Issues Management in the Age of Social Media
Reading the media and security community’s reaction to Apple’s Project Zero response got me thinking about issues management. It prompted me to write a LinkedIn article about how the company could have handled the situation more effectively. Apple’s not alone—many companies have room to improve how they respond to issues that affect their customers. Doing this right means providing meaningful updates to customers. As a bonus, you’ll own the narrative while providing information reporters can use.
If you work for a large company, chances are you have an issues management protocol. Maybe it’s owned by your communications or maybe even the facilities department. Regardless, for a lot of us, issues management is something we hope to avoid every single day.
If you work in communications or marketing, you may believe that social media and the culture of immediacy that it’s created adds another layer of complexity to issues management. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Effectively integrating social media into your issues management protocol helps in three ways:
- It allows you to respond to the issue quickly and methodically.
- It helps establish credibility with your customers (and the media).
- It establishes a direct line of communication with customers.
I’ve seen these benefits firsthand after managing dozens of customer issues via the Dell blog over a 7-year period. Here’s the process I used to manage every issue we encountered, from a global battery recall that affected tens of thousands of customers globally to product shipping delays that affected hundreds.
This framework is predicated on listening to what’s being said about your company at both a macro and detailed level. If you’re a product company, your customers discuss problems with your products online at places like reddit, third-party community forums, or if you’re lucky, on the support forum your company runs. Many times, customers will approach you via your company’s social media support channels like Twitter or Facebook.
When you do find an issue that warrants a response, here’s how to think about the framework components:
Acknowledgement: Response time goal = 1 to 2 hours
Let’s say you’re hearing similar product complaints from two different customers who reach out to your support channel on Twitter or post elsewhere online. This is the time to simply acknowledge what you’re hearing from customers. At this stage, you’re not admitting to an issue; only acknowledging that you’re aware of it.
Action: Publish a single tweet from either your official company or support Twitter account that acknowledges your company is aware of the details being discussed, and that you’re looking into it.
Issue Discovery/Confirmation: Response time goal = 1 to 2 business days
This is the stage to start digging into details quickly. The key here is to distinguish between one-off issues vs. systemic ones. At Dell, this meant checking with teams in the product group or within technical support leadership to connect the dots. Doing so will give you an idea of which stakeholders and business units to include on the next two steps.
Action: Meet with appropriate resources to decide whether an issue is an isolated one or if it’s one that impacts lots of customers. If it is a true issue, confirm the issue to customers via your company forum or blog, or via social media (most likely Twitter and/or Facebook). At Dell, at this stage I usually wrote a short blog post confirming the issue, and that I’d share more details in the next few days once we arrived at a solution. After confirming with customers, be ready to move. This is when the clock starts ticking.
Internal Discussions: Response time goal = 1 to 2 business days
This is when you are meeting with technical leads, engineers and experts in the appropriate business units. You may have to talk to leadership at partner companies as well. The goal here is to understand the root cause of the issue and to get an idea of what it’s going to take for the company to support affected customers.
Action: Roll up your sleeves, get ready to meet with stakeholders to get a deep understanding of the issue as quickly as possible.
Content Writing/Approval: Response time goal = 1 to 3 business days, sometimes more
In most cases, this part takes the longest. The length of time varies depending on the complexity and scope of the issue. What’s key is that you take the time to 1) understand the issue in enough detail that you can explain it in terms that make sense to average customers; 2) decide what needs to be communicated (and what doesn’t); and 3) ensure that support resources are in place and informed of the issue. Distilling lots of technical details in a way that makes sense to customers is hard work—and that’s where you’ll spend a lot of extra cycles.
Besides writing the customer-facing response, this is also the time you spend writing FAQs for sales, marketing, communications and customer service. Before publishing anything, this is the point where written items go to legal departments for review. At Dell, in addition to reviewing the text of the response and related materials, they’d also want confirmation from our customer support organization that teams were in place to support.
Action: Write a response that clearly 1) provides basic context of the issue, and links to customer or third-party entries that discuss the issue; 2) explains your company’s actions; and 3) outlines next steps for customers. Prepare appropriate talking points and FAQs for internal stakeholders. Send the reply and related materials to legal for review. At Dell, we had a 2-hour legal review process in place for these kinds of reviews.
Publishing/Activating: Response time goal = 1 to 2 hours after approval
Action: Publish the approved response on your company’s newsroom, your company forum, company blog, or other location online. Promote it via your company’s social media channels that make sense. In most cases, that’s Twitter, but it may also apply to Facebook. Link to it in places where your customers or media outlets are discussing it.
Using this framework helps keep your customers informed. When we implemented it, reporters paid more attention to @Dell and @DellCares on Twitter, and they regularly cited and linked to Dell’s blog as an information source.