Turning a Crisis Into a Social Success Story.

How to handle customer complaints and make your brand the hero. 

Manita Dosanjh
April 27, 2015 - 5 min. read

Most brands wouldn’t usually welcome abuse being hurled at them. Although not always eloquent, angry Tweets will often be the first port of call for disappointed customers to vent their feelings.

social media crisis examples

You might think these O2 users have a particularly short fuse, but they’re just a snapshot of thousands of angry  followers hurling abuse at the network during an outage back in 2012. And having abuse hurled at your brand from every direction isn’t usually a good thing.

O2 however, turned the incident into a reason for the rest of their social media audience to love them. Take a look at their charming response tactics:

social media crisis examples  social media crisis examples

And the supportive responses:

social media crisis examples

It’s a classic story. A company slip-up leads to a failure in service, and hoards of disappointed customers take to Twitter to vent their frustration. It could be the stuff of disaster for your brand’s public image. That is, if you don’t have a clever response strategy like O2 did. Sadly, the secret identity of the witty O2 Tweeter was never revealed, but the whole fiasco is a prime example of a well-oiled crisis management machine.

Even with a Twitter feed inundated with negative (often bordering on abusive) comments, and a huge fail in service looming over them, O2 still managed to turn the story into how great their brand is. So if, heaven forbid, an angry mob decided to attack your brand on Twitter, how can you execute a response plan that is just as newsworthy?

Well it won’t be possible if you don’t do your homework first. Before any kind of social media issue threatens your Twitter account (or any other account for that matter) it’s a good idea to define your resources and what might cause an issue for your audience.


“When you have prepared your team they can take charge. With a considerate and human approach they’ll be able to diffuse sensitive situations which with the wrong response could turn into a full blown social media crisis.”

Helle Tyllesen Head of Customer Strategy, Falcon.io

So how can you be sure that your approach is both considerate and human? And how can you turn a complaint into an opportunity to prove how dedicated your organisation is to great customer service?

We tracked down Brad Phillips, best-selling author and founder of Phillips Media relations, to get some insights into how to turn your social media issue into a positive news story with your brand at the centre. As a former CNN and ABC journalist, Brad knows a thing or two about media relations, and for him, a newsworthy response hinges on two things: credibility and audience.

The credibility of the complaint
Once a complaint has come in, begin by getting an idea of how genuine it is; is this an incident of pesky trolling? Or should you begin a serious investigation into the issue. In either case, a response is still necessary, but it’s important to know what you’re dealing with. 

“Consider the credibility of the person (or group) complaining about a perceived grievance; the credibility of the grievance itself; the potential harm the grievance could cause for your brand; and the amount of traction their complaint is receiving or could receive.”

Brad Phillips Founder of Mr. Media Training Blog

In other words, analyse the situation carefully before you do anything. Is the complaint genuine, and therefore possibly affecting others? Is the complainer legitimately disappointed? And how likely is it that the complaint could snowball? Defining the issue and the resources needed to diffuse it should the first step in your response strategy.

Naturally, all social media issues are extremely time sensitive, so this process needs to happen fast so you can get to publishing responses. Using a social media crisis spectrum can help you to define the issue and the resources required quickly. That way you get to focus on the important part, responding.

Know thy audience
Knowing your social media audience and how they perceive your brand persona here is key. For O2, apologetic humour was bang on the money, but if humour doesn’t align with your persona, don’t use it.

“Remember that the person or group to which you’re responding is a small part of your audience. Oftentimes, the more important audience is not the person or group directly affected by the incident, but the audience that reads, sees, or hears your response. If they believe your response is respectful and fair, you may score points. If it’s seen as dismissive or insubstantial, however, you’ll lose points with everyone.”

Brad Phillips Founder of Mr. Media Training Blog

Nobody likes to lose points. If the issue has been defined as credible, and is gaining traction, a less than perfect response is going to make you look bad in front of a lot of people. Your response should show that you’re listening, that you’re human, and that you care. 

Above all else, remember that you cannot wait around. Once you know your audience, what upsets them and what they need to hear, be quick to show you’re listening. O2’s tweets use wit and understanding, so each response feels human, and each enraged customer feels valued – even the most aggressive ones. The whole thing makes a potential PR crisis into nothing more than a blip involving some amusing Tweets. Crisis averted.

Once your crisis-aversion A-team has worked their magic and the drama has passed, it’s time to evaluate. Scrutinise how your response execution panned out, and be sure to implement any learnings ready for next time. Some questions your crisis management team should be asking are:

  • What have you learnt about your audience?
  • How adequate are your resources? Were you able to respond in time or should you enlist help in the future?
  • If the story made it to press, how quickly did this happen and which publications picked it up? Should you reach out to the reporters and build a relationship?
  • Did your prevention/response plan work?
  • How should legitimate complaints be escalated once the damage control is done?

Remember, prevention is better than the cure. Use your learnings to forecast future issues and intercept before the mobs bring out the pitchforks again.

It’s also important to think about how social media issues tie in to your overall customer service strategy. When you’ve succeeded in defusing any potential damage to your brand persona, be sure to address any legitimate complaints. How can you fix the problems that are causing frustration with your audience? And how can you make sure this doesn’t happen again?

Finally, once the problem is fixed be sure to communicate this to your audience and make it part of your success story.

Nobody likes a know-it-all
An audience won’t warm to a persona that never admits it’s wrong and has an answer to everything. The goal of a response plan is to charm your followers with a personality – show them you know you’re wrong, you’re sorry, and you’re willing to do everything you can to make it right.

How to Handle a Social Media Crisis

Here’s how to implement a crisis plan that works for you.