In the wake of the debacle known as Solyndra Solar, it is more clear than ever that cleantech companies need a green PR crisis management plan that includes social media. Just like its executives refused comment in court, Solyndra Solar has gone dark on social media. The resulting free-for-all on Solyndra Solar’s abandoned Facebook company page is a social media fire and brimstone that I’ve never before witnessed. It is a green PR failure significant enough to argue that Solyndra Solar would’ve been better off if it had never tried it’s hand at social media at all.
No big deal you may say, this is moot since Solyndra Solar is going under. Not so, because Solyndra’s obvious lack of a social media crisis management plan has caused immeasurable damage to other solar companies, and to the renewable energy movement in general. This is a case study on what not to do in the midst of a PR crisis, especially for companies in controversy-fraught industries like cleantech.
Questions that all social media strategists should ask themselves include: should I leave the wall of my company’s Facebook page wide open and allow anyone to post content, including comments about my company’s brand? Should my community manager be required to approve all outside comments before they go live on the wall? Or, should I allow comments only on the strategic posts that my community manager makes? They should also be asking themselves how the sharing status of the wall fits into a green PR crisis management strategy.
Although most companies only allow comments on posts by the community manager, leaving the wall wide open can bear fruit. At best, an open wall can stimulate positive conversations that arise organically—brands will benefit from the increased engagement. Just like in real life, consumers using social media are more likely to be influenced by each other than by a company representative. So as long as the environment remains positive, leaving a wall open can be part of a sound social media and green PR strategy. It can also be beneficial to resource-strapped companies that have less time to post content themselves. But even the smallest companies should have a social media crisis management plan in place if they opt for an open wall.
An open wall is also associated with a number of serious risks. Communications may become convoluted with posts on too many different topics, and brand messages will become diluted. Fans may be exposed to irrelevant content, including from competing companies who take advantage of the open wall and post their own information. Even if there’s no crisis to manage, irrelevant content will eventually lead fans to tune out the company’s updates in their activity stream, and some fans will even revoke their status as a fan of the company page. At best, this poor management makes for a waste of company resources, but for Solyndra Solar, it has been devastating. Green PR strategists, take heed.
For companies choosing to leave the wall open (or doing so unwittingly), all of this can easily be avoided if the community manager actively moderates discussions by approving all comments before they go public on the wall. This is as simple as checking a box in the preferences for a company page, but many green pr strategists do not know to take this vital step. Dangerously, the default setting is to allow posts and comments everywhere and by anyone (Facebook is all about sharing, right?).
Such was the case with Solyndra Solar, its wall was open and unmoderated. Even before it declared bankruptcy, Solyndra Solar was a highly politicized company that was subject to much scrutiny and criticism because it benefited from a controversial government loan guarantee to the tune of $535M, and because the public is already polarized about cleantech. If any company should have a social media crisis management plan, it should be Solyndra Solar.
Following its declaration of bankruptcy, all order of hell broke loose on the Facebook company page. Maybe the Facebook community manager was one of the 1100 people laid off by Solyndra Solar. In any case, it is an epic green PR failure that no one closed the company page to posts and comments before walking away. Cleantech haters—and there are many—are having a field day.
At the time of this posting, there are literally thousands of disparaging remarks on Solyndra Solar’s Facebook company page. It is clear that there has been a bandwagon effect, with scornful comments begetting more and more scathing remarks. Although some criticisms are justified, the conversation is anything but fair and balanced (let alone constructive). As chaos reigns, one profiteer is even advertising on the page itself a mocking T-shirt that has the Solyndra logo with the Obama administration’s logo cleverly superimposed. If I had time to review all the posts and comments, I suspect I would find worse.
Solyndra Solar is reaping what it has sowed, and you might even argue that it deserves this treatment. To be clear, I am in no way defending Solyndra Solar (although perhaps they should be considered innocent until proven guilty). Rather, I am concerned because what is happening on that Facebook wall is damaging to solar energy, to the renewable energy movement, and to cleantech in general. Every malicious posting on Facebook, and every follow-up comment, is broadcast far and wide across thousands of social graphs, eventually reaching hundreds of thousands of people. Information that is at least extremely biased, if not altogether inaccurate, is being broadcast, and extremely negative comments often get extra attention on Facebook. Solyndra Solar has gone completely dark, and it appears that even the most die-hard solar advocates do not dare speak up with facts. It is true that they would likely be rebuked if they were to do so. This is a sad day for green pr.
In leaving its wall open following its declaration of bankruptcy, Solyndra Solar provided an open forum that actually encouraged this PR disaster, and this was extremely irresponsible. If Solyndra Solar could not afford to keep someone on in order to moderate the discussion (the best practice in social media crisis management) it should have at least closed the wall to public commenting. Most of the people who were inspired to make negative comments would’ve kept their thoughts to themselves. If you are listening Solyndra Solar, please get on Facebook and deal with the situation before more damage is done. And don’t cop out by just deleting the company page, like you have done with twitter. You missed a major opportunity for damage control when you did that. And to other companies, let this be a lesson in the importance of social media crisis management as part of a green pr strategy.
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