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Social Media Crisis Management: A Guide to Staying Calm Under Pressure

February 2, 2018

Few things are as satisfying as watching a major brand getting mercilessly owned on social media. Even if it’s a brand we don’t particularly care about – or perhaps precisely because we don’t care about them – seeing a faceless corporation get bodied by legions of angry consumers on Twitter or Facebook is pure schadenfreude at its best, especially if they had it coming (which, let’s be honest, they almost always do).

Social media crisis management McDonald's anti-Trump tweet
 

Hey, even a broken clock...

Social media crisis management has never been more crucial, yet it’s truly incredible watching brands that should have the common sense and expertise to know better make the same mistakes over and over again. From tasteless tweets to foolish Facebook fury, we’ve seen some of the world’s biggest brands brought to their proverbial knees by the power of social media, and I for one never tire of watching it unfold in real time. Of course, some poor bastard has to pick up the pieces, whether they’re responsible for the mess or not.

Today we’ll be looking at five social media crisis management examples and how they played out, as well as six tips for developing your own social media crisis response plan. We’ll be taking a short tour of some of the most egregious missteps made by major brands in recent years to serve as cautionary tales (and maybe the butt of a few well-deserved jokes), before examining not only what they did wrong during the aftermath, but what they should have done instead.

Ready to point at major brands and do your best Nelson Muntz laugh with me? Then let’s get to it!

5 Social Media Crisis Examples

#1: McDonald’s Hashtag Hijinks

Although many social media sites’ search functionality has become a great deal more sophisticated than it was just a few years ago, hashtags remain an important part of maximizing the visibility of social campaigns. Simply come up with a clever hashtag, let the users do the work, and reap the benefits – what could go wrong?

Social media crisis management McDonald's McDStories hashtag example
 

As McDonald’s learned in 2012, just about everything.

To coincide with a campaign to promote its line of happy meals, McDonald’s created a hashtag - #McDStories – and encouraged its followers to share their own stories. And, to the doubtless horror of the fast-food giant’s social media team, that’s exactly what people did.

Social media crisis management McDonald's McDStories hashtag example tweet
 

One of the hundreds of tweets that took advantage of the #McDStories hashtag to
shed light on McDonald’s business operations

Almost immediately, people began sharing their very worst experiences of either working at or patronizing McDonald’s, from horrifying labor law violations observed by former employees to shocking firsthand accounts of how the chain routinely abuses animals at its suppliers’ agricultural production facilities.

All told, the incident was among McDonald’s worst social media failures, and remains a prime example of how hashtag-based campaigns can backfire horribly.

Social Media Crisis #2: Tasteless Tie-Ins

There’s an old adage that says the only certainties in life are death and taxes. I propose that we add a third to the list – tone-deaf branded tweets on the anniversary of 9/11.

Social media crisis management branded 9/11 tweets
 

KNOCK IT OFF RIGHT NOW

It doesn’t matter how many brands have been taken to task for trying to capitalize on the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks – every year, it happens again.

There are literally dozens of examples of this in action, each as offensive as the last.

Social media crisis management branded 9/11 tweets CVS example
 

So do we – just not in the way CVS wants

In 2014, outspoken designer and co-founder of San Francisco-based Mule Design Mike Monteiro took some of the most egregious offenders to task for their “branding” on Twitter, which prompted some difficult conversations about coopting national tragedies to sell products.

Sadly, this kind of opportunistic branding is far from exclusive to 9/11 memorials. In 2014, a hashtag focused on the stories of domestic abuse survivors, #WhyIStayed, began trending on Twitter, and it didn’t take long for brands to plant their feet firmly in their proverbial mouths, as DiGiorno Pizza did with this particularly tasteless attempt to cash in on the hashtag:

 

Social media crisis management branded tweets DiGiorno WhyIStayed hashtag tweet

Social Media Crisis #3: Customer Service Crapshoots

Social media has given us more than just an outlet for our every waking thought and observation; it’s also a prime opportunity to let brands know exactly what we think of them. According to HubSpot, 72% of consumers who contact a company on Twitter expect a response within an hour, which means delaying responses to customer complaints can be the kiss of death for a company’s online reputation.

