In crisis communications, active monitoring of media and social media is often one of the first steps we take as part of our response. While negative commentary may occur for a few days or a few weeks, it often tapers off once we activate crisis response programming and the world’s short attention span takes effect. But then there are the more extreme situations that capture attention and maintain momentum for much longer. In these instances, we have seen closed social media communities (most often on Facebook) emerge as a way for customers or other stakeholders to come together and share information around a negative issue.
For most content on social platforms, anyone with an internet connection can view conversations and information. However, when private or closed communities are established, conversations can only be accessed by users who have been invited to join the group and provided with login credentials or access. Further, administrators have the ability to deny access to users who are not aligned with the group’s purpose or point of view.
Recently, a client in a highly regulated industry experienced customer service issues, some of which were within the company’s control, some of which were not. Customer frustration was such that a closed community formed online after a couple weeks of negative media coverage. We used the expected strategies like paid programming and earned media to reach customers broadly, but it was a point of frustration that we couldn’t directly engage with members of the closed community.
It is a challenge for communicators when closed communities show up in the mix of channels used by customers. Based on our experience with the client mentioned previously as well as many others, we have developed the following guidelines to help manage closed communities when they are focused on reputational issues.
- Anticipate + Direct: The easiest way to manage closed communities is to address the reasons they exist in the first place – frustration and the need to be heard. If a negative situation is expected to extend over a period of time, steps should be taken early in the progress to direct people to a company-controlled online portal where they can be heard. This may be a company-hosted closed Facebook community, a web portal or other online platform. Regardless, it must be moderated proactively with dedicated staff members trained to manage communities and empowered to address concerns.
- Monitor As Possible: In most cases, conversation in closed communities is only visible to members. But there are other data points that can be informative, specifically the number of members in the group which is visible. Understanding how the group is growing or shrinking can help define the appropriate actions. At the same time, a group may have thousands of members but only a handful of individuals who are posting and actively engaged, so understanding that ratio is important as well.
- Recruitment: Understanding how the group gains members is important to guiding ways that corporate messages may be more effectively delivered. For example, we have seen individuals use Reddit posts to drive members into closed Facebook groups by posting links and invitations in relevant subreddit communities. In this case, it may be appropriate to consider engagement with those subreddits. Or, while the majority of social conversation may be taking place on Twitter, it might spark interest across other platforms, which means decreasing or redirecting Twitter activity may also decrease engagement in the closed community.
- Employ Paid Strategies: If a closed community can be clearly identified, targeted paid strategies may be helpful in redirecting individuals to corporate-controlled sites, offering customer service support or delivering key messages. Data like geographic area, use of hashtags and key words can help define a group for targeted paid ads that speak directly to points of friction.
- Listening In: It is always an advantage to have someone who is organically part of the closed group available to pass along information, concerns, discussion points, and identify the individuals who are driving the conversation. That said, the challenge of responding to those messages still exists. Having the individual in the community carry them is likely to create distrust of a company within the community, which is never the goal.
- Join the Dialogue: Entering a closed community is tricky as it’s important to respect the purpose of the communities and the moderators who run them. However, it is possible for a company representative to ask for membership and, when granted, engage to correct misinformation and provide support. The challenge is that this individual must be trained to engage positively and redirect negative attacks while also having the authority to solve customer issues quickly. Of course, involvement is likely to meet with mistrust and we’ve seen communities call out corporate representatives as ‘bots or ‘fake personas’ even when a real individual is engaged, ready and willing to assist.
Of course, reactionary closed communities tend to die over time as active community management is absolutely essential to the lifespan of these groups. When groups are created around high emotion and those emotions dissipate over time, so does the community. When the value of the community becomes unclear or moot, members are no longer motivated to join in, and they gradually move on to more compelling and entertaining communities.