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Social media command centres
Tuesday, 06 November 2012 03:28

Listen on command

Social command centres are springing up everywhere, helping brands to cope with crisis and speak to audiences. Andrew Thomas investigates

On 21 June automated payment systems at RBS crashed, leaving millions of NatWest, Ulster Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland customers unable to access their own money. The problem lasted for a week, during which time NatWest’s press office witnessed a storm of negative coverage, both on social media channels and in traditional print and broadcast media. Followers of its Twitter helpdesk account, @NatWest_help, increased from 2500 to nearly 8000.

Oct cover_1.jpgAlmost all the comments were negative. Worse, many of the traditional print titles picked up the Twitter stories, quoting them verbatim. News channels contacted Twitter users, repeating the tragedies – of customers unable to post bail, unable to travel from remote locations – that had been first broadcast over social media.

It was clear from the outset that NatWest was unprepared for the social media tsunami that resulted from the systems failure. The first personalised, but somewhat bland, response came five hours after the initial tweet. A few hours later, at 5pm, whoever looked after the Twitter feed finished work for the day. The account responded with automated tweets. Further demonstrating that it was totally ill equipped to handle a social media crisis, NatWest carried on in this manner throughout the period of disruption. Whilst branches opened over the weekend to help inconvenienced customers, the NatWest Twitter account remained unmanned.

Three weeks later, on 11 July, mobile phone company O2 experienced similar problems. Its network crashed and, like NatWest, it was unable to deliver its core service. As with NatWest its customers, those not left stranded without 3G or broadband connectivity, took to Twitter. O2 became the hottest topic in the Twittersphere, with new followers increasing from an average of 155 per day to 13,500 each day for the two days the network was down.

There the similarity ends. Understandably, tweets were frustrated and angry. Some were even threatening. But O2 was prepared for this crisis. A core team of 15 people, split between Leeds and Slough, was primed and ready in the company’s social media command centres. O2 responded quickly, honestly and, at times, with humour.

Even in the midst of the crisis, many customers were tweeting with positive sentiment. Both national and trade press picked up on O2’s response, with the Guardian’s Technology correspondent, Charles Arthur, commenting that the “team had rapidly gained the admiration of the watching hordes” and Mobile News magazine noting how O2 had been quick to appease its customers.

According to Alex Pearmain, head of PR and social media at O2, such an outcome would not have been possible if it had merely relied on the monitoring software solutions available. O2 had launched previously a social media command centre in 2010. “We are a consumer brand, and we need to hear what customers are saying” says Pearmain. “Social is the fastest and most thorough method of doing this”.

For O2, it’s also the most analytical method. CEO Ronan Dunne is said to be passionate about social, and the social culture is very much driven by senior management. Pearmain’s team was already producing weekly insights reports. During the crisis these escalated to hourly reports. O2 was able to gauge customer, media and other stakeholder sentiment in near-real time.


"We were able to gauge the scale and impact of the problem... and then shape the right response"


O2’s social media strategy had been put to the test, and passed. Less than a week after the incident a YouGov poll showed that 71% of its customers still believed O2 was a good network despite the outage. Pearmain believes that a large part of the brand recovery was down to the physical social media centre. “We were able to gauge the scale and impact of the problem,” he said, “and it gave us a sense of what was actually bothering each person. It also enabled us to shape the right response.”

Whilst careful not to name names, Pearmain is critical of organisations, like NatWest, which aren’t ready to face a social media crisis. “Companies need to be familiar with analysing data in this way. In the event of any crisis they won’t be able to suddenly switch it on.”

What seems to differentiate the command centre approach from the more traditional monitoring software solutions is that the centre is not just about listening. A key driver to O2’s success has been the way that the command centre has been aligned to business units. According to Pearmain O2 sees its command centre as a service to the whole business: it wasn’t established for a single purpose.

Multiple areas of the business were involved, and the original motivation behind its launch had nothing to do with pre-emptive crisis management. “The primary purposes behind our social media listening centre were product development, tariffing, refining a product range etc.” says Pearmain. “By aligning social media with the brands and the business units it isn’t treated as a separate, divorced, social media department. People who understand customer service, brand marketing, strategy and so on sit within social media, so the function is not marginalised from the business needs of O2.”

Crisis management is an obvious use for social media command centres, but for most companies it’s not normally the primary reason for establishing them. Tech giant, Cisco Systems, instigated their centres for similar reasons to O2, seeing it as an opportunity to work social media listening into a more integrated approach, and to provide themselves with an opportunity for talking to all their stakeholders with a single voice.

According to Charlie Treadwell, Cisco’s social and digital marketing manager, “We’re a large, complicated organisation, and not every response is the same; no one person has all of the answers. The command centre allows for a group of trained strategists to collaborate and triage conversations.”

As well as its size and geographical spread, it was the organisation’s complexity that drew Cisco to exploring a more engaging social media solution. With over 100 different Cisco-branded Twitter feeds, users were sometimes complaining to the wrong department without realising.

“All stakeholders ever care about it is getting their issue resolved” says Treadwell. “We help coordinate these conversations and engage with a large network of social media professionals, together with support, legal, PR, and subject matter experts.”

