Social media has dramatically changed the way we communicate. Opinions, reactions, and commentary now have the capacity to rocket around the world almost instantly.
The ability to broadcast personal thoughts and reactions and then see that content amplified means that news travels fast and that’s true whether it’s good or bad.
Small issues can become big crises on social media.
Forewarned is forearmed
Having an effective social media monitoring program in place is a fundamental part of a communications plan. What that monitoring program looks like will vary from one business to the next, but a common element is to track mentions for potential issues or problems.
A customer-facing company will have different monitoring strategies than a business that primarily works with other businesses, but common search strategies do exist. For example, monitoring for brand mentions alongside of misuse or injuries. If your brand has ever experienced a crisis in the past, consider mining that prior experience for search terms that could help you to identify a crisis in very early stages.
Every crisis is different—but they all start somewhere. Think carefully about what a brand crisis might look like to your company, and set up your monitoring to flag problems quickly.
Depending on your monitoring tool’s capabilities, one way to get ahead of a crisis is by setting up alerts. The sooner you are aware there might be a problem, the faster you can implement a crisis plan.
Developing a crisis communications plan is important for any organization—it gives you a road map to follow, which can help to avoid common problems that arise during a crisis. Responding in haste, putting forth the wrong spokesperson, or making comments that make a crisis worse are examples of the pitfalls of not having a crisis communications plan in place.
Know your audience
The moment a crisis starts to blow up on social media, panic can quickly set in. The impulse to tamp down criticism can be a strong one, but doing so can actually make things worse.
Figuring out what is being said and who is amplifying that criticism is critical. If it’s your customers and key audience, you have a crisis on your hands and need to get to work.
On the other hand, if you’re being attacked by people or organizations that are not your key audience, responding might prolong the issue—or escalate.
It can be extremely challenging to summon the discipline to analyze and wait before responding when your brand is being attacked.
Know your crisis
There are different types of crises, and some will resonate more with the public. Knowing what type of crisis you face is key to responding correctly. Environmental disasters that affect drinking water or that kill wildlife are going to be long-term problems. A brand refresh with a new logo that people hate is a crisis, sure, but it’s simply not on the same scale.
Back in 2010, U.S.-based apparel retailer Gap decided to redesign their logo, switching from the well-recognized navy blue box with GAP inside of it to a Helvetica rendering of the word “Gap” (no longer all-caps) with a blue box superimposed behind the “p”. The blowback and criticism on social media was loud and intense, and the brand quickly decided to revert to the old logo.
A crisis can be described as an event or response that can have a negative impact on a brand, and by that definition, an oil spill and a logo redesign are both crises. But we intuitively understand that one can have far-reaching impacts while the other is unlikely to cause any lasting damage. There are no legal or long-term health ramifications to consider with a logo refresh. Understanding what has long-term repercussions and what will eventually pass is critical to hitting the right tone when responding.
One of the more undervalued uses of social media during and after a crisis is using it to rebuild trust. Ongoing monitoring will help point you to the areas of a crisis that may need attention, such as communicating better with key audiences.
Monitoring social media during and after a crisis can help to surface areas of concern for customers, and can show you which messaging is resonating and where more work might be needed.
Analyzing post-crisis social content can show a brand how trust is being reestablished, and if target audiences are responding to corrective behaviors. If there are changes a brand has made in response to a crisis, monitoring social content can show how those efforts are progressing.
Rebuilding trust can take time, especially if a crisis is particularly serious.
Understanding the elements of a crisis
One of the biggest challenges brands face online is accurately gauging what is a crisis and what is just a bad day online. This is complicated by the fact that a one-off comment on social can be discovered days, weeks, or even months later.
Adjusting to the unpredictable nature of social media outrage is hard. Paying attention to how other crises unfold is helpful in developing an understanding of what elements might be in play.
Some are obvious. When United Airlines overbooked a flight in 2017, they were unable to find enough passengers to relinquish seats, so they started to reassign passengers. A doctor refused to give up his seat, saying he had patients to see the next morning—so, he was forcibly dragged off the plane, resulting in a concussion, a broken nose, and the loss of two teeth. This was all filmed by other passengers with smartphones and posted online. The seats, not inconsequentially, did not go to other passengers—they were occupied by airline employees.
Several elements contributed to the viral nature of this social media crisis. One, the violence of the removal seemed over the top. Two, the individual was a doctor on his way home to see patients—a noteworthy objective. Three, the removal of passengers to accommodate airline employees comes across as self-serving.
Public reaction was swift and fierce. This was definitely a crisis.
Other social flare-ups do not reach crisis levels. “Outrage management” is a term sometimes used to describe the efforts of defusing an issue or concern. Social media can skew reactions to the extremes, and knowing when and how to de-escalate a situation is important.
Ideally, addressing an issue and de-escalating is the best way to avoid a crisis—and monitoring is key to finding problems early.
Using monitoring to identify problems is an important first step. For situations that can unpredictably move to a crisis level, social media monitoring should be deployed first for crisis management, and then to help repair and rebuild trust.