Social media training: 8 tips for handling a social media crisis

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8 tips for handling a social media crisis

Few things seem to travel faster on social media than public outrage.

And major brands and organisations often seem to be in the firing line, forcing them into crisis media management mode, if they’re not completely caught out by the speed and power of online fury.

How brands respond to and manage these incidents is key.

Here are eight tips, from our social media training courses, to help those of us who have to pick up the pieces when things go wrong on social media.


Is it actually a crisis?

Social media has brought us many advantages, but it also appears to have shifted the definition of what constitutes a crisis.

Much smaller events, which wouldn’t meet the traditional definition, are now not only regularly described as a crisis, but also have the potential to cause huge reputational damage.

Customers perceiving they have been treated badly, ill-judged comments and jokes, misjudged posts and bad associations all have the power to cause organisations to go into crisis media management mode.

For example, the editor of Waitrose Food magazine resigned when a private joke he made about vegans was circulated on social media, triggering a backlash.

But, should things like this always be treated as a crisis? Or are they sometimes issues which keyboard warriors will quickly move on from once something else attracts their outrage?

And that is the crucial question. If the organisation feels it is a crisis and it has done something wrong, then clearly it should apologise.

But, those apologies should be reserved for when it has done something it regrets, or when something has gone terribly wrong, rather than trying to pacify what is often a small, but noisy, minority.

Sometimes responding to criticism and apologising for any upset can actually give an issue more impetus and credibility. For an example of this, think back to the way Paperchase handled the fall out when it announced a partnership with the Daily Mail.

Was Paperchase right to apologise? 


Make it meaningful

If you do decide to issue an apology, as well as being prompt, it also needs to look and feel like you really mean it.

It must not seem that it is a default option that the organisation has employed to try to stop the negative posts.

‘We take this matter extremely seriously’ is a line many organisations fall back on, but such is its overuse that it doesn’t really feel like they are taking it seriously at all.

An apology on social media - just like in traditional media - needs to reflect sincerity, honesty and empathy.

There has also been an increasing tendency to offer some form of goodwill gesture when something has gone wrong. When BrewDog was swept up in a social media storm, after a press announcement went out promoting an offer of free beer to British supporters of Donald Trump, the brewer offered a free beer to anyone who supports ‘love not hate’.

How Brewdog managed its curious 'PR disaster'


Be human

One of the big failings we see is organisations who fall back on corporate language when they are in the social media firing line.

Take Marriott Hotels, for example, and the way it dealt with its recent huge data breach.

If you went on the Marriott International Twitter account, you would have been met with a response that said: “Marriott values our guests and understands the importance of protecting personal information. For more information on the Starwood guest reservation database security incident, please visit”



If you clicked through on that link you were met with a statement which included quotes from CEO Arne Sorenson. He said things like: “We fell short of what our guests deserve and what we expect of ourselves.  We are doing everything we can to support our guests, and using lessons learned to be better moving forward.”

“Today, Marriott is reaffirming our commitment to our guests around the world.”

All very corporate and unappealing.

One of the best ways to show customers that you really do care about what has happened, is to keep the language human and emotive.

When KFC, for example, was dealing with its chicken crisis earlier this year, it used everyday language and humour in its posts, to show its human side.

How the Colonel handled the chicken crisis like a pro 


Carefully consider whether you can reply to everyone

There is a temptation during a crisis to try to respond to everyone who raises a concern.

While undoubtedly well-intentioned, it regularly results in brands issuing the same response repeatedly.

This copy and paste approach might save time, but it looks bland and robotic and actually doesn’t suggest that the organisation really cares about what its customers are saying.

If you really do want to try to respond to everyone, social media managers need to be empowered to produce different variations of the message and put it into their own words.  That may sound risky, but customers prefer the human approach and it can help turn a negative story into something more positive.

One other issue with trying to reply to everyone, is that anyone who slips through the net and doesn’t get a response might take offence.


The rule of twice

Of course, even if you do respond to everyone, some people are likely to remain unhappy.

And that means they are likely to continue with their angry posts.

The key here is to avoid getting drawn into a tit for tat argument. That’s where the rule of twice comes in – respond twice to an individual and then withdraw from the discussion.

If a customer continues to criticise after your initial response, look to take the conversation offline, by offering to contact them in another way (phone call, email, or private message).

This shows your willingness to address the issue and creates a good impression with those who are watching the conversation online – social media is, after all, a spectator sport.


Visible leadership

The boss doesn’t always need to lead an organisation’s response when it is in the firing line.

But, a CEO using their personal social media accounts to share timely updates, insights and their own thoughts can help show that they are on top of an issue and are actively involved in trying to resolve it.

This was something James Watt, the co-founder of BrewDog did particularly well when managing the incident we mentioned earlier.  More recently, Mark Evans, the chief executive of 02, took to Twitter to reassure customers that his company was ‘doing everything it can’ to fix the 4G outage it suffered.  It also included what sounded like a genuine apology.



Another way of showing visible leadership is through videos which are shared on social media. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson did this effectively when managing a potentially damaging crisis earlier this year.


CEO get crisis response back on track after poor start



Stop promotional posts

When a brand is under pressure, the last thing it needs is a scheduled post to go out and damage its reputation further.

The most infamous example of this was during the horsemeat scandal when Tesco forgot to cancel a tweet which said ‘It’s sleepy time so we’re off to hit the hay’. This only added to the company’s problems at the time.



Organisations still struggle with this. Just lat month Santander had a tweet promoting a business current account, starting with 'in the mood for celebrating?', at the same time as it announced a series of branch closures. 


Scheduling content has many benefits, but organisations must remember to stop it going out when they are trying to manage a crisis or a bad news story. 


Remember your staff

It’s pretty easy to find out where anyone works these days. Many of us will have our employer listed on LinkedIn. Others will have it on their Twitter profiles and some even on Facebook.

This means that potentially all your employees could be approached by a journalist on these channels trying to find some more information about the incident.

Social media training should be a key part of employee induction programmes and all staff should have awareness level training, covering what they can and can’t post online and what they should do if they see a story breaking on social media. Should they state in their profile where they work and that their thoughts and comments are personal?

But it can also go beyond this, because if employees are comfortable about what they can say about the organisation on these channels they can become advocates, sharing posts and information. Not only does this help spread information, but it shows the people working for the organisation still support it.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our journalist-led social media training.


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