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Social media crisis management: What you need to prepare

You never know when your brand’s turn in the social media crosshairs may come. Just ask the PR teams for United Airlines and Pepsi. And in an era where a mean tweet from President Trump can send stocks tumbling, it’s never been more imperative to prepare.

PCI’s Director of Digital Strategy Grant Fuller authored a version of this article, which originally appeared in the Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing (Fall 2016, copyright Henry Stewart Publications).

The old world

Ten years ago, when faced with a crisis, a company would activate a phone tree, mobilize a task force, pull together a press conference, stay on message and get back to business. It was pretty much a one-way street: That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.

Megaphone of thunder and lightning

Fast forward to 2017. Facebook, which in 2007 was just beginning to expand beyond college campuses, has more than 1.6 billion users. Instagram, non-existent 10 years ago, has bolted to the front of an increasingly crowded social media pack. Twitter somehow convinced the world – and world leaders – to communicate 140 characters at a time, and the hashtags it pioneered are now pervasive in the advertising we see every day. YouTube was still in its infancy in 2007; today, it is the second largest search engine after Google.

Are public relations and marketing on the cusp of a digital revolution? Forget the cusp — the revolution is behind us. Time to adapt to a new reality.

Technological advancement has been so rapid over the past decade that every industry and element of business has felt its impact. Crisis management is no exception. With a flood of new tools that help teams communicate, collaborate, organize and execute digital strategies faster and more efficiently, the ultimate effect on crisis response has been to make it simultaneously more straightforward and more complicated.

This decade has also witnessed the birth of the smartphone and a world of applications to go with it, the first real forays into wearable technology, tablet computers with touch-screens and detachable keyboards, the journey of blogs from prominence to obscurity and back again, and the emergence of a landscape where decisions are driven by Big Data.

But perhaps the most significant change-maker of all? Social media.

In the context of a crisis, social media makes everything louder and more severe. It amplifies the problem at the speed of light. Imagine a giant megaphone that spits out faster lightning and louder thunder. That’s what social media does.

Once a crisis hits social media, it takes on a life of its own, spreading like an epidemic. Everything a company says or does online in response to that crisis will either spread the epidemic or help rein it in.

Of course, it’s important to react appropriately in the digital space to issues that arise in real life — an accidental death on company property, for example. But crises can also emanate from social media. So how do you respond on social media to a crisis that began on social media?

Going viral

In 2015, a teenage food service employee at a major attraction was having a bad day at work. In a moment of boredom, she turned to her smartphone, snapped a frowning selfie and tapped out a Facebook status that came off as racially insensitive at best, and blatantly racist at worst. But that wasn’t all — she was wearing her work uniform and she tagged her employer.

One person shared her post, complaining about the employee’s affiliation with the attraction. Then another, and 10 more, and 100 more, until suddenly the original post had 51,000 shares and 19,000 comments. Unfortunately, the timing coincided with race-related riots in other U.S. cities, and within 24 hours the story’s social media audience reach jumped to more than 1.2 billion. By morning, the local news media were all over this full blown social media crisis.

Source: Meltwater buzz. San Francisco, CA: Meltwater; 2016

Source: Meltwater buzz. San Francisco, CA: Meltwater; 2016

This organization relies heavily on engaging digital audiences, and suddenly one teenage employee letting off steam on Facebook was threatening to do serious damage to its reputation. To keep this from happening, Public Communications Inc. and the organization – a PCI client - teamed up to develop and implement a communications strategy to gain control of the issue on social media and assure key stakeholders that the situation had been resolved.

After listening to the conversation as it unfolded on social media, analyzing other race-related issues in the media and assessing the sentiment of the 19,000 comments on the post, PCI set up a war room to monitor online conversations and communicate more efficiently with one another. In a crisis, it’s almost always more effective to talk to each other the old-fashioned way — face to face — than by email or chatting online. The war room team moderated Facebook comments, tracked stats, engaged with fans and posted a statement distancing the company from the individual, ultimately resolving the issue within four days.

Social media can be your worst enemy or your best friend. After the shock of this employee’s offensive statement wore off and it went as viral as it was going to go, fans of the beloved attraction stepped up and moved the conversation in a more positive direction. They defended the organization in Facebook posts and expressed their love for the place, making it clear that one person’s bad decision didn’t reflect the inclusiveness, diversity and respect of the organization’s culture.

At this point it became clear that a solid communications program and strategic approach to social media had protected the client’s brand, paving the way for supporters on Facebook to steer the conversation away from the issue and affirm the organization’s positive reputation with loyal fans. An unforeseen negative experience had exposed the organization’s vulnerabilities. Going forward, it needed a more strategic approach tailored to the realities of today’s digital landscape.

A crisis checklist

Whether a crisis is a social media failure of your own (the fashion blog ‘Total Beauty’ mistook Whoopi Goldberg for Oprah Winfrey), out of your control (an offensive post by an employee) or a reaction to something that happened offline (a plane crash, perhaps), a digital-first approach is a must.

