5 ways to avoid a social media crisis

Social media represents a huge potential platform for brand awareness. But when it goes wrong, decisive action is needed to put out the fire and ensure your brand reputation escapes untarnished.

The digital revolution has impacted so many aspects of our day-to-day lives. Today our coffee makers are timed to brew when we wake up, our floors clean themselves, and even passwords are becoming passé since the emergence of face-recognition technology.

Within this context, the rise of social media has caused quite the shift in how companies are expected to interact and respond to their customers. After all, if a company isn’t on Twitter, is it really even a company?

Brands with a strong social media presence are showing their stakeholders that they can stay relevant and current. However, while social media can be a defining tool in growing your business, it can also wreak havoc in the blink of an eye.

When good press turns bad

These days it’s not uncommon that brands come under heavy fire on social media for their shortcomings. Whether it be a tone-deaf ad, a controversial stance on a political issue, or allegations against an executive, social media has the power to turn a bad press day into a company crisis.

But according to Laura Illia, professor of the Master in Corporate & Marketing Communication at IE School of Human Sciences & Technology, if a crisis explodes on social media, there are steps that should be taken. It’s important to know how to have micro-conversations, or shift the dialogue to focus on an issue that the company controls.

Beyond this, a company should be thinking proactively so that crises with potential to impact a brand’s reputation can be avoided.

It’s one thing to know how to handle the public once a crisis breaks. But the real value lies in the employee that can provide strategic foresight that stops a scandal before it happens.

Here’s how it’s done:

1. Always wear your business hat

Crisis management has a lot to do with public relations and communication. “Crisis management is not only about handling media relations when a crisis has exploded, it’s about how to avoid this crisis in the first place; how to think strategically so this doesn’t happen,” Illia explains.

What really gives companies a competitive advantage is never ceasing to look at an issue from a business perspective. Even during a crisis, you should take into consideration how a certain response will affect your shared value. Better still, you should create shared value before a crisis occurs through CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) that is not only about philanthropy, but about giving a competitive edge to your company.

This combination of communication and business approaches will allow you to create a strategy that boosts your business instead of merely responding to a crisis.

2. Train ambassadors who can speak on the company’s behalf

Crisis management requires a clear and unified message coming from all fronts of the company. If you respond to a crisis differently on social media than you do in a press release, you’ll likely dig yourself into a deeper hole.

That’s why it’s important to build a trusted team with solid communication skills. Train ambassadors that can confidently take on the tone and mission of your brand. If a crisis occurs, you will have a solid team you call on to respond in the way that most benefits your company.

3. Create a micro-conversation

When it comes to responding to an accusation, your company has every right to choose how and when to do it. A controlled and strategic response is critical in managing a crisis. But who should a company trust to steer these micro-conversations?

For example, if a video was uploaded to the internet critiquing your company, a lawyer’s advice may be to take down the video from any known domains. But if you’ve been trained in both corporate communications and business, you’ll know that this solution does nothing to solve the problem at hand: your customers now have a negative image of your brand that needs to be changed, and the same video can be uploaded and reuploaded.

In her course, professor Illia teaches Master’s students white, gray, and black approaches to dealing with a crisis. The white approach is having a conversation you’ve already prepared for. The gray approach is to seek expert advice before a conversation is had. The black approach is to simply choose not to comment on a subject.

The white and gray approaches require you have content that’s already produced and ready to release in the case of a crisis. Producing this content before the fact will take a comprehensive understanding of business, marketing, and communications.

4.Write a script

To write this hypothetical pre-crisis script, you should know both your business and your stakeholders inside and out. Think about your modes of production, media campaigns, and sponsorships. What might be some of the issues your company will face in the future?

Consider what’s important to your stakeholders.

What are the key elements that increase brand loyalty? On the other hand, what types of mistakes could your company make that would cause them to lose interest in your product altogether?

Often times it can be helpful for a third party to write this script. It helps when a company can be objective with their statement and not appear too defensive. The tone of the script will help influence the public. It should be personal and genuine while redirecting the conversation to pre-written content approved by your company.

5. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes

Illia encourages her students to share examples of being on the customer side of a crisis. This exercise reintroduces the feelings of stakeholders into the company’s approach to crisis management. She also creates 90-minute, in-class simulations for her students, so they can experience what it’s like to deal with a social media crisis in real time, and then take this experience back to their own companies.

“It’s not just about communicating at the right moment, but in the right way depending on your stakeholders,” she says. If you analyze what’s important to them before a crisis, you’ll be sure to respond according to their needs. For example, if transparency is very important to your company’s stakeholders, it will be crucial to make information clear and public as it becomes available during a crisis. Withholding information could cause a loss of trust.

To stay ahead of a crisis, you should take proactive measures to ensure you have the resources to deal with any scandal or controversy that comes your way.

A social media crisis doesn’t have to be the end of your business. Respond with your stakeholders in mind to ensure your brand reputation stays intact.

Even better, prevent crises by bringing a business perspective to your public relations and marketing strategies.


laura headshotLaura Illia is a Professor of the Master in Corporate & Marketing Communication at the IE School of Human Sciences & Technology. For more information about the program, click here.