When Shares Become Nightmares: Handling a Social Media Crisis

Elizabeth Moore

Social media has magnified the necessity for good reputation and crisis management - so, what are the key steps for keeping a social media crisis under control?

It’s five in the morning. You wake up, bleary-eyed to the sound of your phone pinging incessantly. You take a look at the screen to see hundreds of notifications from Twitter. Opening the app, you feel a sudden sense of dread, your mentions and replies have gone through the roof. Overnight, a bad news story has broken, and your organisation is involved, or worse, right at the heart of it. You sit up, scrolling through the reams of negative comments from angry readers. And then it comes, the email from the CEO asking you: “Now what?”

Social media has become a critical tool in any marketing campaign, or simply for any organisation needing to communicate messages and news to their key stakeholders. However, it has also magnified the necessity for good reputation and crisis management. So – what are the key steps for keeping a social media crisis under control when bad news arises?

  • Have a crisis communications plan: Preparation is absolutely critical when it comes to reputation management, especially when journalists start calling to address any stories or rumours. You need to be entirely certain that all staff members who are likely to be contacted are able to provide the correct messages at the correct time, so that information about the story is controlled. This is even more important when it comes to social media, as anyone who has the logins to your profiles could potentially post a response – while they may have the best of intentions, a badly placed tweet could ignite a further debate. Having a crisis communications plan in place will ensure that everyone knows what they need to do.

  • Be alert: For social media, it’s important to station someone throughout the day to monitor the situation online – checking how frequently the story is being shared and keeping an eye out for any new criticisms that appear. There are plenty of monitoring tools that you can set up to support this, whether that’s Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, or things like Google Trends and “Who Shared?” which takes a URL and tracks its expansion on social media, giving you an idea of the interest around the story.

  • Respond quickly and positively: The main thing that people want from social media is immediacy, and when it comes to reputation management and crisis communications, preparing a statement to address the issue as quickly as possible ensures that your organisation is being proactive in handling the situation and moving positively towards solving the issue. While it may seem second nature to issue an apology straight away, this isn’t always advisable. The first and foremost priority should be a solution – if you don’t have one yet, say you’re working towards it, and promise further information as soon as possible. And whatever you say you’re going to do, make sure that you do so, as people can and will respond to these promises!

  • Don’t panic: There are two particular methods of handling a reputation management issue that should be avoided at all costs. The first is a barrage of posts filled with a multitude of excuses and a defensive attitude, and the second is to say nothing at all: to shut down all communications and simply hope it goes away. The most important thing to do in a crisis is to stop, take a breath, and think about what it is you need to do – simply taking that moment will allow you to follow through your crisis communications plan to the letter, reaching the best possible outcome.

Dealing with a crisis online can be difficult, especially with the added influence of social media compounding the potential effects of the sharing of a bad news story. Planning and good management are even more essential now that the channels of communication have expanded, but by following procedures and responding quickly and positively, you can bring the issue under control, so that you can focus on the matter at hand – addressing the crisis that caused it all.

The notifications slow, as does your heart rate. After a while, the positive responses to your statement outweigh the negative criticisms. The situation is under control in the physical world, and the information being provided on social media means that the digital world is also contained. The crisis has been handled, and a reputational bombshell has been avoided. It’s five in the morning, but you’re grateful to have had some sleep.

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