How Intel harnesses social listening during a crisis

By David Berkowitz, chief strategy officer, Sysomos

When a crisis hits, how can you weather it? Rick Reed, a social media program manager and media psychology PhD at Intel Corp, has experienced his fair share of surprises — including a few that would test the mettle of any marketer or enterprise. However, when digital disaster strikes, Reed claims that social listening has been pivotal in helping him avoid pitfalls and achieve success during his nearly 20 past years with the company. According to Reed, the game is all about detection.

Reed’s framework for listening includes breaking down issues according to the Johari window, a psychological technique developed to help people better understand themselves and how they relate to others. This framework includes four kinds of issues that can be detected through effective listening:

1. Known issues: The public and the company both know about them. The company should be actively monitoring these issues and reporting on them through the established procedures.

2. Internal issues: The company knows about them, but not the public. Oftentimes this involves some sensitive information that could be leaked, whether it’s positive or negative. Here, the company can actively monitor such issues.

3. Blindside issues: Someone outside of the company knows something that is not known within the company. These could be crises waiting to happen. There isn’t a way to monitor such issues, beyond establishing a disciplined social listening practice so that anyone involved can follow protocol the second that a blindside issue emerges. That way, the company can hopefully mitigate the issue early before it becomes a public-facing crisis.

4. Unknown issues: Neither the organization nor the public are aware of such issues. Here, very little can be done beyond being as proactive and creative as possible with the approach to listening. Smart keyword development combined with daily monitoring is key here. Reed quotes Sir Martin Rees, who once said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” A quiet stretch doesn’t mean one should get complacent.

Given that it’s impossible to anticipate everything, Reed elaborates on the art of social listening. “We’re still learning with each response. It’s less like surgery and more like baseball. It’s a game of averages.” While executives want it to be precise and hope to achieve a 100% detection rate, they just can’t know what they don’t know.

For issues that arise, there are two types of crisis plans, operational and communications, as summed up by Jonathan Bernstein of Bernstein Crisis Management. Operational plans address what to do and when it’s happening, While communications plans detail what to say and how the message gets out. Both are equally important.

When crises arise, Intel follows a three-step Issue Management Process.

First, the issue is identified and the escalation path is established. The Escalation Management Team reviews the initial facts and determines if a team is already on it before determining who else to notify or involve.

Next, the team evaluates the issue and determines whether or not to respond. While accommodative crisis responses have been shown to most effective in restoring stakeholder trust, Reed recommends that all issue teams first consider whether responding publicly might make things worse. “Sometimes,” says Reed, “the best response is no response.” At Intel, they decide whether their voice will help put out a fire, or inadvertently add oxygen to the flames. He noted that there are a million mentions of Intel’s brand every month online — and those are specific to the brand, rather than people using the word “intel” as shorthand for “military intelligence.” Most posts don’t require any response at all.

The third stage involves answering the question, “how do we know when the issue is over?” This is accomplished through ongoing monitoring. By establishing a regular listening program and assigning an owner to report new issue mentions to the team, everyone can stay on top of the problem. The owner regularly revises a Q&A document based on unanswered questions from contact centers and social posts, while a post-incident review documents the whole process so it can be improved in the future.

When a company must make a public apology, Reed advises adhering to the ‘4 R’s’: regret, reform, responsibility, and restitution. In expressing regret, the company should say, “We’re so sorry this has happened,” with clarity and sincerity. With reform, the company shows the steps it is taking to ensure this doesn’t happen again. By taking responsibility, it’s still possible to acknowledge that it’s unclear what caused this issue, and sometimes that takes more time than the public would like. Still, the company should assume responsibility and acknowledge this is the right thing to do. Through restitution, there is transparency into what the company will do for those affected by the incident.

No business wants to undergo a crisis — especially a public one — but crises happen, and they’re often from blindside or unknown issues that the company can’t prevent or spin. What matters most is how you deal with them. As former Intel CEO Andy Grove puts it, “Bad companies are destroyed by crises; good companies survive them; great companies are improved by them.”

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