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Dealing With a Crisis on Social Media

Sep 04, 2015
Boyd Neil Boyd Neil (guest author)
Senior Vice-President and Senior Digital Strategist
H+K Strategies

Pick any week in any month and you’ll likely sight a company or organization facing an issue or crisis that has the social web as its battlefield.

Hacks (Ashley Madison), Twitter rants (Tinder vs. Vanity Fair), Twitter fights (Herbalife vs. @AfueraHerbaLIES), online shamings (Walter Palmer and Cecil the lion) … and that’s just a few weeks in the summer and doesn’t include the ever-more-commonplace missteps (rudeness, incidental racism, or sexism, etc.) by social media community managers that don’t make it to the front pages of legacy media.

In crisis management, we used to say there are those organizations that have faced a crisis and there are those that will. A bit glib for the time maybe. But with the social web today, it verges on certainty. At some time, on some social platform, someone will say something nasty about your organization (or you personally).

My colleague who runs our issues and crisis practice likes to remind me that the principles for effective crisis and issues management, even on the social web, don’t really change. And in large part, she’s right. Be honest, be compassionate, and respond quickly, for example, apply in any crisis.

But there are some nuances with “social” that are worth keeping in mind.

Negativity is endemic. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram allow people to express pleasure or dissatisfaction with a person, product or service … and express it loudly and with, in many cases, a great deal of vitriol, even obscenity.

But many are just one-time-only outbursts, in which the damage to an organization’s or individual’s reputation may be—and, I stress, may be—minimal and not likely to last.

Not every nasty call to a customer hotline or every angry consumer at the checkout represents a reputational crisis, for example. In the same way, not every negative sentiment expressed on social media calls for a reaction, and not every comment that begs for a reaction represents a crisis.

Of course, the challenge for many organizations is assessing which comments are unusual, delimited, or token, and which ones can undercut years of organizational brand building.

Here are a few questions to help you assess the situation and come up with a response strategy:

  1. Can the issue be taken offline for a resolution?
    • Offline can put a halt to any social amplification.
  2. Is this the type of comment that might interest local or national media?
    • Commenters often tag media in their post or tweet in an effort to get a company’s attention.
    • When print or broadcast media pick up a negative strain in social it becomes a “story” and gains a heightened level of intensity.
  3. Is the commenter or customer influential within his or her community?
    • There are some easy-to-use tools—Klout among them—that give you a snapshot of whether someone’s comment is worth paying attention to.
  4. Is the commenter a serial complainer or overactive tweeter or poster?
    • Their comments can sometimes get lost in their own noise.
  5. Was the underlying problem our fault, or have we seen similar negative sentiment in the past that suggests an operational or reputation problem?
    • You should fix it and say you are doing so on the social platform being used for the complaint.
  6. Can we apologize on social for the problem we’ve caused if that is the root of the adverse sentiment?
    • An authentic and honest apology (see my blog post on non-apologies) is pivotal to protecting reputation.
  7. Are we in a position to continue to trade comments with the source of the negative sentiment?
    • You’ll need writing resources that know how to manage social web dialogue.

Some of these questions are going to be difficult to answer if your organization is unfamiliar or uncomfortable with social web dynamics.

But this self-assessment, undertaken before you need it, may not only better prepare you to respond when the day comes that your name is being dragged through the social mud, but also educate you about what’s expected for effective social web interaction day-to-day.

About the Author

Boyd Neil is a senior vice-president and senior digital strategist at H+K Strategies, Canada’s leading strategic communications consultancy. Boyd blogs at and can be contacted on Twitter (@boydneil).

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