A walled city is great when something goes wrong. You can close the gates to keep things out, and even if something goes wrong—say a plague breaks out—there are still clear channels of communication and control.
However, the internet isn’t a walled garden, and nothing has demonstrated this more than another epidemic: the outbreak swine flu.
I don’t refer to the virus, per say, but rather the epidemic of chatter that has sprung up through twitter, and the blogging world. Trendrr is registering 10,000 tweets an hour on Swine Flu. In my minute on Twitter search the numbers counted up. Before my first search page was done loading there were 47 new results, then 300, then 900, then 1000, then 1200. In a little over a minute there were 1500 new twitter posts about it.
When pigs fly…
The conversation was overwhelmed. Misinformation spreading through twitter at an alarming rate, and even more hilariously misinformed chatter about the problem coming from the bloggers berating misinformation being spread by the twit’s.
Switched went so far as to berate them with the numbers (http://www.switched.com/2009/04/27/swine-flu-misinformation-runs-rampant-on-twitter/), stating that:
“So far, 40 U.S. citizens have fallen victim to the virus this year. According to the CDC, only one person remains hospitalized while the others have fully recovered. Still, mass hysteria and paranoia—with voices wailing over an ‘epidemic’—continue to sweep the Net, especially Twitter.”
Three days later the count of confirmed cases had grown 275% and the World Health Organization set the world wide pandemic level to 5, signaling that a pandemic was imminent.
The twit’s panicked even more, and even more misinformation spread.
oli2be: BULLETIN — JAPAN CONFIRMS FIRST CASE OF SWINE FLU. (via @mpoppel)
Packard_Sonic: RT @WSAW: Probable case of swine flu in Adams County. More at http://tinyurl.com/d7jo9v (expand) and on NC7 @ Noon. – Jeff
trishameltesen: The manager at work just told me i have symptoms of the swine flu and told me to go home
EdWorksAcademy: Did you know.. Biden’s office downplays swine flu warning: Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday .. http://tinyurl.com/cm4rbf
Mittermaniac: Swine flu reaches North-east India…Tripura under alert..
canaree: swine flu pandemic means people do not gather in CROWDS or GROUPS…perfect setup to stop demonstrations and rallies against the GOVERNMENT
xalfeed: -bbc americas- EU warns against swine flu panic: The EU’s health chief cautions against flu panic,.. http://tinyurl.com/crfdgk
samdammit: DAMMIT. effin swine flu made it’s way to georgia.
microtelgs: Critical Alert: The Swine Flu Pandemic – Fact or Fiction?!?!?!? Please Retweet and save lives!!!! http://ow.ly/4uX6 (90 retweets)
And across all of this, how many deaths have there been? 1.
The CDC was really dealing with two epidemics, swine flu and a twitter plague.
The CDC handled the situation admirably, and in an almost completely hands off manner. They used their role as an authority to support an information sharing process, instead of actively spreading information. It was very old media.
And false information kept spreading.
Not everyone weathers Twitter storms in as laid back a fashion as the CDC. Motrin sure didn’t when they angered Twitter users back in November. Their intense twitter campaign landed them in hot water as their posts angered and demeaned people even more. More recently Domino’s has been facing the same, though they seem to have understood some basic precepts of combating bad PR.
So what can you do to prevent a twitter plague from hitting your company?
I recently read an editorial in The Annals of Internal Medicine that cited five steps to preparing for a pandemic:
- Rapidly recognize new virus strains.
Know your mediums, and prepare for what could go wrong. Domino’s should have had (and probably did) plans in place incase people did upload stories, images, or video of employees messing with their pizza. Motrin should have planned for mothers being insulted by their advertisements, whether or not they expected it to happen.
- Establish an adequate surveillance network to detect new strains and assess their effects on populations.
This can not be said enough. Your company NEEDS to be watching the social media scene. Keep an eye on review sites, blogs, twitter, facebook, and any other sites key to your audience/customer/user demographics. You need to know where your Twitter plague is coming from, and where it is going.
- Identify the origination of new strains from the animal population.
