Rick Wion, the director of Social Media at McDonald’s, opened his presentation at Blogworld in New York this week with the statement “everyone loves a crisis.”

Controversy spurs conversation, crisis can drive traffic, and hand-wringing draws a lot of attention. In most cases, pundits are very good at it.

But what can you do as a company to navigate these waters?

In our hyper-connected age, everyone is a critic, a publisher, a pundit and an expert but not everyone is a customer. As a brand, it is important to know who your fans and your heroes are. 

Wion gave two examples of how McDonalds have identified and promoted fans. 

1) Evan, McDonald’s four year old fan

When McDonald’s included Marvel Comic toys in their happy meals, Evan, who loves super heroes and happy meals, was in heaven. But the day he got a “girl toy,” he was inconsolable. His mother tweeted McDonalds about her son’s disappointment.

McDonald’s reached out and sent a hand written note (on a printed slip that said “You Tweeted. We listened.”) with the marvel toy Evan was missing. Evan’s mother wrote a blog post called “Hey, McDonald’s I’m loving it” telling the story of her great customer service experience. That post was not only her most viewed post but it was included as a case study in the most recent addition of Groundswell.

This combination of online and offline has become a novelty so it can be even more effective in terms of building customer relations. People love getting post. That excitement can lead to a tweet of the note and so the cycle back to online is there. The customer themselves are showing the resolution and you don’t have to be a big brand to do these things.

2) McRib Superfans

Two years ago, a fan built a Google mashup called McRib locator. It was a map of America where a red dot shows an unconfirmed sighting of a McRib, and a yellow dot is a confirmed one. Around this time, McDonald’s was trying to figure out what to do with their fans. So instead of thinking about TV spots and heavy marketing, McDonald’s contacted two super fans to be spokespeople.

They were excited and giddy to talk about it and McRib became a top trending topic that fall as a lot of people who never tried it, wanted to as the fans were talking about it. This buzz then drove additional sales.

What can you do?

When you are looking at your social media plans, there are a few things Wion recommends you keep in mind:

1) First be a good listener:

McDonald’s has been monitoring online conversations for more than 5 years. Wion stressed that you can gain different viewpoints from different monitoring and data collection tools so try to approach it from different angles. The company also looks at quarterly, weekly and daily reviews that are shared up, down and across the organization.

2) You have to make choices on how you will spend your time:

Focus first on those that are actually buying. Do listen to critics but you really need to move for customers so don’t waste time trying to change closed minds. Also be wary of echo chambers. There may be a lot of mentions but sharing is not the same as conversations, so you need to look at those metrics differently.

3) Continually evolve your voice:

You need to determine what tone is appropriate for your brand and match your message and style to the channel. One of the ways to help you do this is to use A/B testing with your messages. Look at timings, platforms, different wordings, etc and keep experimenting. Your audience will grow over time and there will be an addition of sub-audiences so you need to keep changing and adapting to fulfil their needs.

4) Be prepared:

It’s important to have a backup plan for the backup plan. When rolling out new product, sit in a room and put on the “hater” hat. This helps you think ahead and allows you to be ready for as many possible outcomes that you can think of. Also, it’s really important to have a buddy in legal. During a potential crisis moment, have them sit beside you and give you real time feedback on how to respond. By seeing you turn their legalese into 140 character messages, they will then understand what you have to do. This is a way to ensure future success in dealing with the legal department. Lastly, in terms of people, map out your friends and foes so you can then use your fans and employees to help you when you hit those sticky moments.

A few top tips

Wion ended with a few additional tips to help those of you who are running social media for your brand:

  • Rule of three: 
    As you would with traditional story telling, write things in three a lot. You need to have a beginning, middle and end to every story whether it’s in a single tweet, a set of three tweets or a post.
  • Funny can work:
    McDonald’s is a happy brand so you can be funny with it. But do remember, humour out of context can be bad for your brand so you have to be careful and ensure there is context.
  • Always try different methods and see how they work for you:
    These methods could be in your content or specific approach to your channels and communities. Another method would be to get different people from other parts of the organization to assist you. To help gain traction for social, it’s important that people outside of PR and marketing. Once they understand how social works and what you do, you’ll have more buy-in from across the organization.
  • Heart is even better:
    When you talk like real people, people respond to it a lot more. Twitter doesn’t work as well with commercial messages so try as much as possible to not be like that.