Brands will sooner or later face some backslash online. If it escalates, it is necessary to know how to respond to a social media crisis. You need to define what constitutes a crisis and then consider from where the crisis originates when crafting your response. Make sure to have a social media policy in place to decrease the likelihood of a social media crisis.
If you have a brand with an online presence, you should be familiar with how to respond to a social media crisis. Crisis management is steadily becoming a more important aspect of running a brand. Because of social media and other technological advances, the gap between consumers and companies has never been smaller. While social media can vastly benefit brands that use them in a well-thought out manner, there are also risks involved. That’s why it’s crucial for brands to know how to respond to a social media crisis.
Since social media is so fast and widely accessible, it can create issues for brands before they even know what happened; even in cases where the brand is not present on the media in question. People like voicing their dissatisfaction online and they expect a response within the hour1Ltd., C. (2019). 2019 Crisis Impact Report: How Customers React To A Brand Crisis. Retrieved 1 August 2021, from https://info.crispthinking.com/crisis-impact-report-2019.
Social media crises are rising. McKinsey did a study between 2010 and 2017 and found that article headlines including “crisis” and the name of a 100 large companies increased 80% compared to the previous decade2McKinsey & Company. (2017). Are you prepared for a corporate crisis?. McKinsey Quarterly. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Business%20Functions/Risk/Our%20Insight/Are%20you%20prepared%20for%20a%20corporate%20crisis/Are-you-prepared-for-a-corporate-crisis.pdf.And that’s considering the fact that most incidents never reach the headlines.
This trend is accelerating and will only continue to do so as people expect more responsibility from corporations. Good news is that in many cases damage can be minimized and the brand may even come out better on the other end if the crisis response is good. It is therefore important to have a policy or a plan in place that describes how to respond to a social media crisis when it happens.
In this article I will cover what is important to bear in mind when preparing for and responding to crises and give you some pointers on how to develop your own action plan.
Have a social media policy in place
First thing is to have an up to date social media policy, and to follow it. This doesn’t have to be a 100 page document but it should contain some Do’s and Don’ts as well as some general information about your approach to social media. That includes what to do (and what not to do) when problems arise.
I won’t go into the specifics of how exactly to create social media policy in this post but here are some things to consider:
- Copyright: Make sure it is clear what can and can not be used by copyright law.
- Consider when is the appropriate time to move a conversation to a different channel. It probably depends on your brand, but some dialogues are better suited for private mediums.
- Your brand tone of voice: How should your brand conduct itself online?
- Content plan: What to post, what not to post.
- Whether to sign off with a name in conversations (more for larger companies but useful to enforce responsibility and backtrack issues).
- and of course, crisis response action plan.
The people at Hootsuite have put together a comprehensive guide on how to make a social media policy that is well worth the read in case you want to dig in further.
Define what a crisis is
People are going to say some not-so-nice things about you online. It’s unavoidable. But it isn’t necessarily a crisis3How to Manage a Social Media Crisis: A Practical Guide for Brands. (2019). Retrieved 1 August 2021, from https://blog.hootsuite.com/social-media-crisis-management/. To respond effectively, you need to define what constitutes a crisis. This will be your trigger that initiates the response plan.
Crises can originate from almost whatever comes to your mind. Common sources are:
- Product defects
- Slow delivery
- General dissatisfaction with a product or a service
- Scandalous behavior of employees
- Advertising that dramatically misses the mark
- Broken promises & lies
- Violation of societal issues
When any of the above examples pop up on your table, you need to consider three questions to determine if it is indeed a crisis: Is it objectively true? Is it the crisis severe from the consumers’ point of view? and, what is the potential damage to the brand?
Before acting, you need to make sure the accusations are true. The scope here depends on the nature of the crisis. For product defects or slow deliveries, for example, there is no use in investigating heavily: take the consumer’s word for it. For more severe accusations such as internal scandals, violation of cultural codes and so in, it does pay of do conduct your own investigation before publicly addressing it.
The severity of the crisis should be evaluated from the beholder’s perspective. Something may seem minor to the accused brands, but it can quickly escalate into a major crisis with the help of media and circumstantial factors4Johar, G. V, Birk, M. M., & Enwiller, S. A. (2010). How to Save Your Brand In the Face of Crisis. MIT Sloan Management Review, 51(4), 57–64. https://search.proquest.com/docview/633233268?pq-origsite=gscholar&fromopenview=true. The key takeaway is that the more serious people consider the instance to be, the more likely it is to become an actual crisis for you.
You should also consider your own point of view. An instance that threatens to obliterate your brand is obviously a crisis. On the other hand, some online chatter and media buzz may have no consequences for you even though your name is involved. This is the time to consider what stakeholders are involved and how strongly customers identify with your brand. Pay special attention to anything that could diminish reputation and trust in the long term.
Respond to the social media crisis
Now that you have determined that you are facing a crisis, it’s time to initiate the response. There are a couple of more things to consider here that can guide you in the right direction: whether the public perceives the crisis as originating from inside the organization or outside of it5Jin, Y., Liu, B. F., & Austin, L. L. (2014). Examining the Role of Social Media in Effective Crisis Management. Communication Research, 41(1), 74–94. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650211423918.
Note: If you are running a scheduling tool for social media posts, now is the time to pause that for the time being.
