I am publishing a special series detailing my SWARM methodology — a toolset to help you respond when your organization gets negative feedback online. The first lesson is the “S” in SWARM — speaking like a human. 

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Organizations have a bad habit of communicating with people as if they were, well, organizations. They speak in grand tones of “we” and “us” — trying very hard to avoid admitting that an actual human being (“I” and “me”) wrote the text. Words like “we” and “us” serve only to distance yourself from your correspondent and, in a crisis situation, this is the last thing you want to do. Rather, you want people to identify with you and feel like you’re both “in it together.”

Speaking like a human is all about tone. Remember, these are social networks — so your tone should be social in nature.

Imagine your Twitter monitoring tool (you do have one, right?) picks up someone who tweets this:

What horrible service I just got at Fake Garage Inc. Mechanic totally tried to screw me over and bill me three times what that battery costs!

Before social networks, if you got this in the form of a mailed letter, you might have responded with an organizational voice:

We’re sorry to hear of the issues you’re having. Thank you for letting us know.

It’s sounds trite and one almost expects to see a filename at the bottom, giving away the fact that someone at your firm just copied-and-pasted from a form letter:



Instead, you should speak with your own, human voice. Display the emotions that a normal human would. If instead you didn’t, in fact, work for Fake Garage Inc., and this person was a friend of yours, telling you this story, you certainly wouldn’t say:

Gee David, this is something which is very unfortunate. I trust that the matter will be resolved in an expeditious manner. Thank you for telling me the details of this experience you had.

No, you’d probably express some degree of surprise, empathy, and concern for your friend’s feelings. Just because you work for Fake Tires Inc. doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respond like you would face-to-face.

A good Twitter response might be:

Yikes — I’m so sorry to hear this happened. That certainly isn’t the kind of service we strive for. Pls DM me. I’ll follow up directly. ^Tod

Even though this is only 140 characters (the maximum message length on Twitter), there’s a lot going on here. Let’s break this response down.

  • Yikes
    There’s no “yikes” in the corporate dictionary, and that’s precisely why you should use it, or something like it. Think honestly about what your natural reaction was to that tweet. What did your inner voice say? It probably said “Yikes” or “Oh no” or “Eeegads.” Those are the very words you should use. It shows that you’re a real person with real feelings too. In my experience, an honest starter-word like this has been able to de-escalate the issue by itself.
  • I’m so sorry to hear this happened.
    It’s okay to apologize. In my own work on client accounts, I make a point to add the word “so” in that sentence. Somehow, it adds an extra layer of honesty. Again, an organization might say “We’re sorry,” but only a human would say “I’m so sorry.” As well, there is a pervasive myth in the corporate world that suggests that if you apologize you are now somehow legally liable. It’s not true. You can feel sorry that someone had a bad experience. That doesn’t mean you have to comp them their entire car repair bill.
  • That certainly isn’t the service we strive for.
    Remember that in a public tweet conversation, it’s not just you and the person who’s angry who are seeing these messages — anyone who follows both your account and the angry person’s account will see this. An example: In addition to a bunch of friends, I follow my local cable company’s tech support Twitter account (@shawhelp). At least once or twice a month, I’ll see in my Twitter stream a friend having problems with their account or service. How they treat my friend is important to me and may change my opinion of them when it comes time to renew my service.
  • Please DM me.
    In Twitterspeak, this means to send a private message. As we’ll discuss later, you will want to take this discussion offline as fast as you can. Acknowledge the message, thank the person, apologize if necessary, and move the discussion behind closed virtual doors. This will then keep the discussion off the Twitter stream of those who follow both you and your correspondent.
  • I’ll follow up directly.
    This might be the most important part of the message — you, personally, are making a direct commitment. This is a much stronger statement than “We will follow up,” which, frankly, nobody believes. Think about it: If you got a letter back from a company saying “We will look into the matter,” do you really expect they will? Probably not. But again, by using first-person pronouns (“I,” in this case), you reinforce the fact that there’s a human being behind your tweet and that you will look into it.
  • ^Tod
    This caret symbol (^) is a Twitter convention that identifies the person typing. If you work for a large organization, you might be using this. In most cases I’ve seen, the convention has been to use initials, like ^TM. I strongly recommend you use a real first name since it’s easier for people to identify with a name than a set of initials. This also reinforces the commitment you made earlier. Some organizations set up a Twitter account for each individual person — like Canadian mobile phone provider Fido. In such a case, using the caret convention is unnecessary.

In the early 2000s, tech enthusiast Robert Scoble was a frequent contributor to some online support groups of Microsoft software. During that time, he blogged about Microsoft — sometimes good coverage, sometimes critical. Either way, his contributions proved so valuable, Microsoft hired him to, essentially, continue blogging and producing short video pieces as he ordinarily did. His posts didn’t go through a legal committee or a review board — they went right up on Microsoft’s site.

And he was still occasionally critical of Microsoft. In that way, he had earned the unofficial title of Chief Humanizing Officer. He put a human face on Microsoft because he was allowed to speak as a real person. Bill Gates couldn’t — he had shareholders and regulatory obligations. Scoble could because he was just a regular workerbee.

Speak with a human voice and you’ll be half the way there.

There is actually a second important “S” as well — and that’s to Size Up the commenter. By checking a user’s Klout score or finding out how many Facebook friends they have, you’ll have a rudimentary sense of the impact their words. Someone with a Klout score of 65 or higher could create enough buzz to cause additional damage, as their original post gets amplified by their followers. This isn’t to suggest you should only respond to the high-impact people — far from it — but if you have a number of comments to respond to with limited time, a simple triage like determining their rough influence level might help you prioritize your response.

Next Post: “W: Win/Win

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This is a small part of Tod’s keynote presentation “The Facts of Strife: A Blueprint to Crisis Management Online.” In the presentation, your group will also learn:

  • Tod’s company’s highly effective PEDB (Praise/Escalate/Delete/Ban) flow-strategy for managing your brand’s social media presence
  • How to create a Negative Response Strategy for your firm
  • The most effective, compliance-safe social media policies for employees
  • How one of the most talked-about social media campaigns ended up nearly destroying its brand
  • Tod’s model of a “web swarm,” and his five-step methodology for responding to a swarm
  • How your legal and marketing teams should deal when your brand falls victim to “Twitterjacking
  • Case studies of instances where organizations in your industry have faced attacks online, how they dealt with them, and the results
  • Why your organization’s next hire needs to be a Chief Humanizing Officer and what that role would entail
  • How to monitor the state of your brand’s reputation daily, with almost no technical expertise

Here is more information about the presentation or you can inquire about Tod presenting it to your group.