How to Navigate a Social Media Crisis

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Using social media monitoring as a “canary in a coal mine” can help you identify problems or issues that, if not addressed, could metastasize into full-blown, mainstream media crises.

Frequently, a problem with a business or organization first manifests itself online – usually on social media. Identifying, addressing or containing the problem before it is covered in the local, regional or national news is the best strategy. Social media plans should be designed to coordinate with broader crisis communications plans, so that when a crisis communications team is activated, the broader plan comes into action along with the social media playbook.

Other times, an external crisis crosses into social media and significant reputation damage can occur if not detected and managed by the social media plan within the broader response. In short, coordination between public relations and digital teams is paramount to ensure coordinated responses. So, how can you ensure your organization is ready for a social media crisis? Start by following these three steps:

Prepare before you need to respond to a social media crisis.

Create a social media policy and educate your employees. This will help reduce the likelihood of an employee posting something inappropriate or embarrassing on social media. This can also include copyright guidelines and privacy safeguards, something that is especially true for healthcare organizations who have to protect patient privacy. Change your social media passwords often, and audit who has access to your accounts. Former employees or agencies you no longer work with may still have access to your social media accounts.

Establish a decision tree about how to respond on social media.

Create a crisis flowchart that specifies who in your organization should be contacted in different scenarios. This can tie into a decision tree that addresses how to handle different kinds of comments and posts. Here are a few examples of how to approach a social media decision tree: 

  • If the post includes profanity, racist, homophobic, misogynistic or otherwise offensive language, delete/hide it.
  • If the post should be better handled offline, suggest that the conversation continue via direct message or a phone call with customer service (or similar department).
  • If the post is not relevant or does not merit a response, simply ignore the posts.
  • If the post can be addressed publicly, draft a reply that includes the person’s name.

Having prepared statements or replies to antagonistic posts that can be easily modified will help shorten your response time. These prepared responses can be written in collaboration with your legal department if necessary.

Monitor your social media results all the time.

Monitor reaction to your responses. Often, the initial reply will suffice; people online usually just want to be heard. But if the initial commenter responds, return to the decision tree to decide whether to delete/hide, ignore or continue to interact. It can be easy to get pulled into an endless conversation call sea-lioning. Sea-lioning is a type of trolling or online harassment which consists of pursuing people with persistent requests for evidence or repeated questions, while maintaining a pretense of civility and sincerity. It may take the form of incessant, bad-faith invitations to engage in debate.

The longer you let something fester on social media, the worse may get. Get a good social media monitoring system set up to help you keep track of conversations taking place on social media. Meltwater is what Pierpont uses, although Hootsuite and Sprout Social can do the job too. Setup a process for social media “kill switch.” Sometimes, external events can catch a company by surprise and you’ll need to pause or postpone social media posts so as not to appear tone deaf. Establish a clear process to enable your social media team to quickly and easily cancel or pause social media posts.

Most important is to be able to determine what is and what is not a crisis. Some online kerfuffles are just that – minor disturbances that don’t merit an overreaction. And sometimes letting customers or netizens vent can be the best way to see your way through a crisis. But knowing you’ve planned ahead and have internal processes (in close coordination with the PR/media relations team) to make deliberate, thoughtful decisions along the way will help ensure that you react proportionately to the problem.