11 ways to avoid a social media crisis

Full-blown social media crises can do huge damage to a brand's reputation, so protect yourself by following our 11 steps to avoiding a social media crisis.

Social Media Crisis

The days of a genuine social media crisis have thankfully become less frequent. Brands recognise the need to become more savvy and have tightened up their operations. They now seek professional help to advise them on strategy, use powerful monitoring tools and equip their staff with the necessary skills.

However, it would be naïve to suggest that brands have become immune to social media fails. They do still happen, but you can limit your chances of stumbling into a social media crisis by following a few basic rules…

Use monitoring tools

There is such a wealth of social media monitoring tools available today that it’s almost bordering on neglect not to use one. Brands use monitoring tools for several reasons:

  • To manage their own social media channels
  • To engage in relevant conversations (marketing)
  • To capture/respond to queries/complaints (customer service)
  • To monitor industry trends, competitor analysis etc. (e.g. topics of conversation, sentiment etc.)

There are powerful enterprise-level tools such as Brandwatch and Sysomos, which pack a range of sophisticated features, but there is also a wide range of free and low-cost tools. See our recent review of the best free social media monitoring tools.

Set rules for customers

It’s all about the rules. If customers don’t know what they can and can’t do when engaging with your brand then they’re well within their rights to kick up a fuss when you put them right after the event.

Make it crystal clear why Facebook posts might be deleted, or when a Tweet replied to with a formal response. Citigroup’s Twitter customer policy is fairly long and most customers probably won’t read it. But if a customer reacted angrily to having their bank account details stolen, City are covered.

Here’s part of their policy:

‘Remember: Anything you post on Twitter is public. It is very important that you do not disclose any information that you consider private and confidential in your Tweets or Retweets. Citi will never ask you to include your account number, account access information or other personal or financial information in a Tweet. If Customer Service needs more information, they will either send you a direct message (DM) asking for your phone number or ask you to contact them directly.’

You can see the policy in full here.

Create clear internal guidelines

If you don’t have a set of in-house guidelines for your staff, then you can’t really blame them if an innocent human error damages your brand. Staff need to be fully aware of what’s expected of them across the board:

  • Personal accounts: Are staff members allowed to associate themselves with the brand when posting to their personal accounts? Do they need a disclaimer?
  • Sensitive information: You might think it’s common sense not to share company information with the general public, but what kind of information is okay for the public domain? Customer data is an obvious no-no, but things like new staff hires and office parties sit in a grey area and need to be clarified.
  • Copyright: A thorny issue and one that could get your brand into a lot of trouble. Copyright laws can be incredibly complex, so a clear policy written in plain English is crucial.
  • Tone of voice: Most brands these days encourage regular discourse with their customers. But are staff members aware of how that discourse should be written? Draw up tone of voice guidelines – there’s a great one here.
  • Firefighting: If you have a crisis management policy then make sure all relevant staff members are aware of exactly what their role is in the event of a crisis.

Roles and responsibilities

The growth of social media as a customer service tool has left many brands with an org chart dilemma. The marketing team might run the social media post calendar and customer services might deal with customer queries, but who deals with a crisis? This is where your PR team, legal people, tech support, marketing and customer support teams might need to get involved. Having a clear crisis management plan will help staff members know exactly who deals with what when the time comes.

Social Media Crisis

Train staff

You’ve got your social media guidelines locked and loaded, but are you confident all staff members are comfortable with the technical side of running social accounts? In July this year a staffer with the US Justice Department, no less, accidentally used his employer’s Twitter account to describe CNN as ‘the biggest troll of them all’ – adding ‘lmao’ for good measure.

Social Media Crisis

“A staffer in the public affairs office erroneously used the official Department of Justice Twitter handle to post a tweet that was intended for a personal account,” a Justice Department official said. The tweet was quickly deleted and the staff member had their account access revoked, but the embarrassing damage was done.

Do your research

What should have been a feel-good seasonal post from Coca-Cola turned into a PR backfire.

Posting a festive message to Russian social media network VK, the drinks giant sent out a map of Russia but decided not to include Crimea. The territory was annexed by Moscow in 2014, and its absence created a barrage of criticism in Russia. Coke quickly apologised and re-posted the map – this time including Crimea.

Problem solved? Not quite. Crimea is a disputed territory between Russia and Ukraine, and users in the latter nation quickly called for a boycott of Coca-Cola after seeing the amended map. The moral of the story is: do your research. And if you still aren’t sure, then your idea is probably a non-starter.

Social Media Crisis

Beware of the bots

This year has seen some significant progress in the field of social media bots. Sensing an opportunity, Microsoft created a Twitter bot as a way of demonstrating their AI capabilities.

The account – Tay Tweets – was designed to become smarter the more it engaged with users. However, Twitter being Twitter, the account was bombarded by trolls and Tay quickly developed some dubious views, insisting the Holocaust was ‘made up’ and that 9/11 was an ‘inside job’.

Microsoft responded by deleting all offensive tweets and apologising for the “unintended offensive and hurtful tweets”. They learned their lesson, and Tay is now a protected account.

Social Media Crisis

Act quickly

A Brandwatch study in 2015 found that just 11.2% of brands respond to customer queries within an hour. This certainly applied to Domino’s Pizza in an infamous example from several years ago.

Staff at a branch in South Carolina filmed themselves tampering with food about to go out for delivery.The video surfaced on a Friday but Domino’s didn’t pick up on it until the following Monday. In the absence of weekend monitoring and a crisis plan, the company missed the opportunity to deal with the crisis right from the start and were left to deal with the pretty ugly fall-out.

Scenario testing

If you’re in a highly regulated industry, you should definitely carry out scenario testing. If you’re a pharmaceutical, for example, what should you do if someone complains of serious illness caused by one of your drugs on Facebook? Who will see it, who can they call? Do they have your PR manager’s mobile phone number? Do they take it offline?

By testing a range of key scenarios you can identify weaknesses and fix them before they turn into a crisis.

Be truthful from the start

One UK local authority bore the brunt of a Facebook campaign to get a new speed camera removed from a busy road. Thousands of people joined the campaign before the authority finally posted a response explaining the reasons behind their decision.

As Luke Brynley-Jones of OST Marketing says: “The local authority had statistical evidence to say that the camera would save lives. If they had published that evidence on Facebook on the first day they could have avoided the crisis.”

Use common sense

This category wouldn’t have made it in were it not for a recent social media video campaign that appeared to be trying to make commercial gain out of one of the worst tragedies in human history.

A mattress store in San Antonio, United States, created a video ad on the eve of 9/11 promoting what they described distastefully as a ‘twin towers’ sale. In the video a female Miracle Mattress employee enthusiastically talked up their “twin price” deal, before two male employees both fell dramatically into two stacks of mattresses.

Social Media Crisis

The campaign predictably attracted widespread outrage, with more than 3,000 people posting negative reviews on the company’s Facebook page. The owner of the chain issued a statement apologising, but it failed to douse the flames and he later opted to close the store “indefinitely”.

Now you’ve read this article you won’t ever have to take the same drastic measures…

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