In the past, a PR pro could get ahead of a story in print or broadcast media with proactive communications to calmly and carefully tell the client’s side of the story. Today, the story will take on a life of its own on social media before you can even say, “press release.”

The focus must be on a coordinated response: Work to refine strategy, messages and talking points as soon as possible, then go straight to Twitter. If a conversation is going to get out of control, that’s where it will happen. From there, move to Facebook, Instagram and the rest, while continuing integrated media relations efforts with a consistent message.

But it’s about more than posting a response and calling it a day. Effective crisis response on social media requires a commitment to real follow-through — monitoring, moderation and engagement are essential. Here’s a to-do list.

Follow everything

You can’t hear the rising tide of a crisis if you’re not listening. Make the best use of whatever monitoring software is at your disposal by following everything and everyone relevant to your brand. Don’t stop with what employees and friends are saying online — true social media vigilance requires a watchful eye on competitors, detractors and trending topics and hashtags. Set up Google Alerts, monitor social networks where you are not even active and run a search for common misspellings of your brand’s name to be sure conversations are not slipping through the cracks.

Take control

When you proactively explain the situation, it’s news. If your detractors get ahead of you and you’re responding to what they say, it’s an investigation. Tell your story or someone else will. Being honest and forthcoming on public platforms will help you own and shape the narrative from the start.

Identify doers and deciders

Identify two categories of key players for your digital team: doers and deciders. Doers (ranging from entry level to account managers) are responsible for drafting messages and other materials, and implementing the plan after approval. The deciders (likely upper management levels) are tasked with mapping out a crisis response, approvals and edits, strategic thinking and, of course, taking decisive action when required. Doers and deciders must work well together — the better they all know each other, the smoother a crisis response will be.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the fast

Speed is the king of crisis response online. Spending several hours crafting the perfect tweet is not the best use of valuable time for an organization in crisis mode. Communications perfectionists can get back to their poetry tomorrow — right now, it’s about executing strategy, nailing down a concrete message and communicating openly with the public.

Don’t let the fast be the enemy of the truth

The need for speed can work against an inexperienced digital team or one that hasn’t received proper direction. Telling the truth and getting the facts right is essential in a crisis. Drill down on exactly what happened and what you’re saying about it — make sure the entire team of decision-makers is on board before deciding that this is the story you tell the world.

Never swing at a dirt pitch

In a social media crisis, sometimes silence is golden. Many companies fall into the trap of feeling obliged to answer every comment, complaint or rant. Sure, respect for the opinions of every follower is a good general practice, but do draw a line. When detractors want to pull you into an online fight, don’t take the bait. Move on, or try to quickly shift the conversation to offline channels.

Don’t dig a deeper hole

Compounding one mistake with another and another is common in a crisis. An ill-timed comment, a questionable retweet, a mixed-signal message, an unfortunate typo or an insensitive statement on the heels of the initial misstep is the last thing you need. Think before you speak, and after you speak, stop for a while.

Be authentic

A plethora of articles in recent years have explained how much millennials crave authenticity from brands on social media. But millennials don’t have a monopoly on the concept. Everyone wants authentic engagement from a supposedly cold and impersonal business. When you open up and tell your story the right way, you will be vulnerable. That’s nothing to be afraid of. Your followers are likely to feel compassion and be grateful for the look behind the curtain at the real you.

Seizing the moment

For a business that’s under regular attack from detractors, or anticipates that it might be, a few key steps to plan for crisis management on social media will ensure plug-and-play ability:

  • Identify the social media crisis task force and assign roles to each member (doers and deciders).
  • Develop a social media response matrix that maps out specific comments or criticisms that might appear on social networks, the recommended actions to take, and suggested language to use as a starting point.
  • Anticipate and prioritize the most urgent comments, and determine a goal response time for each.
  • Build a bank of positive evergreen content that can be used to flood the social media airwaves and combat any negative sentiment on your channels.
  • Research the opposition. Know where they are online, key figures and influencers within their ranks, what sets them off and their favorite tactics.
  • Follow the news. If the opposition is smarter and more knowledgeable, you’re at a disadvantage from the start.

Smart preparation will help put your brand in the best possible position to seize the moment and respond effectively when an ongoing situation finally bubbles up to crisis level.

Lessons Learned                                  

Every crisis that plays out on social media teaches valuable lessons — and the more years of experience we have in the digital world, the better we can prepare to manage future issues.

At the attraction where a teenager’s boredom sparked racial tension, communications staff now carefully monitor all social media mentions and flag comments to watch — intending to minimize the impact of anything negative before it goes viral.

The key steps to preparing for a social media crisis are based on common sense, yet too few executives succeed in adhering to them. Monitor the situation closely; be proactive and take back control of your message; appoint those who will craft the response and those who will approve; balance your desire for perfection with the need for speed; don’t automatically fight back; don’t make the situation worse; and finally, always be authentic and genuine.

You can’t make organization crisis-proof, but following these steps will help any chief executive or marketing and communications professional breathe easier and act confidently when, inevitably, the time comes.


Grant Fuller is Director of Digital Strategy at Public Communications Inc., a former writer on President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, and a native Texan. His latest social media crisis probably involved tacos.