Experiencing a social media crisis is a brand’s worst nightmare, and yet every social undertaking involves an element of risk. To mitigate that risk, brands must learn from the mistakes that lead to today’s notorious social media crises.

This month JPMorgan, the largest U.S. banking institution, experienced a social crisis of its own that many brand ambassadors and social experts should know, understand and learn from. Using the hashtag #AskJPM, the bank invited the Twittersphere to participate in a live Q-and-A. It kick-started the event by tweeting, “What career advice would you ask a leading exec at a global firm?”

To give the situation a bit of context, let’s remember that JPMorgan has had its fair share of public scrutiny, including its very recent $13 billion fine from the Justice Department for the bank’s involvement in bad mortgage loans. Not surprisingly, the question invoked a range of responses related to the questionable decisions made by JPMorgan executives. Overwhelmed by the negative responses it received, JPMorgan quickly cancelled the Twitter event.

In reviewing the actions and reactions on both sides, the key bit of advice that I give all organizations is to have a social media crisis plan in place before starting in social. Every organization will have at least one crisis. The plan should walk through worst-case scenarios for each channel, and should taken into consideration the audience for the channel. The plan should include messaging for scenarios that are likely to happen. Within the audience assessment, the organization should also understand the current brand perception and negative attributes that might occur. Each event has an element of risk and the risk mitigation for that event should be considered before embarking upon it.

From the onset of the #AskJPM incident, there was a high probability that the response to #AskJPM that did happen would happen. But it’s how you deal with a social crisis that separates the men from the boys. This was a no-win situation. Once the negative comments began rolling in and the Q-and-A degenerated into a trollfest, JPMorgan chose to cancel the event and close off its communications. Was this was the right decision to mitigate what had already become a social media mess? In my opinion, yes. Sometimes you just can’t win and you have to know which battles to fight. Does that mean that anyone who is fighting a tide of bad publicity should avoid Twitter? No, but it does reveal a key lesson about authenticity on social media, as there is no hiding the truth or popular opinion.

Social at its core is simple. It’s about building real, authentic relationships and giving an equal platform for everyone to speak. Consumers do not take well to inauthentic messages or one-way conversations, and they now have the platform to express this dissatisfaction. This combination of circumstances is the source of tension that sparks most social media crises.

To counter this, organizations need to align the selected social channel with the conversation they are striving to have. In the case of JPMorgan, was Twitter the right channel for the event? Perhaps not. Twitter inherently invites commentary from a wide audience, and often inspires sarcasm and parody. With this in mind, and reverting back to the need for a social media crisis plan, JPMorgan could have predicted the responses, given the public’s scrutiny of the bank. As another rule of thumb, brands should only select social media to start conversations that they are comfortable not controlling. JPMorgan, and the many brands that have been victims of a social media crisis, would have benefited immensely from this simple best practice.

The ultimate lesson here is that social media requires absolute transparency and a willingness to take the good with the bad. The perception is that JPMorgan ended its Twitter Q-and-A because they saw responses that they didn’t like, the perception it signaled to the public is that the brand did not want to have an honest, transparent conversation or accept responsibility for its damaged reputation. And on social, perception is reality. Gone are the days of controlled messaging, and in their place is an age of direct communication – and while change is frightening, I promise it’s for the best.

Sarah Carter is general manager of social business at Actiance, where she is focused on enabling individuals and organizations to realize the benefits of social business. You can connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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