How to build and manage your social media crisis plan

For consumers, social media is fast-moving, quirky and fun. And for many, it’s changed the definition of downtime — hello, dead-scroll.

But for businesses, social media can feel a lot like being on “Survivor.” You might think you understand the lay of the land but there’s always a secret alliance or hidden immunity idol — and one or both of those have the power to get you kicked off the island. 

Smart “Survivor” players understand that if you’re on the island, the game is in play. The rules are always shifting and letting your guard down can lead to a blindside. The same is true for businesses on social media. Sure, your business must be authentic and approachable, but it also must be strategic. 

In the past few years, social listening tools have helped many businesses understand their customers’ changing preferences and sidestep PR nightmares. Whether it’s negative product feedback, customer service complaints or a glitch in your online purchasing process, a communication strategy — with a crisis plan at its core — is a must-have. 

According to a survey published in Forbes in January 2023, only 49% of companies have a formal crisis communication plan. Approximately 28% have an informal (understood but undocumented) crisis plan, and 23% don’t have one at all. On the flip side, 98% of businesses that have activated their crisis plan say it was effective and 72% said they broadened the scope after a crisis event. 

What is a social media crisis?

Let’s start with what a social media crisis isn’t. It’s not a single negative complaint or a mean comment. Those are par for the course for every brand and business on social media. But random negativity can turn into a crisis quickly if not handled correctly. Watch for these signs:

  • Social chatter with a divisive theme. A random comment that extends from one person to a larger conversation between customers who share a common frustration.  
  • Scope and scale. Moving away from commenting on a thread, customers begin creating new conversations and posting on the company’s social media channels independent of the original conversation.  
  • Information asymmetry. When social chatter reaches a roar and the company is still in the dark about what happened, the pace of a crisis reaches its tipping point. 

Of course, the best way to handle a crisis is to avoid it in the first place. Empowering your employees with the tools they need to both listen and respond to issues as they arise is a good first step. If you have a dedicated social media manager, ensure they’re using a social media scheduler that allows them to watch and listen as well as post. 

In 2022, Canada’s biggest telecom provider, Rogers Communications, went dark across the country. Everything from hospitals to 911 services to restaurants were affected for more than 12 hours.

Tony Staffieri, the CEO and president, apologized at the end of the day, offering no explanation for the outage or information on the extent of the damage. His apology was thin, ineffectual and, to many, an insult. How Rogers handled the situation is a good reminder that if a company this large can fail this dramatically, we all can.

How to avoid an online crisis — engage in online listening

The sad thing about most social media crisis situations is that many didn’t need to happen in the first place. If someone was listening, those one-off comments would have been answered by a social manager, connecting the consumer to someone who could help. 

If your company is using any form of social media, someone should be monitoring conversations long before they grow into mob status.

  • Set up search streams in your social media scheduler to track your business name and any hashtags you use regularly. If you don’t have a scheduler, it’s time to get one.
  • Add search terms for competitors’ business names or products to help you understand what’s happening locally and within your industry. 
  • Involve the decision-makers in your company so they know what you’re doing and why. Open communication is key to success before, during and after a crisis.

Social media crisis plan — a step-by-step guide to getting through the worst of the worst

Having a social media plan in place long before you need it will help your staff understand when a complaint becomes a crisis. Add in some fire drills, too. Just like sales reps practice their pitches, rehearsals and role-playing will help employees prepare for worst-case scenarios and be ready with a response. The more comfortable your staff is in “what if” situations, the more comfortable they’ll be massaging the message in a real disaster.

  1. Identify the source of the crisis. Sometimes a crisis stems from a complaint that went viral but it might also be from a current cultural or news event or an update from your company that struck a sensitive nerve in your community. 
  1. Pause all outbound messages. Even if you only suspect a crisis is brewing, pause all scheduled messages so you don’t inadvertently add to the chaos. Shift to monitoring only until the situation is better defined and your spokesperson can carry the message forward. 
  1. Consult your decision flowchart. It doesn’t have to be fancy but it does need to include simple instructions for the people in charge of monitoring your social media accounts. 
  • This is the group responsible for handling the situation.
  • This is our message.
  • This is our spokesperson.
  1. Engage your spokesperson. During a crisis, one person should be carrying the message forward. Not only does one spokesperson ensure there are no conflicting messages, but they will also help the consumers connect with the brand in a personal, emotional and hopefully empathetic way. 
  1. Build a pressure relief valve. If you’re truly in a crisis, providing your community a place to vent on a channel you’re connected to will help you navigate and guide conversations. This will also help you monitor conversations and watch as variants emerge. Think of it as your early warning system for possible upcoming crisis waves. 
  1. Respect the clock. Time is of the essence in social media — 24 hours is too long for the company to join in the conversation. Crisis communication needs to be prompt, precise and personal. 

Weathering the storms of a social media crisis can be stressful and exhausting, but the experience can lead to powerful lessons, too. Remember to engage in a post-mortem so you can better understand how you got into trouble in the first place and how you and your staff handled the situation. 

Julia Rosien

A digital brand marketer, I’m passionate about technology and how it can help us do what we do – better. How we interact with technology – personally and professionally – is where the magic happens and it’s where smart marketers focus their energy. Experience and insights coupled with emerging digital tools leads to best in class brand marketing for today’s connected consumer. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

View all posts by Julia Rosien →

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