When the Library Cat gets Fired

OK, unless you’re been living under a rock, you probably know the tale of Browser, the library cat who lives in the unfortunately-named town of White Settlement, Texas. (why the name of the town didn’t spark a spinoff social media crisis is an intriguing question to my critical theorist side, but, alas, is outside the scope of this website). From what I understand of the story, a town employee wished to bring their pet to work, and after permission was denied, a city councilman responded with a motion evicting all animals from city property either as a form of retaliation or out of concern for public health (depending on who tells the tale). Ten years ago, this brouhaha would have gotten as little attention as the failed 2005 vote to change the town’s name. (Seriously— “WHITE SETTLEMENT”?!?! ) However…cats + libraries + petty small-town political maneuvering= social media explosion. The story soon went viral, and after a week or so of negative press coverage from around the world, Browser’s “job” was saved. Cat lovers and town residents without animal dander allergies rejoiced.

If you can’t tell, I am a slight bit jaded about this week’s library teapot tempest, but it gives me an excellent excuse to talk for a little bit about how to deal with the sorts of viral public relations crises that can crop up for good, bad, or stupid reasons in the age of social media. PR Crisis management is one of those things that hasn’t changed much in principle over the years, although issues like this can now explode onto the public consciousness in minutes, rather than days. The consolation, of course, is that everyone not directly involved forgets just as quickly. (Remember the fine details of the Cecil the Lion controversy? How about last year’s Starbucks holiday cups? Yeah, me neither.) However, whether the cause of the firestorm is a city council battle over a library pet or a local Youtube star “exposing” boxes of weeded books out by the trash dumpster, you need a plan that can be implemented rapidly. I saved you some time, dug around some of the best articles on managing social media crises, and put together the list of items that should be part of every library’s social media PR crisis response.

  1. Keep an eye on social media. There are a variety of tools out there that can alert you to surges in chatter about your library. The best (and cheapest) for your purposes is probably Hootsuite. In addition to scheduling your own posts to facebook, twitter, and the other major social media platforms, you can also save searches for relevant keywords and hashtags. By simply pulling up the hootsuite tab on a coffee break, you can get a quick idea of whether there’s any good or bad chatter that you should respond to. Also, just like you have a librarian who works evenings and weekends, have them keep an eye on social media, and empower them to respond if necessary.
  2. Don’t Panic. I’m not just including this step as a tribute to the late, great Douglas Adams (though I’ll admit it’s a nice touch). Panic leads people to make dumb, defensive tweets, delete angry comments en masse, or do other idiotic things that make the library look worse than it needs to. When you see a social media storm on the horizon, and it appears to be the sort of thing that needs a response (rule 2 ½ is probably “pick your battles”), take a deep breath, jot down the key facts, and draft your response. That said…
  3. Act Promptly. A few months back, I witnessed a social media explosion over a rather epic customer service fail by a casual dining chain that shall remain nameless (not for those idiots’ protection, but out of respect for the anonymity of the person involved). The event that sparked the firestorm went down on a Saturday at lunch time, and a video was getting shared all over facebook by 3:00. However, nobody at this RESTAURANT CHAIN apparently checked their facebook page on weekends. You know, the time of week when most people go out to eat? By Monday afternoon the chain apologized for the aforemention epic fail and offered compensation to the people involved, but I’ll never forget shaking my head in awe at the brand damage done by a single idiotic waiter at a single branch of a national restaurant chain because nobody in the marketing department bothered to turn on page notifications on their phone. It’s fine to take a moment to collect yourself, but you also need to take swift decisive action. The most impressive example of this I found was KitchenAid, who responded a mere 8 minutes after a soon-to-be-former social media staffer accidentally put an offensive personal tweet on the corporate account.
  4. Balance policy and empathy in your response. The world is (at least theoretically) watching your response to the crisis facing your library. If you handle this well, you actually have the ability to turn a challenge into a Public Relations win. State as clearly what happened, how, and why, and explain what actions (if appropriate) you are taking to resolve the situation. However, it’s also important to remember that the people responding to this crisis are, well, people, not a mindless social media mob. Responding to a social media crisis, on reflection, is pretty similar to a difficult conversation with a dissatisfied patron. If you haven’t already checked out my free course on mastering difficult conversations (complete with conversation scripts!), you might well find some tips that would be useful to this situation. However, some things have to be handled differently. Requesting to take a discussion offline after the second reply to an unhappy poster not only makes the situation less of a spectacle (as noted in this handy article), it helps the library look like the good guys.
  5. Debrief and assess. After the smoke clears, it’s time to look over everything that happened to identify any lessons to learn. Read over the threads, and the screen shots of any deleted posts and comments (side note–screencap EVERY comment before you delete it, no matter how nasty or abusive. Your organization’s records management policy might even require this.). Then talk through what happened, and tweak your social media response plan to better handle the next crisis. Because as surely as cat pictures drive likes and shares, sooner or later you will have another social media crisis.

I hope I’ve provided a good action plan for your difficult social media conversations! Again, if you haven’t explored my Mastering Difficult Conversations mini-course, I get into some issues there that might pertain to this issue. You’ll also get my weekly newsletter, bonus content unavailable on the website, podcast, or facebook group, and some surprises here and there. Check it out if you haven’t. And don’t forget—the Better Library Leaders podcast launches on Tuesday! If you’re an iTunes person, you can subscribe now and get early access to my pilot mini-episode. 🙂  And I think that’s enough plugging for now. Time to make sure my own social media ducks are in a row for Tuesday’s launch. Talk to you soon!

PS—Libraries owning cats is the second dumbest trend I’ve seen libraries embrace during my 11 years in the profession. The dumbest , in my opinion, is still Second Life (I say this as a former Second Life “Librarian”).

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