Social media has created new opportunities to reach customers and spread brand awareness.
But it has also created many new opportunities to offend the masses and face public cancellation.
We’ve all seen it happen — a company decides to try something clever, posting a joke that might have garnered some chuckles back in 1993. But in 2023, it’s met with shock, ridicule, and calls for boycotts and cancellation by an offended public.
With the number of tweets, Instagram posts, TikToks, and other assorted social outreach messages businesses have to send daily to keep themselves in the conversation, it’s possible, if not probable, that someday your company will say or do something unintentionally that’ll lead to public disapproval.
And when that happens, you need to be prepared. You must have a plan in place. This article will explain how you can create a successful social media crisis management plan to keep your company afloat amidst online controversy.
What constitutes a social media crisis?
Before we jump into planning mode, let’s first decide what we mean when we say “crisis.” It’s a rather dramatic term, for sure, but it’s pertinent when one considers the monumental impact such an event can have.
Search Engine Journal reports that a social media mistake can cost businesses upwards of $4 million. So, yeah, you should know how to mitigate this kind of issue when it pops up.
We define a social media crisis as any event that spawns an explosion of negative social media coverage. This could be something like an ill-conceived tweet or an event that garners negative national coverage.
Here’s an example from Burger King UK, which made a huge Twitter faux pas in 2021. While trying to draw attention to the fact that women only make up 20% of professional chefs in the United Kingdom, Burger King UK said this:
While this tweet had the best intentions and sought to promote awareness of a valid concern, it was tone-deaf and lacked tact and common sense. After taking an absolute pounding in the online arena, Burger King went into crisis management mode, issuing this statement:
But these issues aren’t limited to Twitter mistakes. When financial issues pop up worldwide in response to a poor economy, rising inflation, or a looming banking crisis, you’ll see a lot of negativity spewed toward mortgage lenders, stock brokers, and other financial professionals. While not directly attacking one company, this is no less a social media crisis that needs to be averted.
That means you can face an industry-wide social media crisis without ever posting on social media.
What is a crisis management plan for social media?
Because of the dangers associated with social media crises, businesses include social media crisis management as part of their marketing plans.
Much like a natural disaster plan might highlight how workers are to react and leave the building to get to safety during a hurricane or earthquake, a social media crisis plan lays out how a business weathers the storm of negativity that can rise after a social media disaster.
Your social media crisis management plan should detail:
- What to do when a crisis blows up
- What kind of messaging will be included in the responses
- How to deal with normally scheduled social media messaging
- How quickly responses must come
You can gauge the impact of social media crises and your response to them by monitoring engagement levels, public conversations, and your sales reports.
How to develop your social media crisis management plan
1. Create posting guidelines for everyone to follow
The first step of your social media crisis plan should focus on avoiding crises in the first place. That means developing social media posting guidelines that your marketing department follows.
This includes the overall business tone, topics to avoid, an in-depth look at your audience segments and the issues that matter to them, the frequency of your posts, and how to respond to positive and negative comments to avoid insulting or offending someone.
2. Respond fast when a crisis arises
When a social media crisis springs up, you need to jump on it. Your response time is a vital part of your crisis management plan. It’s another reason the plan is so important. You need to hit the ground running when an event like this occurs.
The more time you spend figuring out what to say, the more time the public has to carry on negative conversations surrounding your business without your response. Given time, continued silence makes that negative narrative the only narrative.
To respond quickly and efficiently, you’ll need some tools in place.
For example, a CRM software can streamline consistent communication, centralize customer processes while you deal with the situation. Your social media automation tool can help you respond everywhere, all at once, and monitor engagement levels and responses.
It can help to have response templates laid out in your plan. Having templates can serve as a base you can alter to fit the specific circumstances of the crisis at hand. You should hire freelancers to help develop this copy so that it’s professionally written and ready to go immediately.
For example, take Mel Gibson’s public apology from 2006 when he was caught on tape going on an anti-Semitic rant. He waited several days to respond, and the media criticized him heavily for it.
3. Develop response guidelines
The plan you develop should have response guidelines in place, walking you through the language, media, and overall tone used when responding to a viral social media issue.
For example, visual content might help convey the right emotions. All too often, text alone isn’t enough, and tone can be easily misread. However, a video or photo collage can help accurately portray the apologetic tone you’re trying to show in a way that’s harder to misinterpret.
Just ensure that the imagery you’re using looks professional. Video editing software and a photo collage maker would be valuable tools in such moments.
Your response guidelines should include:
- Overall tone
- Words to avoid
- Who is allowed to respond
- Who in your company needs to oversee and approve responses before they’re sent out
- Timing of your response
- How to handle negative or aggressive comments
- How to handle press inquiries in the aftermath
4. Remain aware of social issues to avoid a crisis
Another preventative measure to highlight in your social media crisis management plan is keeping track of social issues that are important to your audience.
The public conversation on these matters shifts in waves. For example, in the summer of 2020, following the death of George Floyd, the United States saw a 42% rise in public protests against racial inequality and violence. When things are so volatile, you should avoid any language or messaging that could be considered racially insensitive.
In 2023, the national conversation has turned to LGBTQ+ rights, with the American Civil Liberties Union reporting the introduction of over 120 bills nationwide that restrict LGBTQ+ rights in some way.
By periodically taking the public temperature on social matters, you can more effectively plan tonally responsible content and avoid a social media crisis.
5. Be genuine and empathetic
Saving face and regaining the trust of your social media audience is crucial, but it’s also important to be sincerely apologetic when something goes wrong, especially if it affects real people.
If you encounter a situation where your business needs to apologize to a single person or group, try going the extra mile to show remorse in a personalized way. Send a flower delivery to their houses and a handwritten letter to make it more sincere.
If you’re doing this, don’t include coupon codes or offers for your products or services. The last thing you want is to turn an apology into a sales opportunity. People see right through that, and it only makes things worse.
Remember, empathy, compassion, and sincerity go a long way when responding to a social media crisis. Take this example from Community and Rick & Morty creator Dan Harmon when a member of his staff accused him of sexually harassing her. He owned responsibility for his actions and issued a sincere apology.
“I’ve never done it before, and I will never do it again,” Harmon said. “But I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it if I had any respect for women. On a fundamental level, I was thinking about them as different creatures. I was thinking about the ones that I liked as having some special role in my life, and I did it all by not thinking about it.”
As shown in the image above, Harmon’s apology was well-received. Both the victim and the public at large forgave him after seeing his sincerity and empathy for the situation.
Keep a social media crisis from becoming a catastrophe
A solid and swift response to a social media crisis can be the saving grace that protects your business or brand from total collapse. Having a social media crisis management plan in place lets you get out in front of the controversy and present a well-thought-out and empathetic response.
You never know when someone will take something you meant in a positive way negatively. That’s why it’s so crucial to have a plan like this in place. Create your social media crisis plan today, and prepare for the worst while you hope for the best.
Kevin J. Kessler is an experienced Orlando-based content marketer with over 15 years of experience writing quality, optimized content for businesses. He is also a fiction author, writing under both his real name and the pseudonym Vincent Valentean. Kevin is also a performer, working as a professional wrestler and a puppeteer in his spare time.