How to Navigate the Hidden Pitfalls of Social Media for Event Planners: Expect the Unexpected

So, here I am having conversations with some of our esteemed meeting and event industry gurus over the past week, some heavy stuff o-these-little talks and they affect us all. No, we are not some super secret cabal setting policy; we are just chatting about one of the most un-talked-about things in the industry.

These conversations all revolve around the same pinpoint subject, which I am not going to go into because they are private, and these are people that I admire and respect so their confidences are safe with me, even after a few beers or you pulling out my fingernails. I am not giving them up, but they will know what I am talking about (virtual wink).

Although these conversations are confidential and the details will remain under lock and key, they have given rise to this post. This is probably the most important post I will write for meeting and event professionals this year.

This post is about Social Media, and although I write quite often about our little friendly buddy, I don’t think that I have ever taken up the subject in quite this manner or with quite this sense of urgency. Time is of the essence for you, and the hourglass is losing sand.

This post is about the Dark Side of social media and how it impacts meeting and event professionals, how your inaction can hurt you, your brand, and your event.

Social Media, my friends, is here to stay, and it will never go away…. ever. It may change, and it will undoubtedly evolve but it will never, ever disappear from view, so meeting and event planners should probably stop bitching about it and get on the damage control bandwagon now before their goose is cooked and they find themselves in the unemployment line. Really, it is that important; it is a crucial element to any Social Media strategy, yet we all tend to ignore this element because it is something we do not want to discuss. It is the elephant in the room that no one wishes to acknowledge because it takes the fun out of Social Media.

What?? What the hell am I talking about??? Make some sense, dude…

What I am talking about is not the fluffy; everything is freaking awesome; social media rocks and is taking our conference or organization to new heights! You know that social media…the OMG We Are SO Awesome at Social Media, and everyone aspires to be us and achieve what we have achieved, the one where everyone talks about the ROI and page views and just how freaking hunky doree the world is and flowers are blooming everywhere! I hear the birds chirping songs about Social Media, the bees are buzzing with Social Media nectar, and love is in the air…….look, did I see a plate of Social Media cookies?

Nope, that is not the social media I am talking about. I am talking about the other social media… you may not have met his evil twin yet, be he is there lurking in the dark, a little like Dexter or Ted Bundy… really really nice until he is not so nice. This is the social media that can tear your heart out, make you feel like like your brain is on fire, and make your knees wobble under the strain of his evil glare.

I am talking about the dark side people, the bad, the social media issues that lurk around the corner wearing a boogeyman costume and can strike at any minute, any time, day or night, rain or shine, after good conference or bad. He is the social media that we all must fear, the one that SHOULD keep you up at night. The one that can turn a pleasant conference or event experience into a nightmare that you pray you will wake up from but the dawn never seems to come; it just stays dark hour after hour, day after day, with gloom and despair pushing down on you until you feel like you cannot breath.

That is the social media we need to discuss today, and although you might think it won’t happen to you, it can and it will at some point, so lets chat because although you may be thinking that this is not “your concern,” it will be your problem someday, so I am going to tell you how to deal with it.

How do you deal with it? With a system.

There will always be something that someone wants to bitch about. That is a fact. Social Media has given people the bully pulpit from which to strike, rightly or wrongly at the heart of your organization, so you had better get off the freaking kum-bay-ya train and realize that you need systems in place to deal with damage control when shit goes south or you may be playing catch up while your critics, psychos or trolls are bashing the crap out of you and you are sitting there like the deer on the other end of Sarah Palin’s rifle without a clue of what to do.

Reality Check People – If you do not have a system in place to deal with the negatives that can arise from Social Media’s evil twin,  you are going to get hammered one day and there will be no one that can help you and your enemies or competitors will be sitting there on the sidelines laughing like the assholes they are, saying “told you so” or “they had it coming.”

Contrary to conventional wisdom, meeting and event planners are not perfect. One of the largest flaws that meeting and event professionals have is that we think that we are good and grand and perfect. We see the world through rose-colored glasses and 90% of the time, that is probably rightfully so; I believe that because I have an ego just like you do.

Most meeting and event professionals produce stellar events that our attendees love, but even the best event, with the best outcome, is going to have a critic, and you must, must, must be ready to handle that situation when it arrives. You need to be ready to act pre-event, during the event or post-event. You must be on the front lines to protect what is yours, or someone is going to take it from you.

What are the types of things that you need to be ready for? That is easy.

  • People who want to give you crap because they can, these are the most common.
  • People that want to give you crap because of what they think you did. These are the next most common. They feel slighted about something they believe you did to them or the group.
  • People that give you crap because of what you did. These are the ones that are the rarest and the ones that you should feel genuinely for because you are to blame for whatever they have an issue with.

So, now that I have scared the crap out of little Stevie, first-year meeting planner from Walla Walla, what do you do? How do you arm yourself from the barbarians at the gate that want to take you down? That, my friends, is very easy; there are only a couple of things that you need to do.

First, you need to chill out and grab an adult beverage and relax because although I make it sound like the roof is going to cave in on you tomorrow, there is a good chance that a bad social media experience won’t be this bad. Further, it never will get that bad if you plan for the worst, expect the best and have a little hope.

