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How to handle a social media crisis

Better put your helmet onSocial media have changed the nature of the crises faced by brands. Beyond the event-based crises which we typically think of, such as a product recall, brands also face far more informational crises. These involve misinformation or negative perceptions spreading about a brand, undermining its value. Social media increase the frequency of this type of crisis, and the speed with which it breaks.

As a brand guardian, you’ve probably set up your listening post to monitor the discussion about your brand, products and industry. You are measuring the impact of the positive message you are communicating. Then boom – out of left field comes a major issue. But when a crisis breaks, what next?

It’s all about PEACE.

Preparation – the best crisis management happens before the issue breaks – knowing what might occur, preventing it if possible, determining the response process and materials. If you haven’t had a chance to do this, move it up the priority list.

Evaluation – establish the facts. Your response needs to be commensurate with the potential impact of the issue. Within a social media landscape, there are plenty of tools to evaluate the impact of negative messages. An inappropriate response can eclipse the crisis itself, so use data, not emotion, to gauge the reaction.

Action – the context should help you decide the action plan. From a communications perspective, this includes decisions about the spokesperson, the content of the response and the channel. Consider whether parties outside the organization can respond on your behalf – that will be more credible.

Control – keep the crisis comms team small, and make sure everyone knows only that team is to comment on the topic to anyone outside the organization. The more people involved, the greater the chance the message gets confused.

Execution – react quickly. You have less time than you think. Delay may compound the problem since it makes it look like you don’t care. Post a holding comment if the issue will take time to research.

Now that we’ve determined that a response is appropriate from the organization, what do we actually say? This can be the hardest part.

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  • Anonymous

    I completely agree with the evaluation part of this strategy approach. It is very crucial to gage whether or not a situation is a crisis in itself. I’ve worked with many clients that have overreacted to one negative comment out of 100 positive ones. Granted, social media provides one voice a stage to speak out, but sometimes you need to choose your battles. A response to an otherwise harmless comment can escalate the situation even further. Great insight!

    • Anonymous

      JerAbraham – Absolutely. In fact, it’s amazing how a negative comment can paralyze management teams and be escalated entirely out of focus. I think it’s part of our role to give some context (using experience and data) to how to view that comment. You’re right – sometimes it’s vital, but often it’s just a lone opinion.

  • http://www.melissaagnes.com/ Melissa Agnes

    I love the acronym you used for this article! Nicely done and spot on! :)

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Melissa – that’s kind of you. Hope it’s useful.

  • Joan

    This is going to sound terribly naive, but we won’t work with agencies that perform crisis comms, unless their turf is non-profits/NGOs.

    Nine times out of ten, a PR firm that does cc is “protecting the brand” (covering up some dirty deed) committed by a client. The world is in the shape it’s in because of BP, Exxon, Lehman (now “deceased”), etc., and while there are lots of PR firms tripping over themselves to grab these clients, we don’t want to be a part of that machine.

    While on the subject, today is the one-year anniversary of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami — and nuclear disaster. I watch Japanese TV almost exclusively. When the US CEO of TEPCO (Tokyo Electric) was flown to Japan to be interviewed on Japanese TV  within three days of the tragedy and stated, “There is absolutely no problem” (as coached by his PR firm), this gave me the willies.The truth is that the clean-up will take years, almost 300,000 people have been displaced, many thousands of animals (livestock, horses, pets) were left to die, and it will cost these people millions of dollars of their own money to resurrect their businesses, thanks to TEPCO.

    If Lewis PR wants to be a voicebox for how to coach a spokesperson to defend his employer or how to react on Twitter and FB, then so be it. But I think that as PR practitioners we should to take a step back sometimes and rather than glorify the almighty brand, some of us need to just say no.


    • Anonymous

      Joan – Thanks for the insight. I don’t think it’s naive to engage firms with relevant domain expertise. Equally, one of the principles of crisis comms is not to be dishonest. That can undermine the brand, as you suggest with TEPCO. 

      In fact, a crisis can be an opportunity for a brand to demonstrate its ‘humanity’ and to win respect, if handled well. That’s part of the skill in communicating within context. During the crisis, while it is unfolding, organizations must be careful not to belittle the issue as they try to contain it. Afterwards, a broader view can be taken. 
      I do think it’s our role to provide that context, so the organization isn’t out of step with the stakeholders involved. Sometimes, that does mean pointing out some hard realities, and taking some tough measures.

  • http://tocwhatic.wordpress.com/ csquared

    You couldn’t have picked a better acronym for handling a crisis. You definitely brought up some great points. One being that preparation is key. Being proactive instead of waiting to react is going to be where a company has a hit or miss. Also, to this date, there have been several social media case studies (Komen, SOPA, etc.) to serve as warnings for companies. It all comes down to doing your research on what has happened in the past, the present and what could happen in the future. If a company does experience a crisis, I think the containment or control stage is where we’ll see if the company makes it out on a positive note. This is where transparency is the company’s best friend. No one likes being lied to or kept in the dark, especially the publics. Therefore, the way the company treats its publics during this stage will determine whether they have solid support during and after the crisis.

    Overall, really great article! Thanks for sharing the PEACE.