On social media, things can move blazingly fast. Sometimes, it’s an Instagram post of an egg going inexplicably viral. But sometimes, it’s a PR crisis that seems to come out of nowhere.

Your best chance to make it through a social media crisis is to prepare ahead of time. Have a solid plan, a list of key stakeholders and responsibilities, and a clear chain of command.

Of course, it’s even better if you can prevent a crisis before it begins.

In this post, we’ll look at methods for spotting potential issues as they emerge and how to shut a problem down in the early stages. If that doesn’t work, we’ll show you what to do if you end up with a full-blown social media crisis management situation on your hands.

(Note: we also have a guide to using social media for crisis and emergency management, if you need help on that front).

Bonus: Get the step-by-step social media strategy guide with pro tips on how to grow your social media presence.

9 social media crisis management tips for businesses and brands

1. Create a social media policy

Some of the worst social media situations start with an employee posting something inappropriate. Fortunately, these are also some of the easiest crises to avoid.

The best way to prevent this type of social media crisis is to create a solid social media policy for your company. It should provide clear guidelines for appropriate use, outline expectations for branded accounts, and explain how employees can talk about your the business on their personal channels.

The details of your social media policy will vary based on factors like your industry and the size of your company. Here are some subjects all social media policies should include:

  • Copyright guidelines. Don’t assume employees understand how copyright applies online. Provide clear instructions about how to use and credit third-party content.
  • Privacy guidelines. Specify how to interact with customers online, and when a conversation needs to move to a private channel.
  • Confidentiality guidelines. Describe what business information employees are allowed (even encouraged) to share, and what should be kept under wraps.
  • Brand voice guidelines. Do you maintain a formal tone? Can your social team get a little goofy?

Lockheed Martin’s social team got a little too casual on social media for World Photo Day 2018. The world’s largest arms producer posted a tweet asking followers to share a photo of one of their products. The now-deleted tweet said:

“Do you have an amazing photo of one of our products? Tag us in our pic and we may feature it during our upcoming #WorldPhotoDay celebration on Aug. 19!”

This carefree tone from an arms manufacturer would probably have brought in some challenging replies in the best of circumstances. But just a few hours later, CNN broke a news story that a Lockheed Martin bomb has been used on an attack that killed children in Yemen. People seized on the story and started responding to Lockheed Martin’s photo request tweet with CNN’s photo of a bomb fragment from the attack.

Lockheed Martin’s response was basically not to respond. They simply deleted the original tweet. The challenge of trying to make a problematic post disappear is that screencaps live on in the many news stories about the blunder. Consider this an example of how not to handle a social media crisis.

2. Secure your accounts

Weak passwords and other social media security risks can quickly expose your brand to a social media crisis. In fact, employees are more likely to cause a cyber security crisis than hackers are.

The more people who know your social media account passwords, the more chances there are for a security breach. Don’t share passwords among the various members of your team who need access to your social accounts. I use a centralized system like Hootsuite to control use permissions and grant the appropriate level of access.

Centralizing access also allows you to revoke access for employees who leave the company or move to a role that no longer requires them to post on social.

When the New York Daily News laid off half its employees, a departing member of the social team started posting strange GIFs to the paper’s Twitter account.

The Tweets were relatively harmless. A situation like this could quickly turn into a social media crisis, though. What if the rogue employee posted confidential or inflammatory material?

A similar situation happened back in 2013, when HMV laid off a large portion of its staff. The company’s Twitter feed was a play-by-play of the mass firings, beginning with “We’re tweeting live from HR where we’re all being fired! Exciting!!”

But here’s the key HMV Tweet you can learn from:

“Just heard our Marketing Director (he’s staying folks) ask ‘How do I shut down Twitter?’”

It’s critical to have control of your social channels. Managers to know how to limit or revoke access in a social media crisis management situation.

3. Use social listening to identify potential issues

A good social listening program can help you spot an emerging issue on social media well before it turns into a crisis.

Monitoring brand mentions can give you some advanced warning of a surge of social activity. But if you really want to keep an eye out for a potential social media crisis, you should be monitoring social sentiment.

Social sentiment is a metric that captures how people feel about your brand. If you see a sudden change, that’s an immediate clue to start digging into your listening streams to see what people are saying about you. A sudden spike in brand mentions is always worth investigating, too.

With a tool like Brandwatch, you can set alerts so you’re automatically notified if there are major changes in sentiment or volume of mentions. This gives you advance warning of a crisis while it’s still in the early stages.

ZeroFOX is another great software solution for advance warning of a potential crisis. Integrated with your Hootsuite dashboard, it will:

  • send you alerts about dangerous or offensive content targeting your brand
  • malicious links posted on your social channels
  • and scams targeting your business or your customers

4. Define what counts as a crisis

People are going to say rude things about you online. That’s a fact, not a crisis.

But if enough people are saying the same negative things about you on social, all at the same time, that might be a crisis—or a potential crisis waiting to explode. What really identifies a social media crisis is a major negative change in the online conversation about your brand.

In order to identify a change from the norm, of course, you have to know what the norm is. Your ongoing social listening work should give you a pretty clear idea of what a normal day looks like for your brand.

For negative comments to count as a crisis, there also needs to be potential long-term damage to your brand. Even if a large number of people are posting negatively, it may be best to respond through customer service channels.

