a small business.

“People feel compelled to answer [more than they’re asked],” attorney Jeffrey W. Brend told a group of lawyers gathered recently for his talk on presenting forensic expert evidence, aptly titled “How Stupid Can You Be?”

When it comes to managing a social media crisis (and courtroom drama) Brend’s advice to respond to only the question you are asked, if at all, and no more, is invaluable.

An initial rule of thumb? Less is more.

According to a local branding expert, the way to use social media appropriately is to follow rules we learned in kindergarten — be nice and be empathetic.

Shane Shaps, founder of 520 East Brands in Louisville, which specializes in social media engagement, said middle school-age kids know to be kind and are aware of the impact their posts, tweets and photos may have on others. But, their knowledge is lost on many adults. Perhaps kids who live their lives online have an advantage over adults for whom real life and social media are more distinct entities. Regardless, Shaps, said her golden rule is “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should, and that extends to every piece of social media and extends to everybody.”

Contrary to what seems to be the popular use of social media, it can put some good out in the world, Shaps said. “It wasn’t created to vent,” she said. “You’re never going to change anyone’s mind because you commented on social.”

That hits on what many of us know in our heads when it comes to online debates about controversial topics, but can’t seem to stop when it gets to our fingertips.

What Brend said about witnesses feeling compelled to answer questions seems to hold true across the keyboard, despite the best intentions and intellect. We hang ourselves. The more we type, the deeper the hole we dig, until someone intercedes and we finally hear these words: Stop Talking. Or stop typing. “In most cases, the best practice is just to be quiet,” Shaps said.

And so it is online that I watch business owners and their accusers engage in an epic online telephone game of who is right. And all I can think is: Stop Talking. It begins harmlessly enough, yet by the 209th comment in the 31st hour from the publication of the original sin, the battlefield is laden with casualties, the truth of the matter being its final victim.

Here lies truth.

It died when people forgot that there are at least two sides to every story, that the gray area is real and that virtual reality affects people’s real lives in very real ways. Put the keyboard down. Sometimes picking up the phone is the best way to voice dissatisfaction, Shaps said. “Engage like a human.”

Also key, Shaps said, is to outsource the crisis so you can detach and run your business. Social media and the internet have changed how public relations disasters are handled. “The difference is now it’s immediate, it’s public and so packed with emotion,” she said, which makes the situation feel urgent. As counterintuitive as it may seem, stepping back until an even-keeled response is possible may help fix the problem — or at least not exacerbate it. “Social media can’t fix a bad product,” Shaps said.

An apology goes a long way, if it makes sense, though. Questions to ask when figuring out how to respond to negative media as a business owner are: 1) which response is the high road? 2) and what is going to make me feel like a better business owner?

If you alienate some consumers while staying true to your values, for the 50 percent who are alienated, there’s the other 50 percent who might give you business, Shaps said. “The fact is if you’re out there and claiming you’re one way or the other, people are going to go with someone who has the same values,” she said.

If you choose the vocal route, Shaps said, “Have an opinion. Watch your language. Be an adult. Rather than worry about the haters, focus on your loyal fan base.”

“Give your loyal customers some kind of a prize to let them know you appreciate them standing by you. For a small business your loyal fans are everything. Take care of them.”