As brands become more involved in social media, many do so without understanding the very real risks that the brand faces on social media. But the one unique risk characteristic for social media is that all of the potential risk events have a human agent.
For example, in 2009, Mommy Blogger Heather Armstrong (aka Dooce) called Whirlpool customer service over Whirlpool’s inability to get her almost new Maytag (a subsidiary of Whirlpool) washing machine fixed. When she wasn’t able to get what she felt was an appropriate and helpful response from the rep or their supervisor, she resorted to what amounts to a veiled threat – asking the customer service rep if Whirlpool knew what Twitter was and that she had over a million followers. Whirlpool’s response? Essentially so what and with that Whirlpool missed an opportunity to identify and respond to a potential risk to its brand that could have been alleviated through good customer service.
Today this is a common scenario – a customer contacts a brand unhappy about the product/service and threatens to take their complaint to the social sphere if the complaint isn’t handled to their satisfaction. When brands are faced with this scenario, they need to be able to quickly assess the threat level this customer (now risk agent) presents to the brand.
What Are Social Media Risk Agents?
Risks surround companies in social media – reputation risks, malware, potential legal issues, potential compliance issues, and more. Risks can be both intentional and accidental. But every threat involves a human factor – people who design or distribute malware, people who intentionally try to damage brand’s reputation, employees who accidentally release confidential information. Part of understanding the risks of social media is understanding the actors who play a role in those risks.
The term social media risk agent is used to indicate a person or a group that can manifest a risk against a brand or organization through social media channels. Risk agents can be almost anyone – from employee to non-profit volunteer. Part of effectively understanding and managing social media risk is identifying and understanding the those who can or would exploit social media channels to intentionally or unintentionally damage a company. Essentially a social media risk agent is defined by three aspects – capability, intentionality, and prior actions.
Capability (resources and knowledge): The person or group is familiar with or active on social media channels parallel to the brand, are familiar with the brand, have a reach of their influence.
Intentionality (incentive and motivation): There a conscious utility in manifesting a risk, the manifestation of the risk directly benefits the agent, and the risk can be malicious, non-malicious, or accidental.
History (past activities): External agents have a history of disparaging brands and internal agents have a history of not following relevant policies or processes.
Analysis Of The Whirlpool Case
Initiating the risk: When Armstrong called Whirlpool, she probably received the same experience that anyone else at that time, neither any better or worse. But she and everyone else who was calling customer service should be considered a baseline social media risk that has been identified with a potential motivation.
Materializing the threat: When Armstrong asked the rep if they knew what Twiiter was and that she had over a million followers, she immediately identified to the customer service agent additional information that she had the capability to manifest a risk. At the same time, since she was willing to verbalize this information to the customer service agent, Dooce demonstrated an elevated level of intentionality. At this point the potential or perceived risk level should have been high enough to warrant an action on the part of Whirlpool.
Manifesting the threat: Armstrong followed through with her threat in a series of tweets that essentially spoke about her less then positive experience with Whirlpool.
Whirlpool, like most companies, had plenty of evidence that Armstrong could be a risk agent to the brand, but failed to identify that risk and react appropriately to mitigate it. Companies need to have processes in place with customer service agents and other customer contact points that assist in identifying and mitigating risk actors before the become larger problems.
Note: The source for my information on the Heather Armstrong and Maytag/Whirlpool incident is a Sept 2, 2009 Forbes article titled “A Twitterati Calls Out Whirlpool” by Parmy Olson. It can be accessed on this page.