In short:

  • No brand is immune to a social media crisis, a major issue that impacts a large group of customers and requires a special response to prevent an escalating reaction.
  • There are, however, steps you can take to both prevent a social media crisis and limit the impact, should one occur.
  • If a crisis breaks out, use a small leadership team to triage the situation, execute a brand social media response if required, and keep teams in the loop.

No matter the industry, your company is likely to face a social media crisis at some point. It may come in the form of incessant customer Tweets over a service outage, or it could be a poorly timed or insensitive post from your brand. Products might fail on live television, or a retail employee may make insensitive remarks to a customer that end up on Facebook.

A solid crisis management plan can prevent and limit the impact of these happenings. Below, we describe steps businesses can take to limit the chances of a minor incident, should one occur, turning into a full-blown social media crisis.

Steps for preventing a social media crisis

Proactively establishing social media guidelines for your company can limit the chances of a blowup occurring in the first place. Think of these steps as “pre-crisis mode” and prevention against scrambling in the middle of a crisis.

Create a social media policy.

Many of the most brand-damaging social media crises come from employees publishing a post that goes awry. A simple way to prevent these mishaps is providing guidance for how employees should post on branded accounts and mention the company on their personal profiles.

In an employee handbook or onboarding materials, give detailed descriptions of how your employees should handle customer inquiries that come in through social media and ways to address questionable content like misinformation, leaks or confidential information.

You should also outline how employees should:

  • Get approval for company-related posts.
  • Comply with copyright laws on social media.
  • Include or withhold company information on social media profiles.
  • React to PR crises on social media.

The method by which you disseminate these rules is up to you, whether it’s via an annual employee training session, a contract for teams to digitally sign, or another way. In that communication, clearly describe the consequences for failing to adhere to the policy.

Secure your social media accounts.

Weak passwords and limited account security are risks in general, but note that a rogue or former employee is more likely to cause a cybersecurity crisis than a hacker. Limit and track employees’ access to social media accounts, making sure to revoke access for employees leaving the company or moving into an unrelated department.

Also, make it clear that employees aren’t allowed to create unauthorized alternate accounts, whether it’s for a company event or an internal team. For example, an employee creates a <brand> sales team account to post teambuilding event photos but then forgets about the account. If a customer stumbles across this account, it could lead to confusion and brand image issues.

Create a social listening program.

Unlike social media monitoring, which looks at engagement metrics and mentions, social listening tries to gauge the ratio of positive/negative sentiment toward your company or one of its activities using metrics like:

  • Brand mentions
  • Industry trends
  • Relevant hashtags

You can use social listening to monitor what people are saying about your brand and respond to issues before they develop into crises. Imagine, for example, that your brand posts a photo which other users call out as insensitive. Or perhaps an ad campaign goes viral for the wrong reasons.

There are a number of tools that handle social listening. A good place to start is by setting up Google Alerts and keyword searches for your brand and products/services.

But those tools only help if you have a system in place for monitoring them. Establish protocols for which member of your team is in charge of social listening, what they’re listening for and when they should be paying special attention to online chatter, such as in the week after launching a new social media campaign.

Social media crises don’t observe office hours, so determine which members of the social media team will monitor channels in the evenings and on weekends — especially during high-volume sales and peak service periods — for changes in sentiment and increased mentions.

Be proactive about hashtag campaigns.

A catchy hashtag can be a great way to bring your social audience together and get visibility for your content, but be careful when choosing them.

Make sure the phrasing can’t be misinterpreted or misconstrued. Keep the hashtag’s context narrow to limit the “creativity” users might have if they’re looking to complain or troll. McDonald’s released the #McDStories campaign hoping to get heartwarming pictures of kids with Happy Meals — instead, it developed into a bashtag.

bashtag 1

Similarly, make sure you understand the context behind hashtags before you start using them. Get a grasp on why a hashtag is trending before firing off a tweet in an attempt to join the conversation. Baked goods company Entenmanns’ ill-timed use of #notguilty during a major 2011 court case could have been avoided with a bit of research.

bashtag 2

Don’t capitalize on an external crisis.

Simply put, don’t risk sounding tone deaf during a crisis that doesn’t pertain to your company. It may be tempting to sound off on evolving situations and trends quickly, but steer clear of controversial or sensitive topics unless there’s a good reason not to.

For example, Kenneth Cole attempted to use the trending #cairo during the Arab Spring to sell shoes from its spring collection. Given the insensitivity, it didn’t go over well.

