How to Handle Online Criticism of Your Association

By: Adele Cehrs

Five commandments to live by the next time your association is criticized online.

Few association executives question the need to establish a social media presence. But when you're creating that Facebook page, tweeting, or blogging, keep in mind that online brand transparency comes with great responsibility—responsibility to listen to the members of your community when they engage with you and to respond appropriately.

Things happen fast in social media, and when a member posts something negative about your organization, the winds of chatter can rapidly whip it into a firestorm. These "flash crises" can be unnerving for all concerned, and they require quick, strategic responses to diffuse their negative impact.

You can't avoid all bad comments or conversations, but you can prepare your organization to respond quickly and effectively. The following five commandments of crisis communication can guide you. And remember: Negative feedback can be a golden opportunity to fix misperceptions.

1. Be organized. Don't wait until a crisis hits to have a crisis plan in place. When a reporter is on the phone, it isn't the time to figure out who needs to be involved in the crisis resolution process, nor is it the time to determine all the facts. A crisis communication team should be assembled in advance and include representatives from public relations, human resources, and membership as well as legal counsel and board members. The team should have the authority to respond on behalf of the organization and determine all possible outcomes and potential impacts of a crisis on your organization.

2. Think before carving your response in stone. To respond or not respond? Most members just want to know that they are being heard and their complaints or issues have been acknowledged. A simple one-on-one conversation may resolve the situation.

3. Honor your brand. Crisis communication is a time where leadership and a straightforward approach reigns supreme. Don't let your social media audience rule the conversation. Offer practical ways you will address the issue being discussed. If you do not have an immediate answer, be honest. Let your audience know you are aware of the situation and will provide them more information at a later time. Once a situation has been resolved, acknowledge the way it was addressed and provide resources or additional information if necessary.

4. The media is watching. Don't forget that traditional media will tune into your social media sites when a crisis breaks. They can and will use that information. Social media isn't just another tool—it is an extension of your brand's story. Be sure you are the one telling it.

5. Get ahead of potential issues. Consider developing a "dark website" that can be utilized during a crisis to address potential matters with a strategic Q&A, messaging, and issue-resolution strategy. When the crisis hits, turn the site on, and your organization is ready to address the issue at hand quickly and effectively.

Adele Cehrs is president and founder of Epic PR Group in Alexandria, Virginia. Email: [email protected]