Dealing with a social media crisis

When delivering social media workshops by far the most common concern I hear is around the fear of a social media crisis. There's a belief that it only takes a small typo or a simple mistake to lead to the equivalent of a PR meltdown. I've seen clients go into panic over a slightly passive aggressive tweet from a user. Suddenly everyone is running around like headless chickens, worried they're going to end up a laughing stock on Buzzfeed.

Instead, as with any customer service centre, any face-to-face conversation, it's important to get perspective. If a single customer comes with a complaint, or has a one-off faulty product, this isn't a crisis - this requires a calm response, and there should be a standard procedure. 

So, the most important part of knowing how to deal with a crisis is to understand: 

What is a social media crisis?

There are three defining characteristics to a crisis:

  1. A social media crisis has information asymmetry. When the company does not know any more than the public about what’s going on. When your plane lands in the Hudson River, and you start seeing images of it on Twitter, that’s information asymmetry – the first sign of a social media crisis.
  2. A social media crisis is a decisive change from the norm. Nike (and now Apple) are routinely criticized for labour practices. Social chatter about that is ongoing and expected, however. That’s not a crisis. When a markedly different line of criticism occurs, that’s the second sign of a social media crisis.
  3. A social media crisis has a potentially material impact on the company overall. Somebody tweeting that Subway left mustard off their sandwich isn’t a crisis. A robbery at a Subway is. Scope and scale is the sign of a social media crisis.

If it doesn't fit these, then it is not a crisis. That doesn't mean you ignore it, but it also means that it doesn't need to be elevated straight to the top, and worried about. It has a completely different approach - and you should have a planned response for these types of queries. 

How do you spot a social media crisis?

So, you know what a crisis is now, but that's only of use if you can identify it when it happens. It’s essential that the correct protocols and systems are in place to ensure that you aren’t caught short - Lifeguard mode. There are three elements to this:

Dog in lifejacket
  1. Hearing aid – ensure you have a listening tool to keep an eye on activity and conversations. This could be a system such as Social Bakers – or a mix of Facebook notifications and Tweetdeck, for example.
  2. Listening Protocol – listening tools are only as good as their operators: Who is listening? What are they listening for? What times are they listening? What channels is this person monitoring? Is weekend or night cover needed at present? Make sure you have these appropriately defined. 
  3. Internal Alert – communicating crises internally is just as important as the external response. Generally, the more acute the issue, the more senior the responder. Make sure that you understand where to go for different types of crises – and that you have all necessary emergency contact information. You should consider where the legal team needs to be involved as well. 

OK, so, you've spent time preparing and you're ready. Then the unfortunate occurs. What now?

How to manage a social media crisis


When a crisis has been identified there are eight steps to follow:

Acknowledge – your first response should always be along the lines of “yes, we realize something has happened” even if you have ZERO answers. This will stem the tide of “hey company, did you know?” messages.

Respond on the source channel – Once you have some information, you should respond first in the venue where the crisis first broke. If the crisis initiated on Facebook, respond first on Facebook. Then circle around and respond in other venue that have picked up on the crisis.

Be sorry – don’t underestimate the audience’s capacity to forgive. Be forthcoming and humble and you might be forgiven too.

Create a Crisis FAQ – create a public page that provides a full response to the crisis in one place. This saves times and prevents misinterpretation of your responses (especially on Twitter). This should include:

  • Acknowledgement of the crisis
  • Details about the occurrence
  • Photos or videos, if available
  • How the company found out
  • Who was alerted, when, and how
  • Specific actions taken in response
  • Real or potential effects
  • Steps taken to prevent future occurrence
  • Contact information for real people at the company

Build a Pressure Relief Valve – this may sound surprising but you want people to vent on a venue you control. Whether it’s Facebook, a forum, blog or comments section, you want ire to accumulate on your turf. There are four benefits:

  • It allows you to keep more of the conversation in a single venue, making it easier to track
  • It’s an early warning detection system for new dimensions of the crisis
  • It gives customers an official place to come to your defence
  • You can more easily set the rules

If you do not proactively provide a pressure relief valve, complainants will create their own, giving you no recourse or control whatsoever.

Know when to take it offline – Do not get in an online tit for tat, ever (and certainly not in a crisis scenario). Keyboards embolden us all, and sometimes the best course of action is to offer your phone number or email address, and encourage the troll to contact you that way. Will it take the kettle off boil? Sometimes, but even if it doesn’t the rest of the community sees that you went the extra mile and provided an olive branch. That matters. Crisis management is a spectator sport.

Remember the rule of 3. Never send a third reply. A third reply is an argument, not an answer. On the third reply, you take it offline.

Arm your army – Keep all employees informed about the crisis as well as the response. Ensure they are fully prepared in case customers use indirect channels to find out information.

Learn your lessons – After the crisis subsides, and you’ve dried the tears off your laptop, reconstruct and deconstruct the crisis. Document every facet:

  • Make copies of all tweets, status updates, blog comments, etc.
  • Make copies of all emails
  • Analyse website traffic patterns
  • Analyse search volume patterns
  • Where did the crisis break, and when? Where did it spread, and how?
  • How did your internal notification work?
  • How did your response protocol work?
  • Did specific customers rise to your defence? (Thank them!)
  • Were your employees informed?
  • How did the online crisis intersect with offline coverage (if any)

This post was based and informed by Convince & Convert