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.
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.