Tysons Corner, VA

(Updated at 9 p.m.) Some 425 people attended today’s Social Media Week Fairfax event in Tysons, absorbing insights and ideas for anyone working in social media, marketing or startups.

The event, hosted by Fairfax County Economic Development Authority at Capital One headquarters, was a one-day convention of panels and networking that primarily focused on how businesses, large and small, engage on social media.

The keynote speaker and celebrity for the PR world was Judy Smith, a crisis management expert and the inspiration for the show Scandal. The biggest points Smith highlighted were speed and tone of responses to calamity.

“There’s an appreciation of mistakes when you embrace it and you own it,” said Smith.

Smith said organizations often wait more — sometimes much more — than 45 minutes before responding to an incident, by which time public opinion has already started to form.

One cause, according to Smith, is that companies can get tangled up in communications between different departments. Companies can also be slow to admit the whole truth, while Smith says the best answer is usually just to let all of the bad news come out at once like tearing off a Band-aid.

“You also have to pick the best time and vehicle to respond,” said Smith. “There was a CEO who apologized in 15 posts on Twitter. Given the seriousness of the matter, I would not have responded to that on Twitter. If a food company has a massive recall where people are sick or dying, I wouldn’t tweet ‘sorry about the bad food.'”

Smith said part of working in crisis management is working on controlling the narrative. In her own life, when the producers on Scandal approached her about adding in an intimate relationship between her character and the President, Smith said she got on the phone with President George H.W. Bush, for whom she had worked as a press secretary, to let him know.

Smith said when President Bush called her back and left a voicemail, joking that “you called me” and “you left me,” she fired back that he couldn’t make jokes about that.

“If you don’t follow these talking points,” Smith recalled telling Bush, “I will call Barbara.”

These days, Smith said things are moving faster in social media, saying her largest concern is that the population seems to have increasing difficulty discerning fact from fiction.

“One year ago, there was something I was looking at on social media and it was trending too fast,” Smith said. “When my team checked, it was because the other side had hired two bot companies to tweet about it. That’s how it went from zero to five million tweets in two minutes.”

Despite the prevalence of untruth on social media, Amanda Waas and Tammy Abraham from National Geographic emphasized the importance of being genuine.

“People can see right through anything on social media,” said Tammy Abraham. “If you’re not authentic, if it doesn’t feel true, everyone knows it.”

To this end, Abraham said that the National Geographic’s Instagram account is handled almost exclusively by photographers in the field. There are general guidelines, but Abraham said letting photojournalists have unfiltered access to the social media has helped build a following for the brand.

This extends to working with sponsored content as well.

“We’re not just going to post an ad,” said Waas. “Even for branded content, it needs to follow certain guidelines.”

“We have to find a common place to tell an authentic story,” said Abraham. “We can’t tap into an authentic story without something meaningful to tell.”

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