Dealing with negative information about your organization in the social media age

Steve Kelman spotlights recent research on when and how to respond to social disapproval.

social media monitoring

Social media involves internet-based platforms that allow individuals to generate their own public information content, independent of traditional media where journalists generate and curate content for the public to consume. As of 2019, 44% of the world’s population had at least one active social media account, and the average user spends over two hours a day interacting with social media. In traditional media, journalists break stories, but journalistic norms also dictate that people or organizations covered in a story have a chance to respond with their reactions and version of the events.

As social media’s reach and influence continue, government needs to better understand the differences between these two forms of news dissemination -- and, when appropriate, be able to react better. This is the topic of an article called Faster, Hotter and more Linked In: Managing Social Disapproval in the Social Media Era by Professors Xinran Wang, Rhonda Reger, and Michael Pfarrer in a recent issue of the academic journal Academy of Management Review.

The paper’s starting point is that, in contrast to a world where news dissemination was mostly controlled by journalists, the spread of social media means an increase in the velocity of news dissemination (how quickly it spreads), as well as its emotionality and its commonality (the extent to which a collective identity emerges among people who have never met).

Journalist-produced news spreads more slowly, both because journalists need time to gather responses from those being reported on and because reporting has traditionally been tied to news cycles. Traditional media is more tied to norms that temper emotionality in favor of objectivity, norms that hardly exist in social media. And the one-way nature of traditional media limited the ability of people to locate others who share their concerns, reducing the ability to create commonality.

In the social media era, the authors argue, initially dealing with negative information about your organization with “proactive transparency” – sharing negative news before it becomes a story -- may be a better approach than in the past. This is partly because it will be harder than in the past for the organization to prevent such a story from surfacing no matter what they do, but also because the organization has more ability to get its perspective directly out to the public, without journalist intermediaries.­

They then argue that once information has come out and spread – perhaps despite proactive transparency -- it may be, counterintuitively, more effective to then react slowly and deliberately, despite the greater velocity of social media. Hyper-fast reactions are more likely to be factually incorrect and to be of a rote nature, both of which can encourage spread of negative information. On average, 350,000 tweets appear in any given minute, and the vast majority of information that begins to spread will die out on its own. Organizations should keep that in mind.

I periodically blog about academic management articles from a belief they can provide practical advice to managers. This article is an example.

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