As community managers and customer service professionals take to social media for their business strategies, they also have to deal with social media crisis management. These problems could include major product issues, a marketing faux pas, or a global pandemic — all problems that deserve reasonable and empathetic responses.
When these complex situations occur, how do you categorize them? How do you determine the point of escalation with each scenario? When should you get help from a manager or another team member — and who should you even reach out to?
If you're working on a customer service team, you need to know the right answers to these questions, so you can communicate with customers during a time of crisis.
I’m sure we’ve all seen an unfunny or weird tweet from a business before, but not all social media fails constitute a crisis.
What is a social media crisis?
A social media crisis is an online activity that can damage the reputation of a brand or major stakeholder by posting or sharing offensive, distasteful, or even dangerous information.
Social media crises can erupt from a business posting or sharing content that:
- Belittles or mocks a group of people
- Insensitively uses figures or events to sell products
- Spreads false or dangerous information
- Is questionably slanderous
Beyond posts themselves, social media crises can also include employee misconduct or errors that are then spread online or other happenings that can make headlines for the wrong reasons.
The result of such actions can be a nightmare for any marketing team. Common repercussions include nasty comments from customers on social media, unhappy customers voicing their concerns and issues, and a marketing faux pas that is permanently documented on the internet even after it’s deleted.
Social Media Crisis Management
Whether a crisis occurs online or off, you can expect there to be a social media response from your customers. In fact, studies show that 80% of customers will use social media to engage with a brand.
Social media is becoming the preferred method of communication because it empowers consumers with the ability to post a review instantly on your account for all of your followers to see. If your brand makes a mistake, customers will be quick to take to their phones to tweet or post about the issue.
When left unchecked, these comments can quickly compound and escalate a simple problem into an alarming crisis. To that point, 37% of consumers who use social media to complain or question brands expect to get a response in under 30 minutes. This is why it's important to be prepared and have a plan in place.
Benefits of Social Media Crisis Management
The good news is that social media can be a powerful tool for managing a business crisis:
- Social media allows you to communicate with nearly your entire customer base over one or two platforms. Your company can quickly broadcast a message and get ahead of a crisis when needed.
- Social media allows you to speak directly with customers using direct messaging or commenting. If one customer has an issue, your customer service team can respond to them instantly through a private or public message. If the customer posts publicly on your timeline, an effective response from your customer service team can serve as a positive example of your team's credibility.
Now that we know the impact that proper management can make for a company, we’ll break down how your business can come up with a contingency plan for a crisis and integrate it into your customer service team. But before we dive in, we have a free resource to help you begin preparing for almost any crisis.
Social Media Crisis Management Plan Template
From negative comments to natural disasters, it's important to have a proper response plan for your social media channels. This guide will help you solve tough problems quickly while avoiding damage to your company's reputation.
In this free PDF guide and Excel template, you'll learn:
- How to become an expert problem solver
- The differences between a problem and a crisis
- What to do when a problem becomes a crisis
- How to create your very own crisis management plan
Social Media Crisis Management Plan
When it comes to managing a crisis, having a social media plan in place can be essential to your team's success. If you're not sure where to start, take a look at this outline which details every component that you should include in your crisis management plan.
1. Identify the source of the problem.
The first step to crafting a social media crisis response is to identify the problem and locate where it originated. Not every social media crisis will start from an online source. Often something that happens in popular culture or news events will result in a social media uproar. Finding out what caused the crisis can help you determine not only the correct response but also the appropriate channels to distribute it through.
If the problem does occur offline, you'll also want to look at the current status of your social media accounts. Has there been a response? Even if there isn't one yet, you have to expect there's going to be one.
If customers are already posting on your timelines, then:
- Assess the damage that's been made thus far.
- Look at which social media accounts it's affecting.
- Try to identify any trends in the comments.
Evaluating the situation before taking action will ensure that you're creating a long-term plan to handle the crisis.
2. Categorize the issue as a crisis or problem.
The next step in handling a social media crisis is to determine the severity of the issue. Is it a problem? Or, is it a crisis? You may think that's semantics, but there's a key difference between a problem and a crisis that determines the response that you'll want to deliver.