Second, you need to have a point person who is in charge of curing the disease of “bad socialitis” and that will speak for the organization and be out in FRONT of something so that the entire organization has a unified response to anything that pops up.

This point person is your first responder, the one that reaches out across platforms to the bitchers, complainers, rabble-rousers, and genuine issues. This person needs to be ready to write on a moment’s notice… but what do they write?

That is the third point. You need to have your well-reasoned, thought-out talking points, and your point person needs to be ready to go, preferably ready to cut and paste, make minor modifications, and post as fast as possible, or the complainers are going to control the message and the conversation and you will be sitting on the sidelines watching this all unfold before your eyes as it spins out of control and crashes into the pavement leaving a crater 100 feet wide at the bottom of which lies your still smoking body covered in a blanket of ashes that used to be your social media plan.

One important point is not to overthink this; this is not rocket science; this is conversation. Think of your online sphere as a cocktail party, if you are an expert on a subject and some idiot starts spouting nonsense about the subject, you are going to jump in and correct the inaccuracies and the un-truths, and the whole party will hear you, they will say “ wow! Jane really knows her crap!”.  If you spill your drink on someone, you say you are sorry and grab a towel.

Be ready and be prepared because you never know what will become a full-fledged shooting war over something that you didn’t even think was important.

Now I am not saying that you should have a full bullshit spin program in place (although I am a lover of spin) I am saying that before you launch your social media program, you need to sit down and get buy-in from all levels on what your response will be to a variety of worst case scenarios that may arise over the course of an event.

Now, I am a realist and understand that you cannot prepare for everything, but you can certainly prepare for the “knowns” because those are probably going to be the items that those darn “interwebbers” attack first.

Let me give you a scenario:

You are a trade organization that has held its annual meeting in Orlando for the past 98 million years; you have been going there so long that they found your fossilized beer bottles and conference programs on a recent archaeological dig. Everyone that attends loves going to Orlando because, well….they are all from Minnesota, and you have your meeting in February. Who could argue?

The association has major budget problems so this year you announce that your meeting is going to be held at the North Pole…. in January. You can imagine the shit that is going to flow through the pipe on this one, and you know it.

Before you make the announcement, you need to have your ducks in a row, and your point person needs to be ready once the press releases are out there and the marketing e-blasts have started. You must know what you are going to say before you start to market the event.

You need to know the hows, the whys, and the why-nots when someone starts on Twitter with “@meetingplanner is terrible because they picked the north pole.”  You need to be ready to come back with “@angryattendee we would love to be in Florida too! Here is a link to the reason why we had to go to the north pole” followed by “we would love to get back to Florida next year when the economy is better”.

Your goal here is to calm down the masses because once they get to the North Pole, they will come to realize that the event is just as good as it ever was; they are just riding a ski lift, not Magic Mountain.

When someone writes a lengthy blog post talking about how bad the new location is, you need to be ready to hit the comment section of that site and guide people to sanity and explain, in detail if necessary, the reasons why you are jetting off to the great white north instead of the sunny, warm south.

People will understand; you just have to help them. Not chiming in and not working, the message is going to blow up because people will have made up their minds before they ever arrive at Santa’s Village. This situation, unchecked, could even lead to lower attendance.

Here is another fine picture we can paint:

You are a major widget builder association, and the United States has just signed a major free trade agreement with the country of Webuilditcheaperistan. You plan to have Jack “the Robber Baron” Smith as your keynote speaker because he was the diplomat who forged the agreement and got the Senate, the President, and everyone else to buy into importing widgets with no tariffs. OK, I gotta say, this is probably a great selection for your keynote, whether you agree with the policy or not because this is something that is affecting your attendees and their businesses on a daily basis. A perfect keynote if there ever was one.

Your trade group has a very robust online community, and they are very active on Twitter and LinkedIn but not FaceBook; no reason why; this is just the way that it is.

After your announcement, people will be up in arms that they hate this guy, that his new policy is bad for the group, and that he is driving them out of business. This is going to happen, and in the old days, it did not matter because no one could hear these complaints. Now, the internet has made it possible to shout as loud as they would like, and everyone can hear them because they now have the power. It is up to you to make sure that your message is heard, understood, and not drowned out by all of the noise that will be created.

When people hit Twitter talking about how this choice is a travesty and terrible and the worst thing ever, you need to guide them back to reality and explain why you think that he is the perfect choice for a Keynote, that Keynotes don’t have to be all fun and games and that sometimes they deal with hard issues. People will need to understand that this choice was made because the association feels that all sides need to be heard.

You need to be ready to speak to the bloggers and the readers who will be calling for your head on a pike. You need to address them calmly and rationally, explaining why this choice is the best for the group. They need to understand that by hearing this keynote speaker, you, as an organization, may be able to come up with ways to combat the new trade agreement or learn to live with it and perhaps even thrive in spite of it. If you ignore the online argument, you ignore the fire that may be burning in the kitchen, and an unchecked fire soon spreads to other rooms and other homes and can destroy an entire city.

