Weathering Twitter Storms

I’m a bit of a veteran of the Twitter storm, having weathered two or three at the Royal Opera House. Opera North are in the middle of a humdinger this morning. Having read Lee Hall’s piece online yesterday, it seems that they are trapped between a rock and a hard place with the school and the LEA – but, and this is the crucial bit – the emotive nature of this story means it will run and run.

Sadly, the escalating nature of the buzz will probably mean that more time is spent “dealing with the story” than actually sorting out the issue – and that can often be the problem with these Twitter storms. They’re so active on the surface of things that they often just become PR problems to be washed away, rather than recognised as actual problems that need solving.

It’s also the case that opera companies are generally seen as public-funded bastions of wrong thinking that are generally ripe for a kicking, which doesn’t really help.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, my five-point guide to sorting it out:

1) Twitter works different hours to your Press Team

I know this is obvious, but these 140-character lot are an impatient bunch. In the old days, your Director of Press had a 12-24 hour grace period to bend the ear of The Guardian Arts Editor – but now, if you don’t get a response out in 30 minutes, you’re an abject cowardly failure. The minute you see the storm gather, put a comment out. Not a comment on the whole thing, but something that recognises the fact that you’re not exactly flavour of the month and that you’re “working on” a statement. If you have to wake up your Chief Executive to do this, it’s probably worth it. You can’t underestimate the speed at which one or two celebrity tweets can – and will – travel.

2) Get a Proper Statement Out

Obviously, your proper statement has to be a lot more considered than all the general hoo-ha. It will be quoted in newspapers and seen by funders, audience members and people who used to be fans. It will be ridiculed by lots of people who generally have nothing to do with you, but have decided to make a snap judgement of everything about your organisation. So I would make it short and to the point. It’s okay to say more later, when you know more. The worst thing to do is to be equivocal. And if you can make it seem as if it’s been written by an actual person, all the better. Emotions are likely to be running high at this stage, so make it clear that your organisation is staffed by Real People rather than Press Release Robots.

3) Be Open and Transparent

If you’re talking or consulting, tell people. If you’re getting the right words together for an apology, do the same. If you’ve been accused of something you haven’t done, say you haven’t done it. If there’s a real story, then tell the real story. The angry mob mentality is quite an extraordinary thing to behold, but – crucially – it can also be spectacularly forgiving. I mean, the Internet is made up of people, after all – and the great thing about Twitter, particularly, is that it’s an outlet for a hundred million different opinions. It can get homogenous at times, but it can also disperse the same way.

4) Learn

This is the best learning experience you will ever have about how to deal with social media. Although you might want to cry/tear your hair out/other bad things while dealing with more senior people in your organisation, this is really the moment you’ve been waiting for. Suddenly, the senior management team will be very engaged.

5) Don’t Crow

If it’s not happening to you, don’t crow. If you work at another arts organisation that is made up of more than about, say, four people, then it is only a matter of time before it does happen to you. And when it does, you’ll want your peers to be supportive, not stab you in the back. If the company in question has made bad artistic or legal or other decisions, then fair enough – they deserve it – but if they just haven’t managed to rally in the nano-timescale that Twitter demands, then cut them a bit of slack. Offer some help. Wait for the full story to emerge. Because then you get to be full of righteous indignation with the full facts at your disposal, and no one ever looked stupid for doing that.

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8 thoughts on “Weathering Twitter Storms

  1. This is a good piece, but given that the original story was on the Guardian – and i’m sure they would have approached ON for comment, I don’t think this is as much a surprise as some other twitter storms.

    However, I think the rest of your advice makes perfect sense.

  2. It is funny that you dismiss any argument made against Opera North as being reactionary or the the result of “angry mob mentality”. The problem with PR flacks (and I use that term with affection) is they often try and make things more complex than they really are.

    You say “wait for the facts to emerge” but the facts are clear. The LEA wanted the word “queer” out and Opera North didn’t stand by the writer as they should have done and tell the LEA the words are staying whether they like it or not. If the LEA or the school wants to write an Opera then let them get on with it. If not, back off a let the professionals deal with it.

    Instead they adopt the weak position of playing “mediator” whilst trampling all over the basic ideals of creativity, expression and freedom of speech and the freedom of people to hear that speech.

    This is a situation borne entirely of poor PR strategy. If you act weak then you are probably weak and you will get killed (figuratively speaking).

    1. @Article 19 – thanks for commenting. Just to clarify, I didn’t mean that any argument against Opera North was reactionary – more that the cascade of negative comments can take on that quality. If you watch any Twitter hashtag emerge, the tone takes on a certain unmistakable quality, whatever it’s about. Facts are out now, I think, but they weren’t first thing this morning, as the Twitter storm took hold. Not endorsing any ideological weakness on their behalf, just saying that facts can be twisted any way in the whiteheat of a Twitter fiasco. More a general comment on Twitter, rather than a particular comment on Opera North and their current predicament.

  3. Thanks very much for that timely and concise reminder about quality, social-networking, material-management. The only point (6) I could suggest is – should you need a poiny (6) is, “Don’t send the first 140 characters you thought of”.
    Excellent, please consider me an RC Blog follower.

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