Time moves at a different pace on social media. One minute, your brand is a beloved internet meme. The next, you’re the target of some blazing online ire. Because no matter how careful and cautious you are with your content, a social media crisis always has the potential to strike.
Luckily, a social media crisis doesn’t have to mean the end of your brand’s reputation. In this post, we’ll dive into just how to deal with the fallout when your good rep goes wrong.
Spoiler alert: preparing for a worst-case scenario before it happens can set you up to survive even the trolliest of trolls. Have a solid plan in hand, with a list of key stakeholders and responsibilities, and a clear chain of command. That way, when worse comes to worst, you’ll be well-positioned to turn your brand’s reputation back around.
Of course, it’s even better if you can prevent a crisis before it begins — so we’re also going to take a look at methods for spotting potential issues as they emerge and share exactly how to shut a problem down in the early stages. (Note: we also have a guide to using social media for crisis and emergency management, if you need help on that front).
Your crash course in social media crisis management starts… now!
Bonus: Read the step-by-step social media strategy guide with pro tips on how to grow your social media presence.
A social media crisis is any activity on social platforms that may impact your brand’s reputation in a negative way.
To be clear, this is more than just the odd rude comment or a complaint from a customer. A crisis is when your social media activity spurs a flurry of negative responses or, worse, calls for a boycott.
In other words, a social media crisis is when there’s a major change in the online conversation about your brand: an action that has sparked anger, disappointment, or distrust on a wide scale. If left unaddressed, it could have major long-term consequences for your brand.
Insensitive or out-of-touch comments, like this poorly received post from Burger King on International Women’s day.
The intention was to offer a cheeky take on this sexist phrase and celebrate its female restaurant chefs, but the tone got lost on Twitter and the fallout was swift.
Hypocritical posts raise hackles, too. American Airlines’ rainbow-washed Tweet about their new fleet decorations inspired some angry reactions from people who called out the company’s donations to anti-LGBTQ organizations.
Poor employee behavior might inspire a crisis too. Maybe someone documented poor treatment in a real-world setting and shared it online. Or maybe an awkward customer service interaction has been screenshotted and gone viral.
Another opportunity for a crisis? Product failures or customer dissatisfaction. Public backlash about Walmart’s insensitive Juneteeth ice cream flooded the brand’s mentions. This is a crisis, for sure.
Of course, to notice that you’ve got an unusual amount of heat coming your way, you need to know what ‘normal’ looks like — which is why ongoing social listening is so important. Scoping out the general conversation and taking the pulse of the public about brand perception can give you a solid idea of what a ‘regular day’ looks like for your brand.
All of which is to say: 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 “social media crisis.” Once the numbers hit that threshold, review the situation with the appropriate people to decide whether you should implement your crisis communication plan, or just reach out through customer-service channels individually to people leaving comments.
When the tide turns and you find yourself on the receiving end of mass criticism or anger, here’s how to deal.
Believe it or not, ignoring the problem will not make it go away. And the quicker you react, the better. After all, even in the best of times, more than three-quarters of consumers expect brands to respond to negative comments or concerns in under 24 hours. In the thick of a crisis, it’s even more important to be responsive.
Maybe that means simply deleting the offending post promptly, or maybe that means issuing a sincere apology or retraction. Whatever the response, sooner is always better — letting something linger just gives the problem more time to fester.
Burger King UK, for instance, deleted the original accidentally sexist Tweet and shared an apology and clarification on their intentions within hours, calming the uproar fairly quickly.
We hear you. We got our initial tweet wrong and we’re sorry. Our aim was to draw attention to the fact that only 20% of professional chefs in UK kitchens are women and to help change that by awarding culinary scholarships. We will do better next time.
— Burger King (@BurgerKingUK) March 8, 2021
To be frank, 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. That would be a PR miracle. But your followers and the public will 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.
The key to nipping things in the bud quickly, of course, is keeping an eye out for notifications and @mentions. Hootsuite’s dashboard can help make monitoring this sort of thing a snap.
The video below shows you how to use social listening in Hootsuite to nip just such a social media crisis in the bud.
Check your social media policy
Fortunately, while some of the worst social media crises start with an employee posting something inappropriate, these types of snafus are also some of the easiest to avoid.
