In today's social landscape, security and crisis management have never been more critical to the health of the corporation. Two predominant personas exemplify this need—Julian Assange and Upton Sinclair.
The hostile, investigative actions of Assange, the hacker and founder of WikiLeaks, clearly show the need for government and corporations to secure social media deployments. As for Sinclair, you may recall his historic 1906 book, The Jungle, a key example of muckraking journalism that shed light on the unsanitary and inhumane working conditions of the early-20th-century meatpacking industry. A peculiar pair, to be sure, but both can be considered icons of inspiration for the hackers and bloggers of today who have corporate executives everywhere worried.
By understanding these prevalent mindsets, your business will be ready to effectively manage a crisis when hackers and angry bloggers strike.
Modern Day Muckrakers
While many bloggers mirror Upton Sinclair's purpose of reform and change, the Information Age has yielded plenty of misinformation. Even among media moguls, objective reporting often falls prey to the fact-check failure and exaggeration of the yellow journalism that predated Sinclair. Bloggers and journalists feed off of what they are given, disrupting small business, enterprise business, and whole industries alike—in some cases, against companies that have committed no wrongdoing.
A few months back, BPI—a meat processing company that had found an innovative solution to harvest beef left close to the bone—became engulfed in a social media firestorm. Despite years of evidence that its "lean textured" beef products were safe, including approval from the USDA, founder Eldon Roth found himself and his company on the wrong end of a social media movement.
A Houston-based mom and food blogger, Bettina Siegel, discovered that BPI's products were being used in school lunches fed to almost seven million kids. She had read a report by the now-defunct TheDaily.com (owned by News Corp.) dubbing BPI's unique approach to meat processing "pink slime," as well as other reports that questioned its safety (like a sensationalized demonstration by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver in which he sprayed household ammonia on meat).
She went to Change.org to launch a petition, demanding that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack immediately cease the usage of "'pink slime' in our children's school food."
Via blogging, tweeting, and posting to Facebook, Siegel's petition was signed by 137,000 people—in one weekend.
Roth's company tried to take action online. BPI launched a Web site, Pinkslimeisamyth.com, ran full-page newspaper ads, and, in September 2012, even filed suit against ABC News, which had picked up the story. But the campaign never generated enough steam to be effective. Roth and BPI were forced to close three out of four company plants permanently, and more than 700 people lost their jobs.
Subsequently, the entire meat industry has taken a hit. Other meat processors have had to cut back production significantly because of the crushing reduction in demand from their customers—fast-food restaurants like McDonald's and Burger King, in addition to schools. As a result of these "modern day muckrakers," the meat industry, which admittedly has taken a lot of heat in recent years, is reeling once again, with measurable financial impact.
Speaking of Burger King, the fast food giant has recently become a cautionary example for securing social media accounts. A day after BK was purported to have been "sold to McDonald's" on their overrun Twitter feed, the Chrysler-owned Jeep brand was taken over as well. They aren't alone—NBC News, The Wall Street Journal, and even Donald Trump have all been victims of hackers recently. Even social networks themselves (LinkedIn and Twitter, most recently) have been hacked.
While they are a social media manager's worst nightmare, hour-long Twitter account takeovers are mild security breaches in the grand scheme of hacking. The Julian Assange and "Anonymous" types have put everyone, from financial institutions to the U.S. government, on notice. Security must be paramount.
Disrupting big business is like climbing a mountain to hackers. While Assange climbs Mt. Everest, others seek smaller peaks and are content to throw wrenches into corporate gears, whether it's for simple amusement, ideological reasons, or monetary/political gain.
Considering that the Federal Reserve and Department of Defense have been infiltrated, the fear of your corporation's digital presence being compromised can never be fully assuaged. But proactive measures like changing passwords frequently (and not using the same password across accounts), limiting administrative personnel, and maintaining close relationships with social networks are necessary steps for businesses to take, before a crisis hits.
A Lesson for Social@Scale Crisis Management
Dealing with hackers, muckrakers, and, really, anybody trying to derail your business can be a daunting task.
It's important to recognize the inconvenient reality that ANYONE who has ANY issue with how you do business can launch a protest against your company and its practices in a matter of minutes. Many such objections won't amount to much, but we're not worried about those. It's the handful of protests that appeal to public emotion that are particularly worrisome.
Case in point: a multibillion-dollar diaper brand that nearly got the BPI treatment. Though the story is more than two years old, it's still worth sharing.
In 2010, Pampers launched a new diaper product called DryMax.
One mommy blogger observed that her baby had a horrific rash while wearing the new diapers and jumped to the conclusion that the diapers were the cause. She launched an online protest, and a class action suit was eventually filed. While there were thousands of happy parents who chose Pampers, a vocal minority was spreading their bad experience across the Web.
To its credit, Pampers didn't sit idly by and allow the outcry to proliferate. Instead, they reached out to a group of 50 mommy bloggers whom they had previously cultivated (not bought off) by sharing with them the details of the DryMax diaper and the science behind it.
While the firestorm wasn't stopped completely (P&G paid a small settlement in court a year later), it was minimized, as these brand advocates, who had been nurtured before P&G needed them, were activated to defend the Pampers brand.
The Pieces of the Puzzle
As shown by the above examples, a social media firestorm could happen to any business.
You should safeguard against hackers and security lapses, to be sure. But beyond security, you need a strategy in place to find and cultivate relations with brand advocates before you need them. You need a scalable technology platform to identify, manage, and activate those relationships over time. And you need the service infrastructure in place to respond when the crisis does hit.
By actively trying to understand the mindset and motivations of the hackers and digital muckrakers looking to disrupt your business, you'll be better positioned to handle the next social media crisis.
Jeremy Epstein is vice president of marketing at Sprinklr, a social media management company. Ranked "most capable" social media management system by both Altimeter Group and Econsultancy, Sprinklr enables over 200 household name brands to be Social@Scale.