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Protect the brand or die trying: inside a fake social media crisis

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Corporate America is running a crazy new drill

Lucian Jacobs is the kind of Silicon Valley founder that makes the rest of them look bad. He gets drunk in public, gropes women at the bar, and is having an affair with an unpaid intern. And to top it all off, he’s scheduled to speak at South by Southwest tomorrow — at a panel about women and technology.

Fortunately, Jacobs isn’t real — he’s a simulation organized by a company named Polpeo. Polpeo, a subsidiary of the social media management firm eModeration, specializes in a novel new corporate exercise: the simulated brand crisis. Police officers train for various crises all the time; so do airline pilots. But most corporations don’t — even as the rise of social networks allows bad news about them to spread globally at record speed. More than a quarter of brand-related failures typically go international within an hour on social media, according to Polpeo, and a year after the crisis passes, more than half of companies haven’t recovered their share price.

"Don't be shy — it's a crisis."

If you remember AT&T’s ill-considered 9/11 tweet, or Malaysia Airlines’ slowness in addressing the disappearance of flight 370, you start to understand why companies could benefit from a drill. As a journalist, I’m usually the one chronicling the fallout of brand disasters. What I’ve never known is what they feel like on the inside, to the social media managers trying to put out the fires on Facebook, Twitter, and the websites of major news sites. My gut feeling tells me that it’s a combination of telling people you take their concerns very seriously, while lying to them about the details. But who knows?

So when I learn Polpeo is staging a brand crisis simulation at SXSW, I jump at the chance to attend. It proves incredibly popular — organizers have to turn people away — but when the doors open, I manage to secure a seat. "Don’t be shy — it’s a crisis," laughs Tamara Littleton, Polpeo’s energetic CEO, as we file in. Littleton keeps apologizing for how "stressful" the day is going to be, but she speaks with the beneficent authority of Mary Poppins, and the two-hour simulation unfolds with the practiced grace of an English tea service.

We’re arranged into five teams — each a motley crew of total strangers, most with a background in public relations or crisis communications. Littleton explains the premise of the simulation: Jacobs is the CEO of our firm, an up-and-coming social network named Mitra, and it’s our job to protect the brand or die trying. We’ll respond to the crisis using various simulated social networks, while a team of Polpeo employees works behind the scenes, replying to our communications in real time from a host of puppet accounts.

My mission is clear: I have to destroy them

They’re also scoring us using some arcane algorithms that never really get explained — all we know is that our goal is to keep our score above 0, where it starts. (Companies routinely score –8 in these simulations, Polpeo warns us.) I take a look around the room at the PR people sitting nearby, imagining them lying to me in some future real-world crisis. My mission is clear: I have to destroy them.

We log into Polpeo’s custom simulator. It’s not pretty, but it has a working clone of Twitter (called "Flipper") and of Facebook ("SocialNetwork"). When the simulation starts, we’ll receive alerts each time the plot thickens. And it does: In short order, our CEO is seen getting drunk at a bar, hitting on the women there. Someone sees him snorting cocaine, just as a reporter starts live blogging his behavior. And the crowd on Flipper quickly turns mean. For a time, we are paralyzed. "Does @Mitra even have a PR department?" a fake user of a fake social network sneers about my fake company. "Are they ALL off in a bar getting drunk?"

polpeo

(Polpeo)

It’s not immediately clear what we should do. We begin reading through all the tweets — er, "flips" — and wonder aloud about how we might respond to them. Tentatively, we type out cryptic messages to our followers: "We are aware of the situation," we keep telling them, in language that makes us sound strangely like we work for the Pentagon and are briefing the press about the latest events in Syria.

Littleton notices that our group has no leader, or direction, and suggests we pick one of each. We consider this, then resume our former strategy of just shouting at each other around the table.

We are in crisis.

In time, though, we develop a rough hierarchy. A woman named Angelique takes over community management, issuing tight-lipped replies and apologies to the users of the various social networks. A man named Suvesh volunteers to begin writing press releases. People are demanding information from us, and it falls to him to craft our response. "We need to answer the question without acknowledging the issue," Suvesh says. Clearly we have the right man for the job.

"Answer the question without acknowledging the issue."

Then our CEO’s intern girlfriend posts to our official SocialNetwork account saying she is "in amazeballs bar in Austin partying with my super hot man. Best boss in the world. Love you Lucian!" Deleting the comment will only lead to more news stories, but we do it anyway. I email the CEO asking him to explain himself. And I email SXSW telling them that we can no longer participate in the panel.

Our score rises from 0 to 1.6.

Mitra’s fake COO emails us saying everyone is jet-lagged from travel and just arriving in Austin, which we know to be a lie. I send him a strongly worded note — I have taken charge of executive relations — and ask him what we should put in the press release. Suvesh will write the press release, I tell my colleagues, but I want our fake COO to feel as if he is important. "I do that all the time," one of my colleagues in PR confides.

The simulator starts dinging us for not responding to people quickly enough. One of the community managers suggest we start responding faster — while using the frowny-face emoji. "It humanizes the brand," he says. And you know what? He’s right.

I'm starting to feel like I'm high

Without telling us, the COO gives an interview to a news site directing people to Jacobs’ panel the next day, which I had just canceled on his behalf. I send him a note worded so strongly that one teammate tells me I will probably be fired. "This is what they hired me for," I growl. "I’m going down with this ship."

I’m starting to feel like I’m high.

We need a statement from our CEO, but can’t reach him. Then I remember that we are in PR, and PR people can just make things up. So we write up a nice, contrite statement for the idiot and send it out to the press.

After 90 minutes, something truly exciting happens: a cookie break. We are supposed to use this time to relax and network. But my team, which turns out to be wonderfully devious, decides to work through it. I decide to take my lying game up to the next level and invent a helpful backstory for Lucian Jacobs. As soon as the simulation picks back up, our statements to the press all begin to include this line: "As you may recall, last year Lucian donated $10 million of his personal fortune to organizations supporting women in technology."

"I quit. I quit Mitra!"

No matter what we do, though, Jacobs’ hijinks are always one step ahead of our efforts to contain them. Suddenly I understand how it must feel to be Charlie Sheen’s publicist. By the time Jacobs is arrested for indecent exposure, one of my teammates collapses in a heap. "I quit," she says. "I quit Mitra!"

Two hours after we have begun, Littleton calls time. The scores are tabulated, and the red team — my team — has come in first place, with a score of 6.6. There are high fives all around as I look down at the losers at the adjoining tables, with their busted social strat and weak-ass emoji game. In the final fake news story about the crisis, I am referred to as a Mitra spokeswoman. I earned that title, and I wear it with pride.

Polpeo wrote up many brand-focused takeaways about their event, which you can read here if you like. As for me, I went into the simulation feeling quite skeptical, but left believing most big corporations will want to invest in drills like these. News really does move insanely fast on social media, and you might as well be prepared. Whether you’re a person or a business, you’re never more than one tweet away from total disaster. So it’s worth thinking about how you’ll respond when, inevitably, you say or do the wrong thing. Billion-dollar companies may still scoff at the idea of dropping everything to respond to some angry tweets — and yet if there’s anything we’ve learned online this decade, it’s that the vengeful mobs that form on social networks can be terribly effective.

My other big takeaway from social media crises: use the frowny-face emoji wherever you can. When your CEO is caught exposing himself in public, it really does go a long way.

Verge Video: Activating #brands at SXSW