Case in point, British Airways.

In September 2013, Twitter user Hasan Syed, who tweets under the handle @HVSVN, tweeted about British Airways’ poor customer service. This was not just an organic tweet - @HVSVN was so mad, he paid to promote it to every user following British Airways (a clever example of using audience segmentation creatively), amplifying the tweet’s reach to more than 76,000 people:

Social media crisis management sponsored tweet don't fly British Airways twitter HVSVN
 

Granted, @HVSVN’s tweet was a little generic, and didn’t address a specific grievance or experience he’d had with the airline. However, British Airways did itself no favors by failing to respond to the tweet for more than eight hours. The reason for the delay? The airline’s social media team weren’t in the office because they only work 9-5 p.m.

Social media crisis management sponsored tweet don't fly British Airways tweet response
 

#LMAO #rekt

Had BA responded in a more timely fashion, some of the damage could have been mitigated – but they didn’t, and it wasn’t. A valuable lesson for companies of all sizes, especially immensely profitable international airlines that can easily afford a 24/7 social media presence.

Social Media Crisis #4: Multiple Account Maladies

Ever tweeted something from a personal account when you meant to tweet from the corporate account you manage? Then you’ll know how catastrophic – and easily – this kind of social media mix-up can be.

This particularly social snafu happens regularly. A brand’s social account posts an update or tweet that reflects poorly on the brand, which is then followed by either profuse apologies or indignant, transparently fake excuses about accounts being “hacked.”

Social media crisis management hostile customer support posts Facebook
 

Hello, police? I’d like to report a murder.

One especially memorable example of this came courtesy of British cellular provider Vodafone UK in February 2010, when the official Twitter handle of the company tweeted a truly vile, wildly offensive homophobic tweet. (I won’t include an image of the offending tweet here, but you can read this story in The Guardian to see what the tweet said.)

As is typical in such situations, Vodafone deleted the tweet immediately, but soon realized that everything lives forever on the internet after hundreds of users screengrabbed the tweet and reposted it. The company apologized to its followers in general and on an individual basis in the hours that followed, and later issued a statement that claimed an employee at the company’s customer service center in Stoke was responsible. That employee was subsequently fired, but the damage done to Vodafone UK’s brand lasted long after the rogue employee was given their pink slip (or P45, for our British readers who have no idea what a pink slip is).

Social Media Crisis #5: Politically Toxic Takes

Sometimes, brands get it so wrong on social media that it’s amazing they ever recover. This was a painful lesson that footwear brand New Balance learned the hard way last year when the brand inadvertently became unofficially endorsed by white supremacists.

Social media crisis management New Balance TPP pro-Trump tweets
 

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, New Balance’s VP of Public Affairs, Matt LeBretton, voiced his support for the incoming Trump administration when asked a question on his views on the doomed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. New Balance had been vociferously opposed to the TPP for many years, and had been in the running for an exclusive contract to provide the U.S. Department of Justice with athletic footwear, a contract for which the company was willing to tolerate the “poison pill that is TPP.

However, when LeBretton said that, “frankly, w/ Pres-Elect Trump we feel things are going to move in the right direction,” fans and opponents of New Balance alike wasted no time in voicing their disapproval. Shortly after the interview was published, neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer endorsed New Balance as the “official brand of the Trump revolution,” which prompted hundreds of former customers to post images of their New Balance sneakers in the trash on social media:

Social media crisis management Trump New Balance tweets
 

Social Media Crisis Management 101: 6 Tips for Survival

Now that we’ve seen a handful of the many ways you can inadvertently kill a brand on social media, let’s take a look at some of the measures you can take to reduce the risk of encountering a similarly catastrophic scenario, and tips you can use if a crisis is unavoidable.

