COMMENTARY: Handling a social media crisis before it blows up

By Traci R. Gentilozzi

Businesses and their brands can – and do – suffer social-media-induced nightmares. For example, several years ago this mistakenly popped up on the American Red Cross’s Twitter account: “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer... when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd”

How did the American Red Cross handle the misplaced tweet? With humor and grace. The organization responded on Twitter with the following statement: “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.”

While deleting a tweet is not always the best solution (people will notice and start asking questions), the American Red Cross made a good decision by removing the tweet and acknowledging what happened. Crisis averted.

Remember: the main power of social media is amplification – both good and bad. The good can be handled without any worries. But when the bad happens, how you handle the situation is critical. And with more and more businesses using social media as a marketing tool, it’s not a question of “if” a crisis will strike ... it’s a question of “when.” 

Here are some tips for managing (and avoiding) a social media crisis.

Establish a Policy

Develop an internal social media policy. When employees are given clear guidelines on what to post and what not to post on social media, the risk of someone making a mistake or going rogue is lessened. 

Monitor Your Sites

Pay attention to your social media accounts. Don’t let days or weeks go by without reviewing them. This will help you stay on top of possible concerns.

Social media “listening” can also keep a potential issue from turning into a full-blown crisis. By listening, you can gauge how people are reacting to your posts and to your brand. Over time, you will begin to understand the difference between relatively minor grumblings and a significant change in the attitude toward your business.

Develop a Crisis Plan

Establish a social media crisis plan. If you have a procedure in place before you need it, you will be able to respond quickly to a snafu before it gets beyond your control. 

The key to crisis management is responding in a timely manner. Most experts advise that a crisis should be addressed within one hour, to help avoid it spreading. 

A social media crisis plan should include:

• Instructions on how the crisis will be internally communicated.
• Instructions on assessing what is a real crisis (and not just a disgruntled individual).
• An approval process for social media posts.
• An approval process for external messages.
• A link on your website to your social media policy.
• A list of employees and their responsibilities.

Delay Scheduled Posts

If you’re in the middle of a social media crisis, be sure to delay any posts that have been pre-scheduled. Nothing says “we don’t care” more than a silly meme or a casual post popping up during a crisis. It will make your business look insensitive.

Do Not Argue

When a social media crisis occurs, acknowledge the mistake but do not argue with people. Don’t post a response in the heat of the moment – you may come across as defensive or angry.

Sometimes the way to handle a negative situation is to simply post that your business will soon be issuing a formal statement. This gives you time to develop a response. And remember ... keep it short.

Unfortunately, people will still sometimes try to get a response from you before you are ready to give one. Avoid getting lured into a debate with someone on social media. In these cases, you may want to direct message, email or call the individual who keeps pressing you. 

Also, do not immediately delete all negative comments (unless you believe they are profane or offensive to others) or block people who disagree with you. In other words, do not take things personally because, if you do, you will lose the voice of your brand.

Learn a Lesson

After you survive a social media crisis, take stock of what happened and learn from the experience. Ask the following: 

• What prompted the crisis? 
• How can a similar crisis be averted in the future? 
• What parts of the crisis plan worked? 
• How can you improve the crisis plan?

In the end, the keys to addressing a social media crisis are: respond quickly, respond appropriately and respond with transparency. This way, your social media followers (i.e., your clients and prospective clients) will know that you are, indeed, the brand you claim to be.


Attorney Traci R. Gentilozzi owns 360 Legal Solutions PLLC, a company that focuses on legal content development and promotion for sole practitioners and small firms. She is also the editor of BRIEFS, the monthly publication of the Ingham County Bar Association. This article is reprinted with permission from BRIEFS.