Tragedy, Pitchforks, and Twitter

It was a tough spring at University of South Carolina. With a campus shooting, blackout, and a student incident that went viral, in addition to weather-related updates, the social team was busy… busy learning lessons on how to manage mobs, keep parents calm, and provide timely communications in complicated situations. Being strategic and staying on brand can happen in times of crisis.

dolmansaxlil @flickr

dolmansaxlil @flickr

Amy Grace Wells is at the University of South Carolina. This year, she and her team have faced a series of challenges (“You want me to post WHAT about supporting pulling down the Confederate flag? Do you know who our followers are?”), and Amy discussed how they dealt with them.

Social crises don’t just exist in social. They’re any on-campus OR off-campus OR online event that affect an online community and a managed brand account. They often require a response, but not in every case.

In 2015 alone, USC dealt with an on-campus shooting in February (an estranged spouse), racial tensions (it’s South Carolina), winter weather (in South Carolina?), the “roommate with the Windex” (an off-campus incident where an incident was poisoning her roommate with Windex on food), a death on campus (by suicide), an exploitation/blackmail issue (a student was threatened with social media “exposure”), and “the PHOTO” (a list of why the university WiFi sucks with a racial slur that got Snapchatted and Tweeted), a blackout, even more cataclysmic weather with the recent Joaquin-related storms, and the confederate flag controversy.

The first incident she discussed was in April; a student wrote a list of “reasons the Wifi sucks” that included a racial slur. The list made its way to Snapchat, which then got screenshot to Twitter, which started going viral. The university’s response was to defer to the Carolinian Creed (LINK) and tied the story back to respect and civility on campus. Thankfully, USC’s president, Harris Pastides, was out in front of the situation on social media as well, posting that “uncivil rhetoric has no place” at the school.

The incident, however, generated nearly 20,000 messages to Facebook and Twitter (@mentions, comments, posts) in a week. (Not including use of the #UofSC hashtag.) Amy and her team learned some important lessons:

LESSON #1: Up your listening game. The only reason they discovered this quickly was because someone was listening and they were able to jump on it and get out in front of it. Be better than the NSA: pick a tool (e.g., Sprout Social, Hootsuite) and use it to the fullest extent. Find where the conversation is happening (Yik Yak? A Twitter hashtag? A specific geolocation?) and figure out what’s most important (What do you really need to respond to?)… it’s important to know your community issues (and, potentially, underlying tensions) that could impact potential crises.

LESSON #2: Establish flowcharts for clear protocols of the chain of communication. Get the “who to call first” list on paper. And establish better communication with key offices on who manages social media. Have a direct contact list. Get more people into your tool (e.g., Sprout Social) so you have more eyes and minds to help decide what’s important. And use staff time to monitor the anonymous platforms.

LESSON #3: Define your issues. Being better than the NSA requires time and effort: hashtags, keywords, geolocations, key accounts, media, anonymous accounts. Track your president’s name/hashtag/handle; that complaint will get back to you, and you want to make sure that you already know about it before it gets that far!

Amy identified three levels of issues:
1) Annoyance: Lots of chatter, but not much to be done (parking, wifi, weather)
2) Issue: May require an action, loops in others, but safety not an issue (student actions, severe weather, controversial issues)
3) Crisis: Immediate response requires, leadership involved, safety of campus in jeopardy (shootings, issues resulting in threats to students/staff, catastrophic weather)

The second incident Amy discussed was an on-campus shooting where their response was so swift, it included a typo (“shors fired on campus”) that drew praise for its immediacy. Amy’s team saw students and parents starting to freak out on social media, but there wasn’t enough information to get out yet; their response, a half hour later, was “We are continuing to monitor the situation. No new information available.” It gave concerned community members an anchor, letting everyone know that the university was on top of the situation and keeping the audience under control.

Within an hour, the threat was under control, and by that night, USC was able to move forward. They were able to post their thanks for the community’s outreach and support.

The lesson here was to have defined spectrum of issues; know your protocols and expectations for each audience and channel. Have a menu of responses from a content strategy viewpoint. For example, Amy asked her president’s office to have a message ready for the importance of community service due to this week’s flooding; those kinds of messages coming out of your content strategy will tie into the emotional response and help propel the university in the right direction.

The third incident was the Confederate flag. USC was the first public institution to come out publicly against the flag, opening themselves up to enormous vitriol from right-wing groups. Again, their president got out in front of the messaging, and it wound up generating nearly 20,000 messages to Facebook and Twitter again. By being a leader, however, they took a great deal of heat.

Ultimately, you can’t control a mob. Humans need to communicate and express emotions, and the mob will find a space — so control the space. The USC Facebook post gave the mob a space to direct their anger; they let them get it all out while letting their advocates jump in and support as well.

There are differing opinions on when to hide or delete comments: in the case of personally identifiable information or profanity. And in general, don’t get invested in rants unless there’s inaccurate information. DO NOT RESPOND TO RANTERS. Let them get it out.

Ultimately, use and trust your judgment.

When dealing with these kinds of issues, know when you can be strong and respond, and to find better ways to update during the event for better understanding (“We’ll have an announcement about classes by 3pm”).

LESSON: Be social! Reach out to your campus peers. Arm your community managers with talking points and support, and let them know the plan for central accounts. And CHECK FOR SCHEDULED TWEETS.

When things are scary, people freak out. They are grasping for comfort, and just want someone to listen and understand. Help them know what’s coming, and give them as much information that you can realistically give (using “we” and “our” to personalize it), even if it’s “we don’t know what’s happening yet, but we’re working on it.”

And ultimately, get support for your social team. People can be mean –> mean things can be sticky –> sticky things can drive you crazy –> crazy people can’t sleep. Your person at home can’t take all of it either; don’t put it on them. Have colleagues, students, and yes, health care professionals to commiserate with. (“Sometimes people suck.”)

And yes, KEEP THE GOOD. Print them out and put them on your wall, and let the bad flow by faster.

You can reach Amy at @amygracewells on Twitter.