Find out where negative chatter is coming from. Is it coming from twitter? Did it originate on blogs? (Oh god, not Perez Hilton!) Identify sources of a twitter plague, and know where and how it is changing.
- Define the target groups for vaccination.You have to get your message out. Find key evangelists that are driving the conversation. Eventually you want to get these people on your side.
- Clarify the role of antiviral drugs.Ok, not drugs per say, but the tools of coercion at your disposal. This includes legal threats, PR blitzes, you name it. You need to understand how attacking, via legal teams or through your marketing department, is going to affect your efforts, and how it may harm your interests.
Now before you set out to cut off a potential twitter plague at its source remember…
The Naturopathic Paradigm: avoiding the bad medicine
A client of ours sells naturopathic cures for various products. The naturopathic paradigm takes a slightly different approach to healthcare. They reject antibiotics and harsh drugs, opting instead to use herbs that strengthen the body so as to allow the patient’s own immune systems so as to fight off your disease on its own. Proponents of this model frequently argue that standard medicine is too free with its prescriptions of drugs and antibiotics, and that frequently problems can be better resolved by simply supporting the patient.
Whether you want to buy into the alternative model or not, you can use this lesson when dealing with a twitter plague. Take a breath. Think about what is being said, and whether your response is going to do more harm. Then think about what you can do to support the spread of good information, and minimize the spread of bad information.
Frequently by propping up your community, or through working with fans, you can better combat negative conversation than by direct confrontation. Take the CDC during this recent storm of Swine Flu tweets. They used their authority to prop up users, instead of directly intervening. They provided:
- A regularly updated twitter channel&Mdash;@cdcemergency@mdash;to broadcast regular updates
- Featured a fantastic search system that, when the words “swine flu” were entered, returned an information page on H1N1 with a regularly updated field displaying the confirmed cases of swing flu in the US
- Featured social media sharing and subscribing on every page, encouraging people to spread relevant and related information; they used multiple formats to get across their message, including webcasts
- They openly asked for feedback from their readers.
The CDC understood that they were in a position where they did not need to be aggressive about what was going on. They supported their readers through a variety of methods. Sure, it did not stop false information from spreading, but it did maximize public consumption of good information, avoiding problems that might arise from direct intervention.
Drugs Drugs Drugs:
But sometimes plagues are going to spread, and simply supporting the system isn’t good enough. Sometimes you need to attack in order to minimize damage. There are a few solutions you can sue, at various levels of risk. I don’t suggest all of these, but when a pandemic is eminent sometimes extreme measures become necessary:
- Comment early. Get in there, make a statement. A proper early statement can relieve the major pressure building around a problem, and prevent damage.Honestly, this is the one place where I think the CDC could have done better. As an authority their opinion is of considerable value. With a few well placed statements early on, direct engagement with twits and blogs could have curbed a lot of misinformation.
- Legal threats, major PR pushes, direct confrontation. You want to approach the situation and get rid of the problem. You have to be careful here because you can cause just as much damage as you’re trying to prevent.
- Time to build up other “health” issues. Use this lightly and don’t bring attention to it. Once a problem is dying down you may want to cover up the source with healthy content. If your problem is ranking on the first page for a common search term, get it off. There are a few ways to do this.
- Rank other sites above it: You’re not going to get something at #1 off the results with this technique, but if something is at position #9 you can drop it off the first page.
- Social media profiles: Abuse the strong backlink quality of social media profiles. Throw some links with the search term in the link text at those pages and see if you can get them above the
- The two story rule: Articles on a major site getting you down? Most of the time a site can only have two results ranking at once. Throw enough link juice at two articles dealing with the same search term and you can bump the offending article off the results.
As always, there are proper ways to do this, and ways to abuse the system. Don’t start spamming to get rid of content or you’ll end up with a bunch of new problems.
The Best of Both Worlds:
As always the best course of action is to use everything at your disposal, but use it sparingly. Analyze what is going on, prepare your direct interventions, and then treat the twits with respect and care. You don’t want to be on the offensive unless you have to, and with some strategic support of the right people you may be able to avoid it. But if you’re facing a plague…