#1: Think Before You Hashtag

As we discussed earlier, hashtags can be a great way to maximize visibility of your social content. However, as McDonald’s learned the hard way, hashtags can be as destructive as they can be useful.

Before creating a hashtag-themed campaign on any social platform, think about the myriad ways this could backfire. Could the meaning of the hashtag be purposefully misconstrued to damage your company’s reputation? Now is not the time to put your faith in the goodness of strangers or the better nature of your fellow humans.

 

Social media crisis management corporate account responses to negative tweets Comcast rep tweets

Spare a thought for poor Comcast Dan

Similarly, public perceptions of your company (or the company you work for) play a large role in the potential pitfalls of a hashtag-centric campaign. This is particularly important if you manage the social presence of large corporate entities with poor reputations, such as Comcast. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend, or how positive the messaging is, or how creative your campaign’s hashtags are – if people hate your company, they’ll take any chance they can to malign you on social media, including hijacking your hashtags.

If you’re in any doubt whatsoever, maybe reconsider the hashtag strategy.

#2: Avoid Capitalizing on Crises

If you’re tempted to think that your tweet about 9/11 or a similar tragedy will be funny – it won’t be.

There are simply no excuses for trying to capitalize upon a tragedy, ever. It doesn’t matter if your tweets or posts are funny, somber, or reverential – there’s just no need for them. The content of your updates aside, even appearing to be coopting a tragedy for your own gain can be enough to prompt a social media backlash that could do tremendous damage to perceptions of your brand.

Something else to be mindful of is scheduling tweets. Many companies schedule their social media posts up to several weeks in advance, and it’s obviously impossible to predict where and when tragedy will strike. That said, if you’ve got social media content queued up and a major terrorist attack or natural disaster occurs, consider postponing your scheduled tweets until the media coverage dies down; posting even scheduled content during or shortly after a national tragedy can be just as tone-deaf and potentially damaging as trying to coopt or capitalize upon a disaster in the first place.

#3: Have Prepared Response Plans in Place

One of the most damaging elements of an emerging social media crisis isn’t just the initial incident and the immediate fallout, but a lack of a defined, prepared disaster response plan.

Regardless of what crisis has befallen your company on social, you should know exactly what to do and who is responsible for assessing, responding to, and monitoring the development of the situation. Everybody identified in the crisis response plan should know their role and how the plan should be executed. It’s impossible to prepare for every single eventuality, but it’s amazing how many companies don’t have any form of disaster response plan ready.

Social media crisis management concept illustration

In addition to preparing a detailed response plan, you need to consider the tone of your prepared responses, not just how and when to get them out. If your company really did screw up, faux apologies like, “We’re sorry you feel that way” are likely to make matters worse, not better. Genuine, sincere apologies aren’t just the right thing to do when you drop the ball – they’re what your pissed-off followers will expect (or demand), so don’t make things worse by refusing to accept responsibility or offering a weak, not-quite apology.

#4: Create a Social Media Playbook for Your Company

As social media has become more sophisticated as a marketing tool, more and more companies have decided to formally codify their internal preferences and rules for employees into comprehensive social media playbooks. If you don’t have one, now’s the time to create one.

The specifics of what should be included in your social media playbook is a little beyond the scope of this post. However, the social media handbook of Oracle’s Eloqua platform is an excellent starting point for companies that are thinking about putting their own playbook together.

Social media crisis management Eloqua social media playbook example

A page from Eloqua’s social media playbook, which is an excellent
starting point for businesses considering creating their own

Your social media playbook should not only cover the aforementioned disaster response plans, but also govern how social media usage should be handled by your reps and employees. This includes elements such as the style, tone, and voice of social media content published by official handles or accounts. (It may be worth incorporating elements of your in-house style guide into your social media playbook, especially when it comes to content governance.)

