Handling a Social Media Crisis

Posted by brendanfranks

I recently discussed with a small business owner the lack of social media presence his business had and one of the points that came up was the possibility and fear of a negative event occurring. So I thought maybe an article on this very topic could help other SME business owners break through some of their fears also!

Social media is a very powerful promotional tool for business. To quote the famous superhero, Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility”.

The same is true for social media. With access to an information network that is directly connected to your target audiences, it is your responsibility to ensure that every tweet, post, picture and ‘like’ doesn’t open up your company to a social media disaster.

It seems like there is always a story in the news about a business suffering a public relations meltdown on social media. One ill-thought out tweet or post quickly and suddenly spirals out of control and suddenly a whole raft of negative feelings and emotion is poured into the social media channels that causes a great deal of damage to their public image.

So what are the main types of social media crises? They tend to come in two main varieties: those caused within an organisation, and those that are external.

The most destructive and long lasting tend to come from mistakes publicised by internal sources, so it is within your power to prevent any damage to your brand by stopping them before they even happen.


Prevention is better than cure.

The first thing you can do is to prevent a crisis occurring in the first place. It sounds simple, but the following steps will help to substantially reduce the risk of a social media meltdown.

Make sure your accounts and passwords are safe

Keeping your accounts safe is a big priority. It might seem like common sense but it is easy to forget or get complacent about securing accounts. Even large companies have fallen victim to account security issues. For example in 2013, hackers took control of Burger Kings Twitter profile. They changed its picture to the McDonald’s logo, and then sent messages claiming the company had been taken over and that it would adopt McDonald’s branding. As hacking goes, it could have been a lot more sinister. This was pure mischief making but it caused a lot of embarrassment for Burger King and caused havoc with the companies 5,000,000 followers.

Monitor what is being said about you

Generally before a social media crisis develops there is an upwelling of negative commentary first. There are lots of monitoring tools out there that can help you access what is being said about your company. By setting up some simple filters, you can track when something is said about your business and brand even if it is across multiple social media platforms.

Handle negative comments quickly and correctly

As any good customer service manual will tell you, you need to limit the initial damage before it spirals out of hand. For social media, this means dealing with the aggrieved party in private messages, but you also need to post a public response to show you are dealing with the problem and care about your customers. A lesson can be learnt from UK retail giant, Tesco, who according to SocialBakers, the highly respected social media analytics and publishing company, has a great customer care reputation on social media. The report said that it answers the majority of queries within 81 seconds.

Be clear about who has access to your accounts

It is crucial to have a staff social media plan in place for your business. You need to think carefully about how you want your employees to use social media. The music retail giant, HMV recently discovered this to their cost when a disgruntled employee used the official HMV Twitter account to chronicle the firing of 50 of its employees.

This doesn’t mean simply blocking their access to social media at work, but you need to make your company policies very clear as to what is allowed to be discussed, where and when.

You also need to establish who ‘owns’ your accounts. For example, Phonedog, the phone review network, got a shock when an employee and Twitter handler left the company taking 14,000 followers with him. They are not the only ones. Many other businesses have fallen foul of key members of staff leaving, taking what is seen to be a personal account with them and having direct access to clients as a result.

Ensure that your social media users are trained

It may sound obvious, but do you really know your hashtags from your direct messages? Make sure that whoever is operating your social media channels is fully trained and understands the subtleties of each social media channel. They are not all the same and they each come with their own set of rules and etiquette.

The effectiveness of responses to unfolding crises depends a lot on how appropriate the messages are. An example of a big Twitter fail came in 2013 from Michael O’Leary, the controversial owner of budget airline Ryanair. He decided to host an online question and answer session but forgot to include the #GrillMOL tag which caused a lot of confusion among the audience who wanted to take part. All of the questions were being directed to the wrong place.  

Check the facts on every post you make

Anything that you put on social media platforms, or anywhere else online, is subject to opinions and fact – checking. Therefore, it is vital that whatever you post is correct, as any inaccuracies will inevitably be flagged and cause damage to your company image and brand.

It isn’t just accuracy that you need to be aware of. For example during a heavy snowstorm in 2013, Luton Airport in London tweeted a picture of a crashed plane along with the message. “Because we are such a super airport…this is what we protect you from when it snows…Weeee 🙂 “

The image that the airport had used in the tweet was of an incident in which a child had died. A lot of people were understandably very offended and it led to a swathe of negative comments and coverage by the national press. If only they had done a bit more research before posting the picture.


Be polite or it will come back to haunt you

It might seem fairly simple to anyone who has ever worked directly with customers, but you need to be polite. You are still communicating to your audience, albeit, through a computer, so there are no excuses for being rude.

Once you have published a post, people will see it, and even if you remove it, it is likely someone will have made an undeniable record of it.

Listen to your audience and deal with their issues

DKNY was able to minimize what could have been a complete meltdown. After it was caught using Brand Stanton’s imagery in a storefront without his permission, he found out and publicly declared that they should pay $100,000 towards a New York children’s charity in compensation. DKNY listened to the negative commentary and promptly made a donation of $25,000 with an apology.

Don’t delete comments unless absolutely necessary

Deleting what you see as the worst negative comments might seem like a good idea at the time, but people tend to get even angrier if they feel that their messages are being removed.

One of the worst examples was from restaurant chain Applebee’s. It publicly fired a waitress for leaking a receipt, which showed a pastor writing a sarcastic comment, “I give God 10% why do you get 18?” The shoddy handling of the situation caused an uproar and after around 60,000 mishandled comments, it was forced to publicly apologize.

Have a crisis plan in place to identify who is involved and what they need to do.

Having a plan in place should a public relations meltdown occur is a must. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive, but it should identify key people to deal with the problem, set a timeframe which a resolution needs to be found, and have the backing of key decision makers.

One Internet marketer, who has a lot of experience in social media, managed a number of social crises. The most notable one was when the B2B service provider he worked for had its servers affected by a fire. With service lost, clients were unable to contact technical support, view the website or access any online portal.

He moved the support teams over to their social media channels and answered users questions directly through Facebook and Twitter. Whilst the situation wasn’t ideal, they were able to quickly address the concerns of clients and make sure people understood what was happening and how they were able to rectify it.

Summing it all up

Being prepared for a social media crisis might seem complicated at first glance, but it doesn’t have to be.

You need to make sure that you listen to people and that you are sensitive to current issues. If you prevent a crisis through responsible use of your social channels, you shouldn’t need to worry. But if the worst does happen, take control with a plan, give feedback, be polite and most importantly, listen to your audience.

To Your Success!

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