As an organization, you should define how much of a change in sentiment you need to see before you can start thinking about the event as a potential crisis. Once the numbers hit that threshold, review the situation with the appropriate people to decide whether you should implement your crisis communication plan.

On that note…

Bonus: Get the step-by-step social media strategy guide with pro tips on how to grow your social media presence.

Get the free guide right now!

5. Craft a crisis communication plan

A company-wide social media crisis communication plan allows you to respond quickly to any potential issue. Instead of debating how to handle things, or waiting for senior managers to weigh in, you can take action and prevent things from getting out of control.

Acting fast is important. More than a quarter of crises spread internationally within just one hour. But it takes companies an average of 21 hours to defend themselves in any kind of meaningful way. That’s nearly a full day for the crisis to make the rounds on the web with no meaningful intervention from your team.

On December 23, 2018, a security guard at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Portland called the police on a black hotel guest for “loitering” in the lobby while taking a phone call. The guest posted video of the event to Twitter, sparking a #boycottDoubleTree hashtag.

The hotel’s first tweet after the incident was a Happy Holidays post. That post got 403 comments from angry Twitter users, with no response from the hotel.

It took three whole days for the hotel to even acknowledge the incident on Twitter. Yes, it was the holidays. But three days is too long.

Your plan should describe the exact steps everyone will take on social media during a crisis—from top executives to the most junior employees. Include a list of who needs to be alerted at each stage of a potential social media crisis.

Your social media crisis communication plan should include:

  • Guidelines for identifying the type and magnitude of a crisis.
  • Roles and responsibilities for every department.
  • A communication plan for internal updates.
  • Up-to-date contact information for critical employees.
  • Approval processes for messaging posted on social media.
  • Any pre-approved external messages, images, or information.
  • A link to your social media policy.

No matter how well you prepare, the nature of a crisis means you won’t be able to resolve everything with just one or two social media posts. But people expect to hear from you, and it’s important for you to acknowledge the problem right away. Even during holidays, you need to be able to respond quickly in case of an emergency.

A couple of humble and informative posts buy you the time to put the rest of your social media crisis communication plan into action. Simply acknowledge that there’s a problem and let people know that more information is coming soon.

6. Stop all scheduled posts

During a social media crisis, scheduled posts will at best make you look goofy.

Take, for example, this App Store tweet encouraging followers to download the New York Times cooking app. It’s a perfectly reasonable tweet to send out the day before Thanksgiving.

One problem: Apple was facing a major outage at the time, and the App Store was down.

In this case, Apple just looked a bit silly, and the tweet gave followers more ammunition to complain about the outage.

But a pre-scheduled post that goes out in a social media crisis situation can also make your brand look ignorant and insensitive. The DoubleTree Happy Holidays post mentioned above could well have been a scheduled tweet.

In a worst-case scenario, a scheduled tweet during a crisis could completely derail your crisis management plan. It’s critical for all communication to be planned, consistent, and appropriate in tone. A scheduled post will be none of those things.

Shut down all scheduled posts as soon as you activate your social media crisis communication plan.

7. Engage—but don’t argue

Once you’ve posted that initial response, it’s time to get key staff working on more in-depth messaging. That might mean a press release, an official statement, or a letter or video from your CEO

But since we’re talking about social media, simply issuing statements won’t cut it. You’re going to have to engage with people who may be saying very negative things about you online.

Keep it short. Avoid getting pulled into a long discussion of what went wrong. Instead, try to move the conversation to a more personal channel, like private messaging. You could also offer a phone number, email address, or other means of communicating outside of social media.

When Johnson & Johnson faced a crisis of allegations about asbestos in its baby powder, the company created a webpage and a Twitter thread specifically addressing the main concerns people were expressing both on and off social media. The social team actively responded to concerned tweets, and referred people to the webpage for consistent information.

Of course, some people will simply keep arguing with you until you stop responding. When it’s clear you’re not making progress, acknowledge the concerns and frustrations, but stop taking the bait. Getting pulled into a fight online will not improve the situation. During a social media crisis, people are watching, so you’ve simply got to take the high road.

8. Communicate internally

Communicating internally is a crucial part of your crisis management response. This keeps everyone on the same page and helps to prevent misinformation and the spread of rumors.

Make sure everyone in the organization knows exactly what they should (or should not) say about the crisis on social media. Hootsuite Amplify offers an easy way to distribute pre-approved company messaging to all employees that they can share on their own social accounts.

9. Learn from the experience

Once you make it through your first social media crisis, take the time to debrief and examine what happened. Keep a detailed record of everything you did, and how well it worked.

This is a good time to get the whole company together to talk about the experience you’ve all been through, and share knowledge and experiences from different teams. Maybe the customer service department had some important insight. Or maybe public relations has some new guidelines that need to be incorporated into your social media plan.

Take the time to examine your social media plan. Think about anything you could add that would prevent a similar crisis from occurring in the future. And review your crisis communication plan to look for opportunities to incorporate lessons learned.

Use Hootsuite to manage and monitor all your social profiles in one place. From a single dashboard you can see what people are saying about your brand and respond accordingly. Permission, compliance, and security features will also come in handy when handling or mitigating any PR crisis. Try it free today!

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