The guide should also contain explicit guidelines for factors such as responding to user inquiries on behalf of your company, and general codes of conduct in a broader sense (such as apologies, as we talked about a moment ago). It should also cover rules concerning whether offending tweets or posts should be deleted (protip: they shouldn’t until a full explanation and supporting tweet/post has been published), how matters of escalation should be handled, and appropriate reporting procedures to ensure key stakeholders are kept up to speed on developing or emerging crises.

Social media guidelines for companies are very handy, but they’re not without their risks. For one, it’s unethical (and most likely illegal) to force employees to adhere to stringent social media usage policies that violate or restrict your employees’ civil liberties or freedom of speech. It’s also a very bad look to try and police the content of your employees’ social media posts, and doing so is a great way to earn yourself some negative press. Protecting your business’ reputation is important, but not at the expense of your employees’ protected rights to freedom of expression.

#5: Use Two-Factor Authentication for Login Credentials

Whether the result of genuine “hacks” or simple carelessness across multiple accounts, this kind of snafu can be hugely damaging. That’s why you should consider using two-factor authentication for all social media services if available.

Social media crisis management two-factor authentication example illustration
 

An illustration of how two-factor authentication works, via Google.

In case you’re unfamiliar with two-factor authentication (also known as two-step verification), this security system requires that two distinct challenges be cleared before granting a user access to a social media account. This usually involves an initial credentials check for the correct username and password, followed by a secondary check that asks the user to enter a unique login code or access key to verify the identity of the user. This is often a secondary code that can be texted or emailed to registered account holders, which is then entered into the social media service in question.

Two-factor authentication is far from a silver bullet that will prevent your social media manager accidentally tweeting a personal tweet from your corporate account – but it does reduce the risk of it happening. It also significantly reduces the risk that your corporate social accounts will be hacked, and is among the easiest and most effective security solutions at your disposal.

#6: Choose Your Battles Carefully

As New Balance’s Matt LeBretton learned after voicing his support for Trump’s proposed agenda late last year, choosing sides in political battles can backfire spectacularly. However, these days, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate the political from the everyday, and even the most carefully curated social media brand or persona may find it impossible to remain on the fence indefinitely.

Whatever your personal or corporate politics may be, choosing your battles carefully is essential to surviving on social media. The Sleeping Giants movement, which pressures well-known brands to cease advertising on websites promoting white supremacy and other odious political ideas, has demonstrated that people are willing to support brands and companies that take a stand against hatred and bigotry.

Social media crisis management Patagonia Bears Ears monument response Facebook
 

A Facebook post published by outdoor apparel retailer Patagonia speaking
out against Trump’s executive order shrinking the Bears Ears National Monument in
southeastern Utah

Recently, the official Patagonia social media channels embarked on a well-publicized stand against the government’s plans to shrink protected national monuments and public lands across several western states, a move for which the company and its executive team received immense support. I’d wager Patagonia’s decision to weigh in on a hotly contested, crucially important political and environmental issue didn’t hurt sales or social engagement, either, but it doesn’t change the fact that a major nationwide outdoor apparel retailer chose to publicly and openly criticize the government on social media – a potentially disastrous decision that ultimately proved enormously popular with the general public and highlights the importance of cohesive brand values on social media.

It’s important to remember, however, that you can’t please everyone, all the time, and that choosing a side can and likely will result in upsetting at least some people. Regardless of how you choose to handle these situations, the procedures in place should be clearly and fully explained in your company’s social media guidebook.

Grace Under Pressure

Few things in today’s business environment are as stressful or potentially damaging as a full-scale social media crisis. Fortunately, the tips and techniques above can help you get in front of these situations before doing untold damage to your company or reputation, but it’s important to take as many precautionary measures as you can to minimize confusion as social media emergencies develop.

Dan Shewan

Originally from the U.K., Dan Shewan is a journalist and web content specialist who now lives and writes in New England. Dan’s work has appeared in a wide range of publications in print and online, including The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Pacific Standard magazine, The Independent, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and many other outlets.