Navigating the Social Media Crisis Spectrum.

How to define your social media issues and stay one step ahead of any potential crisis. 

Manita Dosanjh
April 22, 2015 - 4 min. read

Google ‘brand social media fails’ and the results are pretty entertaining. From brands using the Arab Spring to promote their menswear, to the collapsing retail chain that forgot an intern still had Twitter access during a ‘mass execution’ of employee contracts. Following another brand’s crisis on social media can be like watching a car crash in slow motion – you know it’s going to be terrible but you can’t not look at it.

Naturally, it’s good to know how to keep your brand’s public persona away from car crashes, and this doesn’t have to be as resource heavy as you might think – provided you have the right plan in place.

The words ‘social media crisis’ have been thrown around fairly often in recent times.

A crisis is something that can be avoided if you can listen, identify and intercept early on. Negative engagement can easily spiral out of control if it’s not intercepted, but how can you make sure you’re one step ahead of the negativity snowball?

When forming a crisis management plan, you should always  think of the crisis stage as the worst case scenario, preceded by a build up of smaller issues. Allow me to elaborate…

Defining your spectrum
We caught up with Melissa Agnes, crisis management expert and president of Agnes + Day, to find out the how your brand should best be thinking about crisis management. For Melissa, it’s important not to apply the word ‘crisis’ as a flat definition to all social media issues. Instead, think of negative engagement as spreading across a spectrum:

“The term ‘social media crisis’ is a buzzword floating about out there, being misused regularly – and most people don’t yet realise this. What many people call a ‘social media crisis’ is usually nothing more than an issue.”

Melissa Agnes Crisis Management Expert

It’s important to distinguish between a contained instance of negative engagement and a full blown crisis. Once this is done you can tailor the resources you invest to diffuse each one. Prevention is always better than the cure; a crisis management plan that is implemented closer to the ‘issue’ end of the spectrum will always effect better results than actioning towards the ‘crisis’ end.

social media crisis management best practices

“Define ‘issue’ vs. ‘crisis’ for your organization. What are the risks associated with each one? What are their escalation points? From there, you can outline best practices for responding appropriately and in real-time.”

Melissa Agnes Crisis Management Expert

This process will be specific to your organization and to your social media audience. You’ll need to take some time to think about your brand persona, and the types of issues that could be problematic for it.

Step up your engagement
Your audience expects a higher level of engagement during times of negativity, and they expect that engagement to happen immediately. If you can’t deliver this, the situation could snowball. Mobs in social media move quickly, so you need to be fast to avoid the pitchforks.  

Remember, your social media audience is the centre of your marketing universe. If they love you, they’ll show it, so it’s important to get intimate with their expectations. Defining social issues and aligning them with the spectrum will help you achieve this: What will cause negative engagement from your stakeholders? How do they want you to respond to them?

The goal with this isn’t to set your social channels up as a people-pleasing initiative; it won’t be possible to keep everyone happy 100% of the time. You can, however, know exactly how to respond when there is a negative comment, and that’s where defining your audience’s perspective will be useful.

The spectrum will also help you to think about what types of mistakes have the potential to cause negative engagement. What type of oversight will lead to an issue? What could lead to a crisis?

“A crisis, will never be purely confined to social media alone. It will also be written about in news articles (both traditional and online) and blogs, have a potentially threatening presence in the search engines and so forth.”

Melissa Agnes Crisis Management Expert

Finally, a spectrum will enable you to align the issue with the level of resource required. Is there a pesky troll leaving antagonistic comments on your Facebook page? A single team member whom you trust could probably handle this single-handedly. Is there a storm of angry tweets dominating your Twitter account and threatening to make it to press? This might require a little more strategizing before you can act.

Don’t let your pride be the one to blame
Handling social media issues begins with knowing when you’re wrong. This might seem like an obvious place to start, but if you don’t fully understand what causes social road rage, you won’t know how to diffuse it once it’s happening to you. The core thing to remember here is humility, because nearly all social media issues start with a mistake. For example:

  • You’ve exploited a sensitive issue, and it didn’t go down well (see Arab Spring example above)
  • You’ve slipped up in customer service, and the reaction is happening on social
  • There’s a weak spot in your security, and you didn’t detect it until it was too late (no-one needs live updates on ‘mass executions’)
  • You’ve mishandled any of the above

The bigger picture
Prevention. Response. Recovery. This should be your mantra when it comes to crisis management. Defining social media crisis management best practices for your brand can be a tall order. But, defining a spectrum of negative engagement will help you to nail this and stay one  step ahead of the social media mobs. Want to avoid the car crash? It’s not impossible, you just need the right plan. Read more in our social media crisis management handbook here. 

Cover photo credit: The Barrow Boy

How to Handle a Social Media Crisis

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