How to Respond to a Social Media Crisis

A brand team huddles around a conference table with laptops to address a social media crisis.

In the age of social media, customers can give feedback immediately and, in a lot of cases, anonymously. Because of this, companies now have a responsibility to communicate with social media users in real time. In this online environment, things have the potential to turn sour quickly. When they do, businesses start to feel the urgency of the situation. Comments begin flooding in. Every response is dissected. And everything escalates way too quickly.

Companies rarely anticipate a social media crisis. And when brands fail to prepare appropriately, they run the risk of being vulnerable to irreparable harm. Companies going forward need to consider the social media sins of other industry leaders and develop a comprehensive, sweeping social media crisis strategy.

Defining a Social Media Crisis

Pinpointing exactly what makes a social media disaster is tricky. There can be many layers, and companies need to be able to identify early if an online situation is severe enough to warrant attention. The anonymity of some users makes it difficult to respond effectively – or at all – and makes the handling of social media crises that much more confusing and challenging. To unpack ways to respond to a social media emergency, marketers should first familiarize themselves with potential circumstances that could arise.

In short, a social media crisis can be summed up as an online or offline event that generates unwanted and negative press on a company’s social media profile. While every situation is unique, it’s a good rule of thumb for companies to be prepared to approach these situations seriously and with urgency based on their degree of severity.

PRNews, a resource for branding and marketing, recently stated how there are different tiers of a social media dilemma. Understanding the nuances of these tiers will help give more context to what emergencies need different kinds of attention.

Tier 3: Industry-Adjacent Crisis

An industry-adjacent crisis occurs when an externally related company, like a buyer or even a competitor, goes through its own PR disaster. Though this may at first seem irrelevant, brands need to be aware when companies within the same industry go through a PR emergency to apply damage control immediately. Getting in front of any bad publicity before it comes will spare a business a massive headache in the future.

Tier 2: Emerging Crisis

An emerging crisis arises from a string of social media user complaints about a product or policy change, and it requires special, nuanced attention from social media marketers. Rather than responding to this situation with an overly general, blanket post, PRNews recommended that companies respond to individual user comments politely or with follow-up information.

Tier 1: Multi-Channel Crisis

The first, and scariest, tier for a social media disaster is the multi-channel crisis. In this context, brands experience the most amount of publicity and must navigate damage control across different channels of media. This is also the most expensive of the different kinds of social media crises, and it requires immediate, decisive and authentic action.

This last tier of a social media crisis is easily the most recognizable, and it’s received the most attention because it has the potential to do the most harm to a brand. An article published in Corporate Communications An International Journal recently stated that social media crises generated online can increase the potential to have offline ramifications. These offline consequences, the researchers found, stem from mainstream news companies finding newsworthiness in the way companies succeed or fail in their responses. This publicity often compounds brand disasters since it raises the awareness of the situation.

Social Media Crisis Examples

All companies are capable of making mistakes. It’s human nature to mess up. In the cases outlined below, each company made a mistake, but the responses differed, which impacted their predicaments in different ways.

Papa John’s and Accepting Responsibility

Papa John’s experienced a monumental social media catastrophe after its founder and then-owner made racially pejorative remarks in a recorded board meeting. After the company first addressed the problem by ousting the chairman, it followed up with a strategy to engage its customer base.

Specifically, the company made a commercial to address customer concerns specifically left on their social pages. Because the company could not realistically respond to all the negative comments it received, its overarching apology addressed the general sentiment captured in most of the comments. Even though the damage had already been done at that point, the company was able to build a stronger sense of transparency on its social accounts.

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United Airlines and the Art of Making Things Worse

United Airlines in 2017 demonstrated a total lack of preparation in handling a social media crisis. On a departing flight from Chicago, a United passenger was forcefully and aggressively removed by airport authorities after he’d already boarded the plane. Multiple videos captured the intensity and violence of the situation, and quickly the event went viral on social media.

The company, in its response over the following days, made a series of mistakes that businesses of all sizes need to learn from. The initial apology issued by CEO Oscar Munoz angered social media users because of its callousness and disingenuousness. According the New York Times, the company then lied about the reasons for removing the passenger from the plane, falsely claiming that the flight had been overbooked. In reality, the assailed passenger’s seat was given to a staff member at the last minute. Going forward, companies need to realize that honesty, directness and accountability on social media are tremendously important for current and prospective customers.

Snapchat and the True Cost of a Social Media Crisis

Snapchat in 2018 attempted a viral campaign to increase its user base. It developed a strategy around the game “Would you rather,” which at first sounded low-stakes and harmless. The social media giant made a serious mistake by coming across as making light of domestic violence, though, which resulted in a major uproar on social media.

Specifically, the company shocked its customer base and other social media users by alluding to the abuse that celebrity Rihanna experienced. Snapchat immediately went into damage control, but its efforts appeared too little, too late. The Independent reported that the company lost $800 million after Rihanna did not accept their public apology. This situation highlights the urgency for brands to adopt a compelling prevention strategy in addition to a content screening process.

Developing and Implementing a Social Media Crisis Management Plan

While different authorities in marketing have different perspectives on what constitutes an effective crisis policy, it’s commonly accepted that every business should have one. According to Hootsuite, a social media marketing company, brands can negotiate social media crises in prescriptive ways. Outside of the general advice that brands should construct a social media policy, they recommend that companies need to develop a clear hierarchy in the event of a PR nightmare.

Establishing a clear line of decision making will make everyone’s life a little easier in the event of a social media emergency. Further, Hootsuite suggests that brands can be proactive in preventing a crisis when they make their social teams secure their accounts. When companies leave their social media accounts vulnerable to outside interference, they increase their chances of experiencing a PR disaster dramatically.

According to Karena Keys of the Forbes Agency Council, an effective strategy needs to focus on the root of the problem. She stated that businesses need to think exhaustively about hypothetical social media crises through brainstorming. She proposed the best way to prepare for a crisis is for businesses to draft a company-specific plan:

Your plan should include the various potential crisis scenarios; the complaint origin and its reach, who is impacted in each situation (individuals, current customers, potential customers, general public, staff), the classification of the complaint . . . , who is responsible for responding (marketing, public relations, agency, management), and the recommended response, including the verbiage, tone and location of the response.

When companies follow this helpful format, they prepare themselves to navigate social media crises of all sizes. As an important caveat, businesses should focus on the different and unique vulnerabilities of certain social media platforms. While it may be tempting for brands to attempt cute and entertaining quips on Twitter, a thorough screening process will help identify potentially problematic or disastrous tweets. Getting out ahead of the problem will only help a brand’s efficacy in the long run.

Another way to build an effective strategy is to entertain hypothetical brand disasters in interactive ways. According to the article “Responding in Real Time: Creating a Social Media Crisis Simulator for the Classroom,” an educator can administer a simulated situation to train students. It stated that “Social media simulations can create realistic, persuasive, and interactive settings that can help students apply communication theories in new, dynamic ways.” Even though the study was meant for use in the classroom, business owners can apply the helpful framework for training employees in appropriate strategies to handle a social media disaster.

The best way to prepare for a potential social media crisis is to learn from seasoned professionals who understand the constantly evolving arena of social media marketing. Point Park University offers a concentration in social media studies in its online M.A. in Communication Technology, which will help you flexibly specialize in analytics, strategic communication and campaign planning. For prospective public relations specialists and social media marketers, Point Park will help you prepare for unexpected PR catastrophes and reach the next level of your career.