Prevention starts with a clear social media policy for your company. A good one should feature guidelines for appropriate use, outline expectations for branded accounts, and explain how employees can talk about the business on their personal channels.
Dollar General faced criticism after one of its managers shared a not-so-flattering look behind the scenes at the company. Ideally, your business doesn’t inspire employees to critique you in public, but a social media policy can help mitigate even well-intentioned posts about your brand.
Of course, 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?
Have a crisis communication plan
If you don’t already have a social media crisis communication plan: make one! This is something you should craft when times are good, so you have a clear head and practical understanding of how to react in a social-media emergency.
When the Quebec health authority accidentally posted a link to a pornographic website instead of Covid-19 health information, they didn’t need to think twice about how to address the situation.
En raison d’une situation hors de notre contrôle, un lien avec du contenu inapproprié a été publié sur notre compte Twitter. Nous en cherchons les causes. Nous sommes désolés des inconvénients.
— Santé Québec (@sante_qc) April 14, 2022
With this document ready to go, you’ll be able to respond quickly to any potential issue, instead of debating how to handle things or waiting for senior managers to weigh in.
After all, taking action as soon as possible is critical (that’s why “respond promptly” was our #1 recommendation for dealing with this crisis!). More than a quarter of crises spread internationally within just one hour.
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 management 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.
Practice social listening to identify potential issues
The best offense is a good defense, as they say. 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.
When Snickers received backlash on social media about a bigoted commercial they ran in their Spanish market, they took note. The ad was quickly pulled from Spanish TV. But if the company hadn’t been keeping an eye on social sentiment, it may have never realized just how offensive the advertisement was.
So @SNICKERS just produced a disgustingly homophobic ad in Spain in which a flamboyantly-gay guy is cured, and turned straight, by eating a Snickers bar. I am blown away at just how disgustingly bigoted this ad is. This is now the 3d homophobic ad that Snickers has done. 1/
— John Aravosis 🇺🇸🇬🇷🏳️🌈 (@aravosis) August 6, 2021
Hootsuite even has some helpful integrations that will send alerts when activity spikes, so you don’t miss a thing.
Engage (empathetically!) with commenters
You’ve posted an initial response. You’re working on more in-depth messaging, with an official statement or video from the CEO. But you’ve also got to work the front lines of this crisis… and that means wading into the comment section or reviewing mentions elsewhere online.
Don’t ignore the vitriol. Engaging is key to showing that you care about the public’s response and are hearing their concerns. But keep it short, and whatever you do, don’t argue.
Instead of defending yourself or getting pulled into a long confrontation, take the high road and acknowledge concerns and frustrations. If someone is demanding more of your attention, try to move the conversation into private messaging, email, or a phone call. But whatever medium you’re conversing in… take that high road.
Keep the internal communication moving
Misinformation and rumors can spread just as easily inside your company as they do outside. And when there’s silence from the top during a time of crisis, the whispers tend to come even faster and more furious.
In other words: your crisis communication should include internal communication as well. This keeps everyone on the same page and alleviates tension and uncertainty.
Be clear about your intended actions, and 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.
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.
Hot tip: You can use a centralized system like Hootsuite to control user 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.
Put scheduled posts on pause
Even if you had an amazing post scheduled for World Donut Day, it’s not going to hit quite right if you’re in the thick of a social crisis. Time to put that great content on the back burner while you deal.
At best, an ill-timed scheduled post will make you look goofy. At worst, it could completely derail your crisis management plan. After all, it’s critical for all communication to be planned, consistent, and appropriate in tone. A scheduled post will be none of those things.
With a social media scheduler like Hootsuite, pausing your scheduled social media content is as simple as clicking the pause symbol on your organization’s profile and then entering a reason for the suspension.
Learn from the experience
Though social media crises can be stressful, the experience can offer your organization some powerful lessons. Once you’ve made it through the storm, make sure to take a beat to debrief and examine just what happened.
It’s a chance to reflect on how your brand got into trouble, and what was successful (or not!) as you dealt with the fallout.
This reflection shouldn’t happen alone. In fact, the more perspectives, the better. 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.
This post-mortem is a good time for the social media marketers on your team to review the crisis communication plan, too, and update them as needed with 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!