Overcoming a Social Media Crisis in Three Days or Less

Social media crises have become a regular part of daily life. Whether it’s a hack, a post published by mistake, or a negative review, a bad day can become nightmarish as a social network spreads the story at lightning speed. 

The best way to manage a negative public relations incident or negative viral social media activity is to be prepared by planning ahead. But let’s be honest: that’s easier said than done.  Each situation, each brand and each social channel is different and brands must adjust accordingly.

However, it is possible to have a plan of action for when things do head south.

Why I’m Writing This Post

I’ve helped multiple clients navigate challenging social media crises. In each case, something we couldn’t have possibly avoided sprung up unexpectedly. It makes for a rough couple days, but each time we were able to snuff out the problem in less than 3 days.

The steps I’ve outlined below are a result of the lessons learned during these experiences. Each time, we took notes so the entire incident could be recorded and learned from. Now, I’d like to share some of the insights I’ve gleaned with you.

Step 1: Be a Good Business

The best way to manage a crisis is to prevent it from starting in the first place, so the best advice I can give is to do the things great businesses always do. This is honestly your best defense when it comes to surviving a crisis. It really boils down to an ongoing focus on your brand identity and experience.

Some action items:

Hire good people you trust. Whether it’s a VP of Marketing, a part-time social media manager, or a third-party agency, having good people in place will make all the difference in a tense situation.

Lead by example and clearly communicate expectations to your staff before, during and after a crisis.

Respect your customers, and take the time to understand what it is they value about your brand in the first place. This understanding will drastically increase your communications’ effectiveness, and respect for your customers will also keep you honest and make it easier to apologize, if needed.

Give equal respect to your own brand values, too. How your brand handles a negative situation will speak volumes, so make sure you’re true to the underlying “why” of what drives your business. If that means apologizing, then so be it. If it means sticking to your guns, then do it—and you will ultimately earn respect back from your most loyal customers because of it.

Focus on the positive. Always remember that you’ll never get your brand mentions to 100% positive sentiment. It’s just not possible, but sometimes it is possible to drown out all the negativity. In his book, Word of Mouth Marketing, Andy Sernovitz refers to this as "the solution to pollution is dilution." He argues that brands in these situations don't have a negative WOM problem—they have a not-enough-positive-WOM problem. A great example he references is Toyota's response to their recall crisis a few years back. They created a full campaign around The Swagger Wagon, which included user-generated content, and it basically drown out all of the negative comments on the other topic. The ole bait and switch.

Another awesome example of a brand taking negativity in stride is Honey Maid. After receiving a lot of hateful feedback from a commercial about non-traditional families, they printed out all the negative comments and turned them into art:

Step 2: Learn From Other Brands’ Mistakes

A social media marketer’s biggest fear is having a negative story blow up on a brand’s page. When things like this happen you’ll inevitably hear people say things like, “some intern’s getting fired over this one!” – and in many cases they might be right. (Might not always be an intern, though!)

As these brands have shown us, a social media crisis can take many forms. Here are just a few examples:

  • Brands inviting criticism after joining a hashtag conversation without understanding the context (as in DiGiorno making light of domestic violence with #WhyIStayed)
  • Ad campaigns getting ripped to shreds (like when Pepsi’s infamous protest ad united the Internet)
  • Poor customer service going viral (as in the United Airlines Twitter video that sparked global outrage)
  • Negative comments or reviews snowballing into big news stories (like when two employees at Cincinnati’s MOTR Pub got the axe)
  • Social media managers posting something to a corporate account without realizing it (like the U.S. Justice Department’s surprising Tweet that ended with a poetic “lmao #petty”)
  • Brand accounts getting hacked (like when the Crayola Facebook page shared explicit comics captioned “If Disney Was For Adults”)

As social media strategists, we need to put ourselves in these brands’ shoes. Consider what you would need to do differently if a similar situation happened on your watch.

Step 3: Don’t Create the Crisis Yourself

One of the common features of the examples listed above? Most of the brands created the crisis that ultimately blew up in their face.

While that may not be comforting, it does indicate that proper precautions can help you avoid the mess altogether. Here are some steps content creators and social managers should always take:

Understand context. Be sure you “get” what a hashtag or a topic is about completely before joining any trending conversation. No one wants to write the apology Tweet, so take time to research a trending subject before jumping in.

