Managing a Social Media Crisis


Managing a Social Media Crisis

June 26, 2020 | Education

The last few months have given small businesses the chance to truly live their values in the face of crisis and adversity. Online, the best companies have responded to their customers with compassion and empathy in a way that stays true to their brand. The worst responders have hurt and undermined feelings and broadcasted the chasm between their public image and who they really are.

However, even with the best of intentions, we should never assume that a social media crisis can’t happen to us. If you’ve chosen the most lovely, smart, and well-meaning social media manager, on a bad day, they can still misinterpret or misunderstand someone online. Every week we see big organizations make mistakes like forgetting to pause a scheduled post during a national crisis, making bad jokes, trying to capitalize on a popular but sensitive trend, or using outdated terms.

What matters most, though, is how you respond. A genuine, well-crafted message backed up by action goes a long way.

Catching it early

Have social media alerts set up on your phone
A crisis doesn’t wait for Monday morning. On most social media platforms, you can filter out low-quality notifications so you don’t get overwhelmed by the minutia. The trick is learning to ignore non-urgent messages at the weekend.

Use two-factor authentication for each sign-in
If you get hacked and the person sends out some incendiary content, not everyone will believe it wasn’t someone on your team. Use strong passwords and two-step authentication to avoid having to have that conversation.

Set parameters for what constitutes a crisis
Make sure that your team knows how to triage a crisis. Some mean-spirited posts can be ignored, your social media manager can manage minor product or delivery complaints, a communications director can manage some adverse reactions to a message you put out, and you should handle something that seriously threatens the reputation or even the viability of your company.

Pull together all the relevant facts and timeline into one place
Understand all of the facts so that you can represent them as accurately and transparently as possible. Make sure your staff feels comfortable telling you the whole story when their first instinct might be to diminish their role in what has happened.

Find out who’s at fault
Was it your internal processes, a one-off message from a member of staff, a mismanaged contractor, or simple human error? The answer will let you know whether you might be able to contain it by responding to people directly, or whether you need to make a bigger policy decision or take action. Do you have to dismiss an individual or an agency?

Make sure you know whether admitting fault or firing someone could leave you in legal or financial jeopardy. If there’s any chance it will, you will need to consult your lawyer first. You may be able to buy some time with the phrase, “The issue is under investigation. We’re taking it very seriously and will have more information shortly.”

Crafting a response

If you’re annoyed, set a two-minute timer on your phone to just breathe
You’ve spent an unquantifiable amount of time building this business from the ground up. Insults and miscommunications can feel so personal. Our first instinct might be to admonish the social media manager or shut down the people on the other side, but that won’t solve the problem. We don’t do our best non-violent communication under pressure.

Use people-first language, always
If the issue is that you’ve accidentally used regressive or outdated language, or misunderstood someone’s lived experience, you should get up to speed quickly. It’s always important to use people-first language, but especially in a crisis. It is a concept that was developed by activists in the disability space. It aims to “make personhood the essential characteristic of every person.” So every other descriptive social identity comes second. For example, you might choose to say, “people experiencing homelessness” instead of, “the homeless.”

If you’re confused about the most recent inclusive nomenclature for a group of people—for example, whether to use LGBT, LGBTQIA, or LGBTQ+—look for reputable organizations that may have progressive style guides on their websites and delve deeper into the meanings behind the words.

Start from your desired outcome
Have some goals for the outcome of the crisis, outside of, “please stop yelling about this.” Clear goals will focus your mind on your response. They could look like:

  • Our response is proportionate and was handled with integrity
  • We showed that we were prepared and our response was well-thought-out
  • This crisis didn’t negatively impact our sales goals
  • We had a clear resolution to the crisis and know how to avoid it happening again
  • Our team is happy with the way we handled this response.

Keep it brief
Almost no issue is black and white. In our world of greys, it’s tempting to over-explain a communication breakdown or mistake. But you could end up creating more questions than you answer or appear defensive.

Be clear and unambiguous and avoid too much detail or side-stepping.

Say you’re going to take action, then take it
Detail the action you’re going to take and then swiftly follow up. You might not want to bring up the issue again if things have died down and you’ve put a new policy in place to resolve the issue, but the internet has a long memory and it’s important that you control the narrative.

Keep it consistent
Once you have your statement, make sure everyone in your organization is on the same page.

Take communication offline
Where possible, offer an email address for people to reach your company so that you don’t have lengthy back-and-forths with angry people publically. You should be prepared to answer those emails quickly, though. Otherwise, your non-response will become another topic. Create an internal FAQ and get your team prepared to copy and paste the responses. Make sure they know that they can’t respond to things off-script and how they should escalate topics that aren’t covered, or anything abusive or threatening.

Know when to stop engaging
You could deliver a heartfelt, genuine apology, a free item, an extra-mile action, and some people will still want to spend all day arguing with you. Know when to step back and disengage.

Don’t take more blame than you should
As women, we’re often conditioned to want to appear kind and decent over anything else. If you haven’t been malicious or callous, a simple, direct apology is better than a long, meandering, penitent one.

Offer advice to anyone else on your team who wants to respond
Hopefully, you’ve created an environment where your employees feel connected to and protective of your business. They might be tempted to offer a response on your behalf using their own profiles. They have freedom of expression, but it’s wise to advise them to lead with kindness, give them the company message, and tell them that personal attacks on your detractors will bring the company into disrepute.

Review the crisis
Once you’re through to the other side of a difficult situation like this, don’t just try and forget that it happened. Talk to your team about how everyone handled it, and what you’ve learned for the future.


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