Here’s How to Avoid (and Handle) a Social Media Crisis

What to do when tweets, posts and pics backfire

How to Avoid (and Handle) a Social Media Crisis originally published on The Executive Education Navigator blog.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity? Try telling that to US Airways after their corporate Twitter account accidentally tweeted a very NSFW photo, which spread like wildfire across social and mainstream media. Or tell that to the New York Police Department, after their #mynypd hashtag campaign backfired, prompting a barrage of posts featuring photos of police officers engaged in violent interactions.

Whether caused by a technical blunder, hijacked hashtag, disgruntled employee or inappropriate attempt at humor, a social media mistake can escalate into a full-blown communications crisis in a matter of minutes.

Companies large and small are discovering how important it is to have a strategy in place to deal with social media crisis situations. According to a recent survey of Fortune 1000 in-house lawyers by Weber Shandwick, 85% of respondents agreed that social media has greatly increased the potential for a minor problem to turn into a major crisis. Yet only one in five report actively preparing for a social crisis.

Here’s how you can stay ahead.

Know when to worry

The first step is drawing the distinction between issues and crises on social media. Issues are something that brands’ social media managers deal with on a daily basis. This might take the form of a customer complaint or public criticism of a product posted to one of your social channels. More often than not, a quick response or action from the social media manager will be enough to put an issue to rest within 24 hours.

A crisis, on the other hand, will emerge if an issue goes unaddressed and causes a ripple effect across a broader public audience – or if the issue simply snowballs out of control before it’s even discovered. A genuine crisis might also result from internal mismanagement of social media communications, for example disgruntled employees posting inflammatory comments about the brand or improperly sharing confidential information. These crisis situations go beyond what a sole community manager can handle and may well call for involvement from your corporate legal team.

Know the rules of engagement

To prevent a social media issue from turning into a crisis:

1. Don’t ignore negative posts

Equally important: Do not delete complaints or criticisms addressed to the corporate social account. On social media, there’s no such thing as “If we ignore it, it will go away.”

2. Apologize quickly and sincerely

Publish the official response to the same social channel on which the situation arose.

3. Offer a remedy

Even if the problem can’t be fully solved right away, explain what steps are being taken to resolve the conflict.

4. Offer a sidebar where necessary

While it’s important to keep the public apprised of developments, sometimes taking the conversation with any offended parties offline is the best way to address the issue directly.

5. Monitor channels vigilantly

This should really be happening on an ongoing basis so you can tell both when a social media crisis is emerging—and when it’s finally resolved.

These are just some basic guidelines to get started on creating a strategy for social media crisis management. To build on these principles, there are a handful of executive-education courses on social media and corporate communications management available.

Laura Montgomery is a higher-education expert who blogs for The Economist Careers Network.

The Executive Education Navigator is a first-of-its-kind search and discovery tool launched by The Economist Careers Network to aid executives’ search for their ideal executive education programs. Its blog includes posts on career hacks and industry trends.

For a quick course on social media strategies, consider a Mediabistro online course on social media.

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