Train for a Social Media Attack

Published August 2011

Let’s say you just received word that your company’s Facebook page, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts are under attack by disgruntled customers posting derogatory messages about your products or services. Or perhaps commentators are criticizing the actions of a contractor, a proposed merger or perceived bad service from one of your employees. What do you do? Is it better to respond — or not dignify the statements with a response?

As more companies establish a social media presence, the risk of being on the receiving end of an attack increases. Today’s protesters are no longer forced to picket in the wet or the cold. From the comfort of their couches, desks or anywhere else with Internet access, individuals with a grudge against a company can launch a damaging attack on its brand.

Once that happens, others may jump on board, adding to the chorus of negative remarks or demands. Consider these recent examples of global corporations forced into action on the cyber battlefield:

Taking on the AirlinesDelta Air Lines, along with other carriers, recently changed their free-baggage policies for servicemen and women traveling on military orders. The change was initiated after a unit of U.S. Army soldiers uploaded a video on YouTube complaining that Delta charged them more than $2,800 in extra luggage fees as they were returning from deployment in Afghanistan.

Thousands of people responded on Delta’s Web sites and social media sites supporting the soldiers. One day after the video was uploaded, the airline changed its baggage policy and started allowing five free checked bags for servicemen and women traveling on military orders. Other airlines quickly followed suit.

On its Facebook Wall, Delta posted: “Thanks to everyone for your continued comments and thoughts on the baggage allowances for active duty service men and women. In addition to the policy updates … we’re also continuing to work with each soldier individually to compensate them and make this situation right for everyone involved.”The Mattel SagaMattel recently announced it would develop a policy to make its packaging suppliers “commit to sustainable forestry management practices.”

The announcement was the toy maker’s response to a social media campaign started by Greenpeace, which uploaded a satirical video on its Web sites and on YouTube. In the video, Mattel’s popular Ken doll breaks up with Barbie over deforestation in Indonesia. The environmental activist group accused the company of destroying rain forests because of its packaging for dolls and other toys.

Greenpeace Web sites enabled visitors to send letters to Mattel’s CEO and share critical comments on Twitter and Facebook with a few clicks of a mouse. When the messages began appearing on Barbie’s Facebook fan page, which has more than million followers, Mattel blocked comments and deleted any mention of rain forests.

Before announcing its “sustainable procurement policy,” the toy manufacturer posted comments to defend itself. For example, on its Facebook page: “Playing responsibly is important to Mattel. Over the past months, we’ve been talking to Greenpeace regarding paper-sourcing. As you may have heard, they’ve taken an inflammatory approach despite the open channels of communication we’ve established.”Soon after the social network attack on Mattel, other large corporations introduced policies to eliminate suppliers linked to deforestation.

Nestlé Under SiegeGlobal food giant Nestlé was also attacked with a Greenpeace-produced YouTube video spoofing the company’s use of palm oil from an Indonesian supplier. The environmental group claimed the oil was destroying Indonesian rain forests. Criticism toward Nestlé began appearing on its social media pages.

After the campaign broke, Nestlé reevaluated its supply chain and now has maps showing the route of its palm oil supplies. It also dropped its ties with the Indonesian supplier and developed sourcing guidelines to help ensure that the company’s palm oil purchases protect endangered forest and peatlands, support indigenous populations and come from plantations and farms that use sustainable practices.

In an interesting turn of events, Nestlé posted a link on its Facebook page to a Greenpeace Web site article praising the company for “making a serious attempt to raise the bar when it comes to corporate action against deforestation.”
Clearly, today’s businesses need a plan so that they are prepared if they ever become the target of potentially devastating social media attacks. Consider taking the following steps if your organization is hit:

Determine the facts. Before your company can respond appropriately, it must know what triggered the attack. A word of warning: Don’t take too long to figure it out. If your company remains quiet, it might be presumed guilty.

Take a proactive stance. No matter how inconsequential the initial incident may be, if left unchecked, a social media attack may take on a life of its own. The anonymity that the Internet provides means that attackers may not worry about having their identities disclosed. Even if an identity is revealed, there is no guarantee that it is not an alias. Individuals may encourage their friends and acquaintances to post. Competitors may find a way to chime in. If your business fails to respond, the criticism may increase.

Monitor cyberspace for shadow sites. Activists may create a new corporate page on Facebook, a Twitter account, or establish a Web site address that is similar to your company’s address. It can be difficult to force the closure of these pages and accounts.

Consult with your attorney immediately to see what legal recourse may be available. At a minimum, your organization should routinely monitor the information shared via these shadow sites and act accordingly. But before taking action, discuss and approve the plans with top executives. An effort to be forthcoming and address an issue can backfire and provide a boost to the antagonists.

Develop scripts and guidelines. Your business must respond professionally and in a manner that reflects best practices in managing social media. Scripts and guidelines governing external communication need to be composed ahead of time and the scripts should be reviewed and approved by senior managers, attorneys and those delivering the messages.

Depending on the size of your organization, the nature of its business and the extent of its social media presence, a cyber attack may be more a question of when than if. Being prepared can enhance your ability to respond in a timely, organized manner that helps prevent a small problem from exploding into a “headline grabbing” issue.