Cisco has taken its command centre approach to the next level. As well as its permanent centre, it creates pop-up listening centres to coincide with most major external events Cisco hosts. According to Treadwell, some of these events have tens of thousands of attendees, with countless more watching and responding to social conversations worldwide.


“It was very difficult to forecast how big the buzz was going to be. Or the potential of any crisis.”


The most notable of these took place during the Olympics. Cisco was a main sponsor of London 2012. The command centre was a way to gain insight on sentiment, be prepared for a crisis, and assist in marketing around the games. Although the company was already using pop-up centres, one of the initial challenges was in understanding the scale of what was needed, and subsequently the logistics of setting up the London 2012 centre.

“Nothing had been done on this scale before” claims Amr Elrawi, Cisco’s digital marketing programme manager, and the man tasked with creating the Cisco London 2012 social media command centre.

“At the beginning, we didn’t know whether we wanted 10 people or 50 people” says Elrawi, laughing. “It was very difficult to forecast how big the buzz was going to be. Or the potential of any crisis.”

Cisco settled on a core team of 25. Of these, seven were based in the UK, reporting into a London-based European hub. Staff in France, Spain and Germany reported into the same hub. The rest of the team was in Brazil, the USA and China, reporting into California and Beijing.

The language barrier was another challenge. Cisco listened to Twitter, blogs, video platforms, websites, forums, public postings on Facebook and comments on traditional print and broadcast sites. Listening activity went round-the-clock, and the Cisco team followed conversations in 11 languages: English, Mandarin, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Arabic, German, Dutch and Russian.

When asked about the outcome of this activity, Elrawi laughs again. “This was the Olympics. For everyone involved sentiment was positive. There was no crisis.”

However, one of the areas Cisco monitored was ambush marketing. It had devised a three tier procedure to protect itself from other competing brands which were capitalising on the Olympic brand without investing in sponsorship.

Depending on the scale of the organisation, the first stage brought it to the attention of the marketers. “Some organisations are too small to be of concern and taking further steps would have given them the publicity they wanted” says Elrawi. If the brand was big enough and marketing felt justified in pushing it further, then Cisco’s legal department would get involved, before finally raising it with LOCOG. Because marketing and legal strategists were part of the team at the command centre, Cisco was able to act very quickly. Elrawi won’t be drawn into naming names, but conceded that they identified “15 to 20 ambushes, with two or three” going all the way to the LOCOG stage.

When the athletes went home, Cisco dismantled its pop-up command centre and the staff resumed their regular roles. According to Jeff Cann, from monitoring software firm Sysomos, the trend of pop-up command centres is on the rise. “To date it has been larger B2C organisations that have led the way in setting up command centres,” he says, “but sporting events, political events and man-made or natural disasters are all examples of situations that warrant command centre style monitoring.”

Cann stresses that a common factor for most organisations who establish command centres is the need for fast response rates.

“It’s the ability to gain real-time intelligence in non-branded topical areas that allows organisations to react quickly and understand trends or situations,” he says. “Clearly, reacting quickly can make a dramatic impact in comms.”


“Being in a smart room with wall-mounted screens and smoked glass walls doesn’t make any difference if the company culture doesn’t change.”


Gaining real time intelligence, however, isn’t enough. O2’s Alex Pearmain once again emphasises the importance of aligning the command centre to the business strategy. “Gathering information for its own sake is useless,” he says. “It’s the insight the information can provide that is invaluable.”

It isn’t just the insight that’s important. “It’s critical that brands implement strategy first and develop a listening and engaging narrative before building a command centre,” says Treadwell, adding: “If they don’t they risk finding themselves in the middle of a crisis situation with no plan of attack. That could cause more problems than they had when they started.”

There are a number of companies producing off-the-shelf products for use in social media command centres. The overall sentiment however is that a command centre needs more than a single platform. Cisco used the Radian6 platform for the London 2012 command centre, but according to Elrawi, “you can’t rely on any specific overall view, you have to dig deeper to focus on conversations.” O2 created a completely proprietary system, integratec with its CRM system.

In America, command centres such as those at Dell and the American Red Cross have the look and feel of a political thriller about them, with subdued lighting and matt black large flat screens. Indeed, the Dell social media command centre saw over 25,000 people watch the YouTube video of its launch. British social media command centres are a bit more Get Carter, all fluorescent strip lights, and laminate flooring. What they do share, however, is a sizeable number of personnel.

But as command centres become more popular, so smaller scale concepts are being tried. Cann has helped clients build virtual command centres, where a common view is shared across multiple people and departments, and is accessible at any location. Cann believes it is about the way the company operates internally, rather than the physical structure of the department. “If teams have the ability to review and monitor together, even if remotely from their own PC’s, they can collaborate and make decisions much more quickly.”

Despite the size of O2’s command centre, Pearmain also believes it goes beyond dedicated staff resourcing. “Being in a smart room with wall-mounted screens and smoked glass walls doesn’t make any difference if the company culture doesn’t change.”