When the crisis originates inside the organization
When a crisis is internal, people assign more responsibility to the organization. They assume it to me more under the brand’s control and thus hold it accountable. Once the public sees you as the responsible one, it can be dangerous to try to deny it. A study by Lee6Lee, B. T. (2004). Audience-oriented approach to crisis communication: A study of Hong Kong consumers’ evaluation of an organizational crisis. Communication Research, 31, 600-618. found that people are less sympathetic, less trustful and have a negative attitude towards brands that deny responsibility for internal crises.
Because emotions run high when the issue is internal, image repair by taking corrective actions and apologizing is the appropriate response7Lin, Y., Liu, B. F., & Austin, L. L. (2014). Examining the Role of Social Media in Effective Crisis Management. Communication Research, 41(1), 74–94. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650211423918.
When the crisis originates outside the organization
When the social media crisis is perceived external, people don’t assign as much responsibility to the brand. But that doesn’t mean that the situation can’t take a nasty turn – so it also needs to be managed professionally. People are more receptive of defensive responses when the crisis is external 8ibid.. These response strategies either strike back at the accuser or deny responsibility.
You also have the option of evasive responses if you were the one that informed people of the public9ibid.. That is, if you get tangled in an external crisis on social media, informing your stakeholders early gives you a better chance to evade responsibility and avoid having to employ defensive response strategies.
Be proactive and take control of the narrative
The information source is also important in a social media crisis context. As you see before, being the one to speak out gives you different response options than staying silent. This is even more important when the crisis originates inside the organization. As soon as you have determined there is a crisis, it is important to get ahead of it and take control of the narrative.
Consider this scenario:
A friend or a colleague of yours screws up big time and it influences you in a negative way. Instead of coming to you and the other affected people, this person says nothing. Eventually, another individual approaches you and tells you about the blunder.
Now consider the scenario where the friend/colleague is straightforward and informs you of the mishap immediately. Do you feel different about that person in each scenario? Probably.
People do that too. When the public is informed of a crisis that is internal to the brand through 3rd party channels such as social media influencers or media, the emotions are amplified. Since these emotions take the form of distrust, low sympathy and negative attitude, it means a bad time for the brand.
Look back and reflect
Once you have navigated a social media crisis, it is important to take a step back and reflect. Consider what went well and what could have gone better. Are there any modifications that you should make on your social media policy and crisis response action plan? Get together with all involved employees and share your experiences. Even better if you have close relationships with affected customers and other stakeholders that can share their experiences with you.
Bonus tips for navigating a social media crisis
To wrap this up here are a few bonus tips that are good to have in mind when navigating a crisis. These are relevant for every step of the journey.
#1 Never ever delete posts or block people
It may be tempting when you post something that gets a backlash to simply remove it. Same for when other users post criticism on your profile. It’s usually not the best solution to remove these posts, and definitely not when they are not yours. Responding to controversial posts is a great opportunity to show what you are made of, build brand equity and win new customers.
#2 Use social media listening and sentiment analysis
Good social media listening tools can do a lot of the monitoring work for you. Ideally, these would include a sentiment analysis that is capable of sorting between positive, neutral and negative chatter. Best one I know of for social media crisis management is Brandwatch.com because it gives you near instant alerts when something is off. However this is a more advanced solution and the pricing is in line with that. For cheaper alternatives consider Mention.com or Agorapulse.com
#3 Maintain your natural brand voice
It goes without saying but make sure to stay calm and don’t let emotions get the best of you. Keep up your natural tone even in a time of crisis
#4 Don’t argue
Don’t argue with people, especially not on a public forum. Be respectful and acknowledge what they say. Consider when it is appropriate to move the conversation to a private channel
#5 Secure your accounts
It’s a good time to go over the security of your accounts to make sure everything is airtight. You never know what may happen when increased and negative attention is drawn to your brand. Make sure all passwords are secure, that there are no idle accounts active and so on.
- 1Ltd., C. (2019). 2019 Crisis Impact Report: How Customers React To A Brand Crisis. Retrieved 1 August 2021, from https://info.crispthinking.com/crisis-impact-report-2019
- 2McKinsey & Company. (2017). Are you prepared for a corporate crisis?. McKinsey Quarterly. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Business%20Functions/Risk/Our%20Insight/Are%20you%20prepared%20for%20a%20corporate%20crisis/Are-you-prepared-for-a-corporate-crisis.pdf
- 3How to Manage a Social Media Crisis: A Practical Guide for Brands. (2019). Retrieved 1 August 2021, from https://blog.hootsuite.com/social-media-crisis-management/
- 4Johar, G. V, Birk, M. M., & Enwiller, S. A. (2010). How to Save Your Brand In the Face of Crisis. MIT Sloan Management Review, 51(4), 57–64. https://search.proquest.com/docview/633233268?pq-origsite=gscholar&fromopenview=true
- 5Jin, Y., Liu, B. F., & Austin, L. L. (2014). Examining the Role of Social Media in Effective Crisis Management. Communication Research, 41(1), 74–94. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650211423918
- 6Lee, B. T. (2004). Audience-oriented approach to crisis communication: A study of Hong Kong consumers’ evaluation of an organizational crisis. Communication Research, 31, 600-618.
- 7Lin, Y., Liu, B. F., & Austin, L. L. (2014). Examining the Role of Social Media in Effective Crisis Management. Communication Research, 41(1), 74–94. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650211423918