A problem is a minor customer service issue that can be resolved using standard service tactics. Your company may solve this with a coupon or discount that's sent to a customer who writes an unhappy comment or post.
In comparison, crises affect larger audiences and require a special response from your business to prevent escalation. It's important not to mislabel a problem as a crisis as this can result in negative attention being brought to your brand.
Social media is a public forum and users will be able to watch your company make a formal apology for a seemingly minor issue. If you're unsure if it's a crisis or not, begin with your standard customer service approach, but be prepared to escalate the issue to a crisis if needed.
3. Use an internal flowchart to execute actions.
Once you have established the right course of action to take, the next step is to execute your prepared game plan. Since crises tend to escalate, it helps if your team plans a flowchart for what to do if a crisis becomes more severe. We've included one example of what this can look like using the image below.
As you can see, standard responses using just the customer service rep and manager are at the lower end of the scale. As the crisis intensifies, additional measures are taken to ensure an appropriate response is delivered. Business executives can use this flowchart during the crisis as a guide to monitoring the status of the situation.
One component missing from this flowchart is the action of pausing or editing future content.
- Note: As a crisis escalates, you may need to adjust your publishing schedule to demonstrate a complete focus on the issue. Consider pausing scheduled posts, ads, and marketing emails to show your customers that you're truly devoted to resolving the crisis.
It's important to keep in mind that this plan will vary depending on the crisis you're faced with. Some situations will require you to take different steps to produce the most effective response.
Before we can start planning to handle a social media crisis, we first need to know what it looks like. In the next section, we'll highlight a few examples of notable social media crises that affected real-life businesses this year.
Social Media Crisis Examples
Social media crises are often unexpected and can occur at any moment. Brands big and small are both susceptible to these types of crises that can significantly impact their business's reputation. Here are a few examples of real-life social media crises that can help you become more familiar with these types of situations.
1. Undermining of Customers
A U.S.-based rideshare company caused an uproar with its customers when it took advantage of a cultural movement that it was supporting by tweeting a message to promote its discounts. Consumers immediately recognized this as an attempt to undermine the social campaign and decided to boycott the company on social media.
To make matters worse, the company's direct competitor took an opposing stance by donating money to the same cause. This sparked the creation of a viral hashtag that bashed the company and resulted in increased usage of the competitor's service.
2. Inappropriate Marketing Messages
A popular clothing brand found itself in trouble with customers when it accidentally tweeted an inappropriate message following the Boston Marathon. The email's subject line was titled "Congrats on surviving the Boston Marathon," which inadvertently echoed the tragic events that occurred in 2013. Twitter users quickly criticized the company for its poor choice of wording and lack of social awareness. The company immediately deleted the Tweet once it learned of the situation that it had caused.
3. Distasteful Comments From an Executive
One highly successful social media app received significant criticism when its CEO dismissed the idea of expanding its business into Spain and India. The executive called these countries "poor" and went on to talk about how his free app was designed exclusively for wealthy people.
This resulted in an immediate backlash as users from both countries and elsewhere began uninstalling the app in protest. They also left thousands of one-star reviews on the app's listing pages as well as started a boycott on competing social media channels.
Successful social media crisis management begins with coming up with a strategy that proactively prepares for potential problems.
Social Media Crisis Management Examples
1. National Cowboy Museum - Social Media Security Guard
When COVID-19 plunged the world into quarantine in March 2020, the National Cowboy Museum was forced to close its doors. Ticket sales screeched to a halt, and the security team spent its time monitoring empty halls. To give these essential employees a bit more to do, the museum decided to hand the keys to its Twitter account over to the head of security, Tim the Cowboy.
As you can see from his first tweet, Tim wasn't too familiar with the social media platform, which led to a series of wholesome and lighthearted follow-up tweets, like the one below.
Why It Worked
In a time of uncertainty, Tim's content was exactly what the world needed. He gave us something to smile about as an escape from what was going on with the rest of the world.
And, let's be honest, most of us probably haven't visited — or even knew of — the National Cowboy Museum before Tim the Cowboy. Before March 2020, the museum had just under 10 thousand Twitter followers. Now, over 300 thousand people follow the museum's account.