Kenneth Cole attempted to use the trending #cairo during the Arab Spring to sell shoes from its spring collection

Posts don’t have to be openly promotional to rile up social media users. Bing created a campaign to donate $1 to victims of major earthquakes in Japan for every retweet its post received. When users perceived it as a marketing grab for followers, Bing donated a full $100,000 and apologized.

hashtag Bing

This isn’t to say that brands shouldn’t communicate at all during a crisis — just make sure your posts are brand-appropriate and non-promotional. For example, gaming hardware company Razer created a relevant poster whose proceeds go directly to fighting COVID-19, an effort that was well-received on Instagram.

hashtag razer

Define what a crisis is for your business specifically.

At your business, not every issue is a crisis. Consider a one-off issue like an isolated outage or unpleasant service call that a customer takes to social media. You don’t need to go into crisis mode over an incident that can be resolved by contacting the customer directly.

It’s important for social teams to be vigilant, however, because what seems like an isolated event can be the first indicator of an impending crisis — a major issue that impacts a large group of customers and requires a special response to prevent an escalating reaction.

For example, a single customer mocking a hashtag or commenting on the insensitivity of ad copy might fit the definition of an issue, not a social media crisis. Multiple customers pointing out the issue may indicate an incipient crisis.

Have a crisis communication plan in place.

A social media crisis can spiral out of control within a matter of hours, and having a crisis communication plan allows companies to resolve it as soon as possible.

A social media crisis response team doesn’t need to involve your entire company. Decide, in times of non-crisis, which members of the social team, management and leadership need to be involved to take action quickly.

  • While building this team, consider these responsibilities:
  • Looking out for and monitoring crises
  • Actively managing social media and answering questions
  • Guiding the overall strategy and updating key leadership
  • Responding to questions from other channels such as email and handling media requests

It’s important to remember that time is of the essence in a social media crisis. A tweet or two won’t resolve everything, but having a comprehensive plan that allows your organization to respond decisively lets users know that the crisis is at least acknowledged.

Steps to take during and after a social media crisis

Even the largest, best-prepared companies may find themselves in hot water on social media sometimes. These steps will help mitigate a social media crisis once it’s begun.

Acknowledge that there’s an issue.

When customers or clients are upset or confused, they want to know that companies are aware of both the crisis (an app outage, for example) and the impact it has on them (i.e. the inability to post photos on the app). Even if your team doesn’t have all of the answers, simply acknowledging that they know about the problem can quell feelings of uncertainty. It will also help your team prevent any additional social media users from asking if your company is aware of the problem.

Pump the brakes on scheduled posts.

As soon as your team senses a crisis brewing, it should pause social media activity while it takes stock of the situation.

Many brands use software to schedule posts in advance, and failing to stop these from running can make businesses seem tone deaf or even make a social media crisis worse. For example, don’t Tweet about your retailer’s one-day shipping guarantee when Twitter users are barraging the brand with complaints about shipping delays. For the most part, you can just delay these scheduled posts until a later time.

Each and every post during a crisis should be considered and appropriate for the situation, and it’s important to vet these posts to make sure they’re aligned with crisis communication plans.

Pick your battles.

It’s usually safest to not reply to negative comments and posts publicly, but if you do, limit it to one or two responses to show the public that you’re responding. You’re more likely to resolve issues in private channels in which there’s no audience to fuel a performative back-and-forth between customer and brand.

Remember, you won’t be able to please everyone, and in many cases, negative social media users just seek to vent or be heard. Learn to recognize when it’s best to ignore their comments so you can focus time and energy on more constructive communication.

Keep your team in the loop.

Once management and the social team have a grasp of the scope and scale of the social media crisis, let the rest of the company know what’s happening and how to communicate during the crisis.

The idea is to avoid your team finding out about the issue from a sudden series of posts from upset customers or clients. Send them a quick message detailing:

  • What’s happening (i.e. customers are commenting on your brand’s latest post, saying it’s insensitive)
  • Where it’s happening (i.e. Instagram)
  • If the team should take any action (i.e. whether they should direct-message the disgruntled customers on Instagram)

This is also when you’ll want to share any preapproved messaging and let the company at large know how it should direct customer complaints from other channels — remember, many customers view social media as a customer service channel.

Review the experience, and learn from it.

When the crisis has abated, it’s time to circle up with the social team and leadership to discuss the crisis from start to finish.

Even with a solid plan in place, the fact that the company’s gone through a social media crisis indicates that there’s room for improvement. Examine where the breakdown happened and how processes can improve, seeking input from team members.

Remember, it’s also an opportunity to review which mitigation steps worked, whether they involved customer service representatives, putting out a timely statement, or another tactic.

Use those learnings to tweak your social media crisis communications plan, then rest assured that you’re better-prepared to handle any future issues.