Keep in mind, you may not be able to change the mind of the Twitterer or the Blogger, and that may not be your goal. Your goal may be to change the mind or affect their readers, followers, or fans. In fact, that should be your primary goal. You do not go after Glenn Beck; you go after his listeners.

So, a little lesson is this, before you announce to the world that you will be having Roger Dipwad as your keynote, you had pretty damn well have your responses to the inevitable griping you are going to get across the popular platforms.

Now, let’s go back to the beginning of this example because I bet you noticed something.

I said that your group was heavy into Twitter and LinkedIn and not FaceBook…… hmmmm, just because 98% prefer Twitter and LinkedIn, that leaves 2% and if we are talking an association with 100,000 members, 2% adds up to about 2,000 people. Two THOUSAND….. that is not a small amount.

You need to be monitoring all of the dark corners of the Internet, looking for problems, and scanning for damage before it grabs you and sucks you under. Just because your little cabin in the woods looks strong and well-built, it does not mean that termites are not eating it alive from the inside out. It pays to be checking everywhere. There are tools out there that can automate much of this for you and many of them are free to use. You can literally log in and wait while your little robots go and search the internet for you.

OK, don’t get emotional – you are ready and have a point person; what else should you do?

One of the most important things that you can do is to keep emotions out of the equation. This is the hardest thing to do because you cannot control all people all the time, but you must try not to let people who are emotionally involved with an event speak across those darn “interwebs” when it goes south… ever.

This is not so hard in the case of choosing a keynote or a destination because as a planner, you may not have liked the choices either; you were just forced to use them, and the emotional attachment to this portion of the event may be nil, nada, nothing. Let people rant because you really don’t mind; you feel the same way.

But what about when they attack the planning aspect of the event? What happens when the Blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, Foursquare loving, Ning group having, YouTube watching hordes attack you, personally as a planner, a meeting specialist, who was only trying to produce the best event possible? What happens then?

This is when the attacks can hurt feelings, make you want to cry and ball your fists and scream in rage, pound the keyboard and TYPE…..the attacks feel personal, and if they want personal, that is what they are going to get. If people say things like “the food sucked”, “The choice of entertainment blows,” or “the planning of the event was awful,” someone is gonna get it. They are gonna hear from someone who is gonna tell them what they can really be upset about, damn it……

Hmmmm, you can see why people with an emotional attachment must not be permitted to post responses…period, amen.

This goes back to having a designated point person who can keep the emotion out of the conversation and steer it so it becomes a positive interaction, not a slugfest.

If someone posts that the food was terrible, you need someone that can speak with a calm and reasonable voice that the food was prepared by experts with a flair for local cuisine, that the majority of comments about the food were great (and throw in a couple of quotes) and that you UNDERSTAND the persons angst over the choice of Mushroom Barley soup but that the choice was made because most of the group are mushroom lovers….

Emotional responses like “You suck, and who cares if you hate Mushroom Barley Fatso” entering the conversation are going to turn ugly, and that is only going to give you a black eye. Trust me, the blogger or tweeter does not care if they get a black eye; they are looking for a response like you are giving them. They are trying to goad you into a negative response because online fights and controversy equal page views; the more this heats up, the better the ratings, baby. This is why the local news is always “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Then there is the oops, we did do it issue that is going to crop up; gotta be ready for these too.

You also need to be ready for those times when the conversation turns ugly because you DID screw up. The buses were late to take attendees to the evening event, the food really was bad, or Keynote Bob missed his plane. In these cases, you may need to eat a little humble pie, admit that you were wrong, and detail the actions that you have taken to correct the problem.

Tell people that you hear them, tell them that you are listening, and tell them that you are ACTING on what they are saying. These are prime opportunities to turn a bad into a good. People don’t like it when you screw them, but they LOVE it when they are heard and you act. This makes people feel empowered and can actually lead to a stronger online relationship with your attendees.

You also can mitigate damage before it happens and get out ahead of these moments because during an event, if you let go of your ego for half a second, you can see clearly what is going wrong as an event unfolds. Have too few chairs in the room for that keynote; get ahead of the game by tweeting that you know there were too few chairs this morning, and you have made arrangements for additional chairs tomorrow and say SORRY. Sometimes sorry can go a long, long way, especially in social circles.

There you have it.

Social media is not a passing fad; it is a great tool and greatly enhances the event experience. I would have to say that it is the best thing to EVER happen to meetings and events. It has made my life as a meeting planner easier, not harder. I can communicate with attendees, and I know that they are hearing the message loud and clear. Social Media has increased attendance, attendee satisfaction, and attendee interaction, and it really is an amazing set of tools. But, good things have a dark half and we need to be aware of that.

Remember, a Skil Saw in the hands of an expert can be a beautiful thing, in the hands of a five year old it can be a nightmare.

Keith Johnston

Keith Johnston

Keith is the Managing Partner of i3 Events but is most widely known as the outspoken publisher of the event industry blog PlannerWire. In addition to co-hosting the Bullet List and Event Tech Pull Up Podcasts, he has been featured in Plan Your Meetings, Associations Now, Convene, Event Solutions, and has appeared on the cover of Midwest Meetings Magazine.

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