2. Sephora - Racial Profiling
When a celebrity mentions your brand on social media, it can bring a lot of attention to your products and services. But, if this influencer says negative things about your company, that can quickly stir up a crisis that damages your brand's reputation.
Take Sephora, for example, when the musician, SZA, tweeted at the company to report an instance of racial profiling.
Twitter users flocked to her defense, calling out Sephora for other examples of discrimination and showing their support SZA's remarks. Here's one response to SZA's tweet:
Sephora acted quickly, though, and publicly reached out to SZA to apologize. The company also closed its stores to conduct mandatory diversity training so it could educate its employees and prevent issues like this from happening in the future. Below is Sephora's response to SZA.
Why It Worked
No matter how you slice it, this situation doesn't make Sephora look great. But, when posed with an unexpected crisis, the company responded quickly and took meaningful strides to reconcile the issue. It not only issued a public apology to those that were hurt, but it also showed an investment in preventing the problem from occurring again.
3. American Red Cross - #GettngSlizzerd
The American Red Cross turned some heads back in 2011 when it tweeted this message late one Tuesday night.
Clearly, this was an off-brand tweet for the company and it quickly grabbed the attention of its social media following. While the American Red Cross knew it had to delete the tweet, the social media team decided to have a little fun with the spotlight and tweeted this follow-up message.
Why It Worked
Rather than taking themselves too seriously, the American Red Cross embraced the moment and playfully poked fun at its mistake. This approach not only went over well with the brand's target audience, but it also got the attention of other companies as well. Both Hootsuite and Dogfish Head Brewery responded to the American Red Cross's tweet and even made donations to the company as well.
This is a great example of a company taking advantage of a timely opportunity and preventing a small social media crisis from turning into a big one.
4. JCPenney - Kettle Conundrum
In 2013, retailer, JCPenney, added a new tea kettle to its product line. Problem was, the kettle resembled an infamous political leader of the 1940s — we'll let you connect the dots below.
This was an oversight by JC Penney's marketing team as Twitter users quickly started to question the inspiration behind the product's design. In response, the company decided to get ahead of the issue and sent a transparent message to each of its followers fully admitting its mistake.
Why It Worked
In the end, most people forgave the mishap and realized JC Penney did have much control over the product's design. While the ad could have certainly repositioned the angle of the product to make it look more like an innocent tea kettle, there was no malicious intent on behalf of the company.
We’ve seen how different businesses have dealt with different blunders, let’s wrap everything up with some best practices to remember when you develop your own plan.
Social Media Crisis Management Tips
Protect and restrict social media login information.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but crises can arise when an account gets into the hands of the wrong people. A 2021 Norton Cyber Safety Report claims that nearly 14% of social media users have dealt with unauthorized activity on their accounts.
You have to make sure your marketing team is taking precautions to minimize this risk, and to have a swift plan and message ready to share when the account has been reclaimed.
2. Engaging in social listening can help you do the right thing.
Your marketing team may have never dealt with a social media crisis before — it’s daunting. Even without a full-fledged plan in place, your audience or the public may be saying exactly what your team needs to hear to handle the situation in a beneficial way.
Closely monitor the responses your business receives and see how you can combine their suggestions with meaningful action, and your reputation will have a better chance of survival.
3. Pause any scheduled social media campaigns.
Before a crisis has been resolved, your marketing team needs to put a halt to its scheduled campaigns. It’s not ideal, but nothing comes off as more tone-deaf than promoting a product while failing to acknowledge a serious problem.
It’s vital that all further communication is planned, consistent, and appropriate in tone. And a pre-scheduled post won’t fulfill those criteria.
4. Learn from it and add guidelines for future social media usage.
The biggest takeaway from any crisis is that you should work to prevent it from happening again.
Reflect on the successes and pitfalls of your marketing and service team’s management of the crisis. By sharing takeaways with different stakeholders, you can devise social media crisis management plans that will prepare your business for anything that may arise.
Make Your Crisis Plan Before You Need It
When it comes to a social media crisis, it's important to respond as quickly as you can. Owning responsibility for the action, apologizing, and perhaps poking fun at yourself (if appropriate), can help your customer service teams respond to incoming inquiries as quickly and effectively as possible.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in May 2015 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.