Social Media Crisis Management: A No-Nonsense Guide

by Mack Collier

Past Social Media dramas involving The Red Cross, Groupon and Kenneth Cole are good reminders of the importance of having a solid social media crisis management plan in place.  At its very basic level, the proper handling of a social media crisis should consist of two thing:

1 – A quick response

2 – A proper response

Let’s look at both areas:

Responding quickly to a social media crisis

If you look back at many of the social media dramas that have played out for companies over the past couple of years, many of them were exacerbated by a slow response from the company or organization.  The delay in responding meant the people that were upset had more time to voice their displeasure with the company, to other people.  Which raised awareness of the problem, and made it far worse.  The Motrin Moms episode could have likely been defused very quickly, if Motrin and its agency had been proactive in responding to complaints on Twitter about one of its commercials.  But since the crisis occurred on the weekend, when the brand and agency weren’t monitoring Twitter, it was allowed to grow and fester.  By Sunday, most people were complaining more about Motrin’s lack of a response, than they were the commercial itself.

So you can’t respond quickly, unless you know what you are responding to.  That means you need to aggressively monitor your brand’s online mentions.  There’s no excuse for any company that conducts business online, to not monitor online mentions.  Even if you are a small company with a limited budget, there are still free tools you can use to monitor social media.  If you are a mid-sized to larger company, you should seriously consider investing in a premium monitoring suite that will track not only mentions, but trends and sentiment as well.  But the point is to know what is being said online about your company or organization.  Remember, when did Noah build the Ark?  Before the rains came, not after.

So now that you are monitoring online mentions, then you can see what is being said about your brand in (more or less) real-time.  This also means that when a situation arises that needs to be addressed, that you can quickly mobilize and formulate a response.  We’ll talk more about the tone of your response in a second, but another key benefit of monitoring is that it tells you WHERE you need to respond.  If there is a potential crisis developing on Twitter, then that’s where you need to respond.  If it’s on a single message board or forum, then you need to find a way to respond there.  The point is, you need to go to the source of the complaints, and interact with people there.

Responding properly to a social media crisis

So if you have identified a potential issue that you need to address, how should you respond?  Here are 4 common sense tips for handling complaints or negative online feedback:

1 – If someone is leaving negative comments about your company, respond. Even if they are intentionally attacking your company (or ‘trolling’), then invite them to please contact you directly so you can help them with their issues.  And remember, if someone is leaving comments that personally attack your employees or customers, or that contain profanity or inflammatory language, you should delete them.  Now if they are simply saying that they think your company sucks, deleting these type of comments will tend to draw more of the same.  People can see when someone has crossed the line with the tone of their comments, and they won’t fault a blogging company for deleting comments in this case.

2 – Be thankful and polite. Nothing escalates a negative comment into a full-bore flamewar faster than an ‘Oh yeah?!?’ reply from the company.  You have to always remember that the person commenting thinks their complaint is warranted.  And many times, they are right.

3 – If you are in the wrong, then apologize.  And mean it.  The two most magical words in putting out a social media crisis are ‘We’re sorry’.

4 – If commenters are jumping to the wrong conclusion about your company, kindly correct them with the proper information.  Just as you don’t have to accept profanity or attacking comments on your blog, you shouldn’t feel that you have to accept if a blogger or commenter is posting inaccurate information on another site.  But again, remember to correct the misinformation with a respectful tone.

5 – Thank them for their feedback, and encourage them to provide more. Leave your email address so they can contact you off the blog, if they choose.  This communicates to everyone that you WANT engagement and want to communicate with them.

Now for the elephant in the room

Even if you respond quickly and appropriately, you still have to fix the problem.  People are upset for a reason, and you still need to address that reason, and correct the problem.  It might not be a quick fix, but you need to let people know how you are handling the issue, and what steps will be taken to correct the problem.  This is where you can use your social media presences such a blog or Facebook page to communicate to customers and supporters what your plan is for handling the crisis.  But you need to have a plan, you need to communicate that plan (not every detail, obviously), then you need to execute it.

Does this help?  Also, to get another real-world example of social media crisis management, check out this video from @GaryVee on how he handled a social media crisis he found himself in.

Kevin Ekmark February 22, 2011 at 2:26 pm

I had a conversation about this topic first thing this morning when I got to my desk. It inspired me to write a post about a few other experiences with negative post neglect this past week on major brand blogs/and FB pages. Great tips, Mack.

Mack Collier February 22, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Thanks for the comment Kevin, and I just returned the favor on your post about Mark Twain’s philosophy on Social Media. Good stuff!

andrew February 23, 2011 at 8:42 am

Thank you for including the elephant in the room section. It’s so incredibly important to dig deeper than the current situation to find out the root cause of the complaint. The first part of your post serves as a great guide for dealing with a situation in real-time, but, unless you want to repeat the situation time and time again, you’ve got to kill the elephant, so to speak (No animals were harmed in the construction of this comment).

Mack Collier February 23, 2011 at 8:51 am

Ha! I love that you clarified that no elephants were harmed by your comment 😉 Andrew you are right, what REALLY pisses people off is to tell them you hear them and are listening…then you don’t do anything about the thing that they are complaining about. If you tell your customers you are listening and HEAR them, then you have to ACT on what they are telling you, or give them a damn good reason why you can’t.

The listening and hearing part has to be sincere.

Gabriele Maidecchi February 23, 2011 at 9:09 am

This is a very valid guide Mack, I agree on the fact social media problems should be “attacked” where they manifest, and not with just impersonal press release or in any other channel.
Reacting to the crisis promptly is step one, solving the problem which caused it in first place is problem two.

Joel Capperella February 23, 2011 at 9:32 am

Mack once again some very good stuff here! The examples are fantastic and through this I discovered @garyvee (I’d seen his book here and there but never really saw any of his work). The question for me is who’s responsibility does this become? I’ve seen much written about chief content officers, and of course there is PR partners, but some of this seems naturally organic in nature. . . .is it manageable? Is it a shared responsibility? I have my opinions but would love to get your two cents.

Bryan Long April 7, 2011 at 9:42 pm

I’ve had clients debate the merits of allowing the social media community “moderate itself” without any input from the brand under attack. Of course, people who think this way keep me busy in the office. That’s a good thing.

Bex Mitchell November 2, 2011 at 7:42 am

What a great article! It surprises me how few of my clients are interested in having a social media crisis management plan in place. Watching Nestle flub their way through the whole Greenpeace “you’re killing Orangutans” thing made it painfully obvious that companies that don’t have a plan in place will likely stumble through the event. I remind them that “hope” isn’t a strategy.

At any rate, I enjoyed the read and will share it.

Melissa Agnes February 8, 2012 at 12:11 pm

I love that line! “Hope isn’t a strategy” ! Nicely said! And it’s very true that many brands, for some reason, feel they don’t need to be prepared. It’s unfortunate that when they finally do realize that they do, they’re in the middle of a crisis and it’s too late.

Kathy Walsh March 21, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Thanks for the great article. I referenced some of your words of wisdom in my latest post. Thanks for helping me distill it all down.

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