Crisis Social Media: How to Weather an Online Storm

How do you prepare to use social media in a crisis?

It’s crucial to have your crisis social media strategy in mind and on paper before the crisis comes. Few were prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, and even fewer for the recent tragic police shooting incidents that have sparked protests around the world.

Should you respond to the crisis or stay quiet? If you respond, what do you say? Will it reflect badly on your brand if you don’t take a stand? If you do? Crisis social media is tricky.

What constitutes a crisis? Raven Tools defines a social media crisis as:

… an online situation that has, or risks having, a negative and long-
term impact on your business or organization’s reputation and/or bottom line.

During a time of widespread or national crisis, one of the first things you need to do is pause any scheduled social media posts. You appear insensitive if you’re promoting your latest blog post while others are in emergency situations. Although opinions about its success are mixed, Blackout Tuesday, on June 2, 2020, encouraged businesses to pause their promotional posts and post a black square on their profiles to protest racism and police brutality after the shooting deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.

In recent weeks a group of local restaurants in the city where we lived for many years has been in the news. The restaurants have traditionally received numerous awards and been highly recommended on review sites. However, social media posts from former employees revealed a toxic, racist culture so offensive it looked for a time as if the spots would have to close permanently. Unfortunately, one of the owners seemed to be the source of much of the toxicity.

The restaurant group’s crisis social media response was, at first, to delete their social accounts, which only further angered the community. After a few days they issued an apology and a promise to investigate the incidents. The apology did little to quell the anger. Later, the owner accused of the racist comments and actions agreed to leave the group. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes from here, but I think it was the only solution if the restaurants were to stay open.

Remember that a crisis brings strong emotions and act accordingly. If you are upset, take some time to cool down before you start posting on social media. Don’t try to minimize what you’ve done wrong or blame others or circumstances. Take clear and honest responsibility for anything you or your business has done to create the crisis.

Plan Ahead

Sooner or later, a crisis will arise. If you plan ahead, you’ll be much better equipped to take it on. Think about how you would respond to the following:

  • An unhappy customer who’s talking about you online – this may or may not rise to crisis level.
  • An employee or representative who posts offensive content online on their own social account
  • An inappropriate post on your business’ social accounts
  • A product you sell or produce causes harm or injury
  • An employee is rude or inappropriate to a customer or client
  • A moral scandal involving company leadership

Think through each of these potential situations and decide the best course of action. Even though they may seem unlikely, no one is immune from the possibility of a scandal or crisis. Brainstorm other, possibility industry-specific crises that may occur.

Put your crisis social media plan on paper. Include:

  • Who will communicate to the media on behalf of your business.
  • Members of your crisis communications team if you have one.
  • Policies for employees on how to communicate in crisis and where to refer inquiries.

Be sure all team members know and have access to your crisis policy. Evaluate your plan after the crisis and change it as needed.

5 Cs of Crisis Social Media

In an interview with Brand24 Blog, crisis expert Monika Czaplicka cites 5 Cs for businesses in crisis.

  1. Confess. There is nothing to be gained by denying the offense. No one will believe that your Twitter or Facebook account has been hacked. If you’ve ever been insulted and the person responsible tells you, “I didn’t mean it THAT way … “ you understand how hollow that sounds. If you did wrong, say you did wrong and take responsibility. You can delete the offending post, but be prepared that someone will probably have a screenshot.
  2. Contrition. Are you truly sorry? Or are you sorry you got caught? Again, think about the last time someone offended you. Isn’t it worse if it feels like they just don’t care? If your audience perceives that you’re just sorry you got caught, all the apologies in the world won’t turn things around. Don’t apologize hastily — take a little time to be strategic and authentic about it.
  3. Counteract. Do what it takes to make the situation better. Ask for another chance to make it right and do it with a willing attitude. Be respectful to the offended party — don’t try to minimize their feelings or the offense.
  4. Correct the error. Do what it takes to fix the problem that created the crisis. Fire the employee, change the policy, whatever it takes, as it’s clearly not working. Let your audience know you’re fixed the problem and ask for their feedback on your fix.
  5. Compensate. Give them something. Maybe it’s a free meal or discount coupon be creative and make it something of real value or it will ring false and stir up more resentment.

I would add three more Cs:
Continue to Interact. What the restaurant group didn’t understand was that taking down the social profiles only made detractors angrier. While I don’t recommend leaving up posts with defamatory or offensive language, don’t walk away from the conversation. Stay and try to resolve it. Solicit feedback on how you can do better and listen to what your audience says.

Communicate with integrity. Tell the truth and tell it clearly. Don’t try to tell half truths and certainly don’t lie. If you’re ever to regain the community’s trust, you must be transparent and honest.

Consider tone. Be sure your communications match the tone of the ongoing discussion and the issues raised. This is not the time to try out a humorous approach or you’ll be perceived as making light of the situation. Be sensitive to the emotions the issues stir up.

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