Handling Little Miss Helpful

At the moment, my three year old is enjoying Roger Hargreaves’ Mister Men stories at bedtime. They’re bright, to-the-point moral stories about folk who take their everyday traits – clumsiness, noisyness, grumpiness – to extremes, until they get sorted out by their neighbours. One of our favourites is Little Miss Helpful, a lively character who always wants to help, but ends up making things worse:

Versions of Little Miss Helpful pop up from time to time in our role-play during crisis simulation exercises, as it can be a tricky character to manage: how well can an organisation politely but firmly direct a well-meaning customer or member of staff who is at risk of derailing the communications response in a crisis? Be too firm and you risk appearing rude, but leave them chattering away in social media and they’ll spread confusion and or waste the effort of responders. It’s a serious problem at organisational level too: well-meaning but poorly-coordinated charities have been hampering the crisis response this week in Vanuatu, following the disastrous cyclone.

When Little Miss (or at least as often, Mister) Helpful are within the organisation, it’s not necessarily easier to bring them into line. In recent months, we’ve role-played a range of staff characters merrily stepping into heated Twitter conversations to defend the brand, or doing ad-hoc Q&A with customers.

Many organisations are rightly investing effort in putting more of their employees in the front-line of their communications, since there’s evidence that doing so builds credibility. Some equip them with Twitter accounts or Facebook profiles so they can engage their own audiences, while others simply provide general encouragement to use social media for professional purposes under the guidance of a corporate social media policy. But when a crisis strikes, it’s a double-edged sword to have quite so many touchpoints for the organisation in social media – co-ordinating what your people are saying is vital.

So how can your in-house Little Miss Helpful be, well, helpful?

  1. Your social media policy is just the starting point: most teams we’ve worked with try to remind chatty staff about their obligations under the organisation’s social media policy. You need to be doing this consistently in peacetime as well as under pressure, and be able to point people to a clear set of house rules that doesn’t scare them off useful engagement online, but makes them aware of how their comments can be misinterpreted
  2. Human Resources has a new role in crisis comms: if you have a staff member dangerously off-message online in a crisis situation, HR needs to step in but much more quickly than they’re used to. Practice your ability to mobilise colleagues in HR under pressure to cascade messages to staff, deal with individual cases and address staff safety or welfare issues. Who’s on your speed dial at 03:00?
  3. Think internal as well as external: lots of teams focus almost exclusively on dealing with media enquiries in the first stages of an incident, and even the smarter ones tend to simply recycle the external statement as an all-staff email. Internal communications is going through a revolution and your crisis plan needs to recognise that your messaging and monitoring (which of your staff is chatting about work in social media, anyway?) needs an internal dimension, alongside the external one, or staff will assume they’re being kept in the dark
  4. Give your ambassadors something to say: likewise, a bland corporate statement gives your staff little to work with when talking to stakeholders, friends or colleagues. As more individuals adopt social media as a key professional tool, you’ll find them wanting something to say that goes beyond platitudes (after all, their Twitter followers expect more humanity and insight from them). Brief them with sensible advice to give, how to manage expectations and signpost people to sources of help, and get them to spread the word for you.

In the story, poor Little Miss Helpful ends up stuck with a saucepan on her foot and her unlucky friend goes flying into a pond. With the right encouragement and direction, your helpful characters can be genuinely useful, and stay dry.