Training for social media crises can create social media crises

Let’s face it, almost anything we do these days seems to be able to go bad when exposed to the whole world. As I’ve said many times before, social media and digital communications is a two-edged sword: a more powerful tool than ever before to deal with crises and a whole raft of new crisis vulnerabilities.

Take University of Michigan athletics for example. They decided to do some training for their athletes about the dangers of social media. Understandable. It’s clear that many, and its seems especially younger users, often don’t think about the potentials when they tweet or Facebook something. With the Mant Te’o fiasco at Notre Dame, every university administrator must have had cold chills thinking about how the reputation of their institution rested on the wisdom of 18 year olds and what they put on their social media sites. So UofM did some training.

They used their outside contractor to friend or follow the athletes. Then, confronted the athletes with what they discovered on their sites. Some of it apparently was not what the athletes wanted anyone associated with the University to see. However, a blogger heard a presentation by the athletic director and seems to have misunderstood the training. He tweeted and wrote a blog post that said UofM was “catfishing” its own students. I had never heard of catfishing until Manti Te’o showed up. Apparently it is common. Catfishing is when someone on social media pretends to be someone they are not. Social media makes this rather easy. ESPN picked up the blogger’s report and put out a news story that UofM was catfishing its own students.

PLEASE NOTE: social media crises often start when someone says something stupid or wrong on social media and the mainstream media pick it up, and without verifying, amplify it to their audience, often with extra juice intended to attract audiences, which then goes viral and the whole world (including me) starts talking about it.

ESPN got it wrong, the blogger got it wrong. No catfishing, said the university. Just checking up on what their athletes are saying and doing on social media.

But, it got me thinking. I’ve been looking at a powerful tool for conducting social media training exercises developed and offered by one of the top PR firms in the world. (More about that tool later as I delve into this a bit more). But, it occurred to me what risks there might be in conducting drills and exercises. I have warned clients more than once that when they do their risk or vulnerability assessment, including ranking them, be aware of what that will look like when an event happens and attorneys require all their documentation. “Ah, they knew just such a thing would happen and did nothing about it.” These were headlines coming out of the Superdome power outage fiasco. That is one great danger. But merely trying to prepare your organization for big problems, such as product contamination, or an oil spill, can be twisted and turned into nastiness.

Here’s something I’m considering adding to the vulnerability lists of clients: Negative media reports and social media attacks for the training and preparation you are doing to deal with negative media reports and social media attacks.

This world gets stranger and stranger.

3 thoughts on “Training for social media crises can create social media crises”

  1. An important reminder. We start every exercise with a reminder to “never let the simulation BECOME a crisis,” and then reinforce the closed-loop importance of actions of participants. Same is true of our real-time social media exercises — every single communication from participants should begin with “this is a drill.” There was a case years ago of a pharma company exercise going awry and the legal/security departments thought they were managing a real situation — cannot find via Google search.

  2. Thanks for the piece Gerald, but I disagree. ESPN and the blogger did not get it wrong. The spokesperson for the university claimed that no one from 180 ever actually messaged an athlete and got a basketball player to say so in the ESPN article. Trouble is, the attractive young female intern was messaging football players. Here’s a sample of what the Michigan AD said (in public, mind you) said she was messaging them to see if they would bite:“Hi! I am new to YOUR AREA. I think u r cute message me back LOL xoxo!” (quote from collegefootballtalk.nbc.com)The Michigan AD said there was specific communicating back and forth.

    There was a lot of backtracking done by the UM athletic department after the AD spoke at the informal Q & A. I beg to differ: they were catfishing their football players. Now whether or not people think that’s wrong or unethical, that’s a different story.

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