How to handle a major social media crisis

It was a tweet heard around the world. 

Last month, a minor squabble erupted on Twitter between two fast food chains, Burger King and Wendy’s. It started as a harmless exchange about value meals. Burger King dropped a challenge to match their low price. When another user asked Wendy’s for its response, the company – which has 851,000 followers – tweeted a major ding: “Edible food.” 

Ouch. One ding between two major companies is enough to make your stock price plunge or lead to someone getting fired. In most larger enterprises, IT must lead the charge from a technical and operational standpoint to make sure there is a way to deal with a crisis in a consistent and predictable way. Yet, as several social media experts explained, the response should not be so scripted that it looks too mechanical. To help, here are a few strategies to put into place. 

Gary Nix, the president and chief consultant at The Brandarchrist, says it’s important to have a crisis management plan in place that you communicate to all teams. Your plan might instruct certain teams to respond and apologize quickly as a way to acknowledge the crisis and make sure it doesn’t fester. 

One example of this is when the Crocs brand tweeted a memorial to David Bowie recently. The message itself was sincere, but several experts pointed out that the image associated with the tweet – a pair of shoes with a lightning bolt – looked opportunistic. Users responded negatively, and Crocs deleted the tweet. Yet, the damage had been done (users had saved the tweet). 

[Related: How to craft an effective social media policy

Nix says the crisis plan should include any relevant links that will help employees further explain any safety concerns or official explanations about a new product or recall. In the Crocs example, a plan could have included direct messages to users and an apology. 

There are times when a crisis takes place because a company is slow to react. You can avoid a major controversy if you admit the mistake and explain what happened. 

One good example of this happened when someone hacked into the Twitter account for the site and posted the wrong final score for a college championship game. The social media managers at quickly explained what happened and posted the real score using a different social media platform (Instagram). 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Carnival Cruise Lines did not respond fast enough to the social media backlash that occurred in 2013 after the Triumph cruise ship had an engine failure. Social media expert Shannon Wilkinson from Reputation Management says there was a long delay after the hashtag #cruisefromhell started trending on Twitter. Mostly due to a lack of response or apology, the story started making national headlines. 

“Carnival should have immediately responded to the concern, fear and anger of Triumph passengers with a full acknowledgement of the crisis,” Wilkinson says. “Carnival’s CEO could have provided frequent, real-time updates of what Carnival was doing to address the situation.” 

From a technical standpoint, it’s possible to simulate a social media crisis in a virtual environment using a social media management app. Susan Perry, a spokesperson for Hootsuite, says the company can create a simulated crisis and then train employees on how to properly respond. She says a crisis management plan hinges on a consistent message across the entire organization, but it can be difficult from a technology standpoint to ensure that happens. 

“In an ideal world, your team has mapped out a thorough response plan, with an external communication strategy detailing who needs to approve, execute or be informed throughout the entire situation,” says Perry. She says you could simulate a social media crisis before there is a new product launch, advertising campaign, or major announcement. 

Rob Enderle, a consumer analyst with Enderle Group (and a columnist), says part of the training and simulation process should include policy enforcement. Employees need to know the repercussions for revealing private company information or posting inappropriately using official accounts, and then the company needs to use social media monitoring software like Cision or Nuvi to keep track of any compliance problems. 

There’s a temptation with social media management tools like Hootsuite or SproutSocial to create a template or a scheduled response that you send to every user after a crisis. Yet, this usually backfires. Social media expert Harshita Pande says that users can easily see the scripted response. 

One example in India is related to Maggi Noodles, a brand owned by Nestle. There was a rumor on social media related to MSG levels in a new product. Users started to complain, and the company started issuing a stock response to all users to alleviate safety concerns. 

“The rumor was true and Maggi was taken off the shelves in a week, when the Nestle CEO came to India and announced it in a press conference,” says Pande. “By then the damage was done on social media. People hated that the brand was 'insensitive' towards its consumers.” 

Pande says it’s important for IT to be involved with some level of automation – giving marketing reps the tools they need to search for comments or track them – but the official response must be more human, deliberate and consistent. If there are any templates or scheduled posts, they should use a standard set of messaging guidelines and policies, not scripts.


John Brandon

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