Proofread. Read your posts multiple times before hitting “schedule” or “publish.” If possible, ask a colleague to look it over so you have multiple chances to catch issues. Typo-catching plugins like Grammarly can help, too.

Don’t engage trolls. While passionate social media managers usually want to do everything possible to keep brand mentions positive online, this tendency can sometimes lead to falling into a troll’s traps. Address issues that need to be addressed, but be careful not to get baited into drawn-out arguments. (See Apple’s brilliant “Bendgate” response as an example.)

Drive negative conversations offline. When possible, ask those who have sent negative comments or reviews to reach out directly via phone or email (or private message on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter). This shows other users that the brand is taking steps to address the issue while also decreasing the likelihood of more negative comments in a lengthy online back-and-forth.

Step 4: Be Ready With a Plan

To stay ahead of the game, it’s immensely helpful if your team has a framework for addressing a negative situation on social media. With these steps in your back pocket, you can save valuable time in addressing and minimizing the fallout when a crisis strikes.

1. Identify the issue and investigate the accusations.

Before you do anything, try to gain as complete an understanding of the crisis and the context in which it’s happening as possible. If it’s a situation where users are posting negative comments about your service, product, or employees, try to figure out if the accusations are true.

2. Let your audience know you’re investigating.

Preferably within one hour, make a statement on social media that the company is looking into the situation and will address the community in more detail when it has all the facts. Post this statement on all your social platforms.

3. Suspend all normally scheduled posts.

One of the most frustrating things that can happen during a social media crisis is forgetting that your light-hearted GIF is cued to publish. Do yourself a favor and pause all your scheduled posts before it’s too late.

4. Alert your team.

Immediately send a company-wide email and make phone calls to alert key personnel that a potentially damaging event is taking place: “Crisis management communication protocol has been activated.”

At the same time, identify one person who will serve as the spokesperson for the company. Any staff members who receive inquiries from the press or public should direct that person to contact the spokesperson, and the staffer should provide the person with the spokesperson’s contact information. No one else should offer comments (online or verbally) regarding the incident. Your brand’s message needs to be consistent, and that consistency is way easier to achieve if there’s one person responsible for the communications.

5. Start responding to comments.

Designate someone to begin responding to all the comments on social media. Make the responses personal and sign them with the name of the spokesperson. These shouldn’t feel “canned” or sound like they were written by the PR guy. At the same time, avoid getting baited into a discussion or a debate. In fact, it’s usually a safe bet to commit to responding to each person just once and avoiding the temptation to resolve an issue that likely can’t be resolved with a simple exchange on social media.

6. Post an official statement.

When you’re ready, post an official statement as the brand. This needs to happen the same day the issue is identified, if possible. Consult legal counsel if necessary. Include your plans for addressing the situation, and thank everyone for their support. Only offer an apology if the company has actually done something wrong. That said, show genuine empathy without getting weighed down by legal jargon or a generic, inclusive update.

7. Stop responding to individual comments.

Let the community continue to have a discussion but, now that your official statement is out there, it’s probably a good time to take a step back. The goal now is to let the event play out and resolve itself so you can return to business as usual.

If comments turn ugly, you can hide and/or block individuals.

8. Monitor the situation closely.

Begin hiding the really offensive posts. If a commenter is repeatedly posting offensive comments, you may decide to ban that person from the page. Your plan should include basic criteria for banning/hiding (profanity, threats, etc.). If any comment does not meet your criteria, leave it up, even if it portrays the company negatively. The brand should not be seen as trying to hide anything.

9. Resume regular posting.

You should decide when to resume regular posting based on the severity of the situation. Resume publishing scheduled posts only when the crisis has passed and there are few, if any, comments coming in related to the negative event.

10. Review, reflect, and breathe.

Document the timeline of events for future reference and do a post-action review to see what you did well, what could be improved, and what to do differently next time.

Then take a deep breath, and congratulate yourself on making it through!

Over to you.

These steps may seem obvious, but obvious decisions can become clouded when you’re under pressure, stressed and tired. So keep these tips handy so you have them ready at a moments’ notice.

What tips did I miss? Let me know in the comments!