How to Navigate Social Media Crises

A image saying "To Err is Human. To mess up. You need a computer."
(SodaHead, 2011).

Social media crises are not so much about the ‘if’ but about the ‘when.’ The increased adoption of social media usage in companies has likewise increased the risks a company’s reputation faces because, despite your best efforts, there are still humans behind every single social media account and, as is said, to err is human.

Your “reputation is the sum total of your relationships with your publics” (Paine, 2011, p.182). This is what distinguishes you from your competition and encourages purchasing from your customers. Your reputation dictates the prestige of your brand and whenever your reputation is affected there can be dire effects on your value. Naturally crises are a major situation that can impact your reputation negatively…or positively – it all depends on how you respond. The problem is in the past, you had time to craft a response, there were only a few channels available, and you, as the company, were the gatekeepers of information but times have changed. No longer are crises dealt with by calling press conferences or issuing a memo – you have to take action in real time (sometimes in a hundred and forty characters or less.)

A man facing down a hurricane of social media platforms.
(Spin Sucks, 2013).

Take for example my previous discussion of Epicurious’ disastrous tweets following the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013, or the Facebook meltdown of Amy’s Baking Company Bakery Boutique & Bistro or even worse the racist tweets of Justine Sacco. On social media platforms people commonly forget that everyone is watching and everything you say is being seen. Social media has created a way to increase the speed and amplification of what’s already there; making socializing easier, faster and broader (Schaffer, 2013).

When you introduce social media as part of your company’s communication strategy you have to protect yourself from the damage that your employees may make on the company’s behalf or on their own accounts (Schaffer, 2013). One way to manage and control the employees’ social media activities is to implement and maintain a clear social media policy in order to avoid social media crises.

Jay Baer (2012) of Convince & Convert suggests there are three characteristics of a true social media crisis:

  1. A social media crisis has information asymmetry: when the company does not know anymore than the public about what is going on.
  2. A social media crisis is a decisive change from the norm: routine critiques and negative comments are not crises. When a new criticism occurs that is the sign of a developing crisis.
  3. A social media crisis has a potentially material impact on the company overall: the scope and scale of the crisis and its potential impact on reputation and opinion.

Although two and three seem quite solid I have to say that one is a little too stringent. Many crises are caused by miscommunication or poorly executed social media usage where the company is aware of what they are doing but not of the impact – they don’t understand the medium and how to deliver content which is not the same as not knowing the information.

Schaffer (2013) recommends that you need to prevent or minimize the situations you create online by making sure to control the conversation as much as possible by engaging with the public and being interactively proactive, so if a customer complains on twitter about your brand you should immediately acknowledge and respond to their compliant before it gets out of hand. To avoid crises you need to listen to your audience (Paine, 2011).

However, sometimes you drop the ball, sometimes your social media team makes a mistake something is posted, tweeted, updated or uploaded that negatively impacts your reputation – what can you do then?

An image of an iPad with the word crisis on the screen.
(Manobyte, 2013).

Katie Paine (2011) mentions a few principles that can work to your advantage during a crisis situation.

  • The Relationship Principle: if the organization already has a good, long-term relationship with its publics it can withstand issues and crises better
  • The Disclosure Principle: during a crisis the organization should disclose all it knows about the crisis and also promise to disclose any additional information it may discover
  • The Symmetrical Communication Principle: during a crisis the company should consider the public’s interest as important as its own. The organization must be honest and socially responsible disclosing information if there is any risk to the audience
  • The Accountability Principle: an organization should accept responsibility for a crisis, even if it was not their fault

Following these principles helps foster trust in your brand improving your reputation through your honesty, transparency, reliability, competence and integrity (Paine, 2011). Lying to your audience or misleading them will only lead to problems.

Consider Ekaterina Walter’s (2013) 10 Tips for Reputation and Crisis Management in the Digital World:

  1. Listen and be present
  2. Set the right expectations
  3. Be transparent
  4. Respond thoughtfully
  5. Do not lose your cool – ever
  6. Have a crisis management team in place
  7. Manage access to your social media accounts carefully
  8. Post moderation guidelines
  9. Hire experienced community managers
  10. You will never please everybody

These are all important points that your company should follow because having a crisis management team, social media guidelines, account management and moderation will help control: the information that you share, moderate what is shared, and foster a positive reputation with your audience.

You have the power to not only avoid crises but to leverage the medium to your advantage by understanding your audience’s needs, responding to their posts and sharing valuable content. Learn from the mistakes of others and do not make them yourselves.

A image of a laptop with the words "Don't Panic" on the screen.
(GRM, 2013).


Convince & Convert. (2012). Don’t be scared be prepared – how to manage a social media crisis. Retrieved March 14, 2014, from

GRM. (2013). How to use social media in a crisis. Retrieved March 14, 2014, from

Manobyte. (2013). When Social Media Crisis Hits. Retrieved March 14, 2014, from

Paine, K. (2011). Measure What Matters: Online Tools for Understanding Customers, Social Media, Engagement, and Key Relationships. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Schaffer, N. (2013). Maximize your social a one-step guide to building a social media strategy for marketing and business success. Hoboken, New Jersey: Windmills Marketing, LLC.

SodaHead. (2011). When misunderstandings and miscommunications are more likely, do you take the time to pay close attention to the details?. Retrieved March 14, 2014, from


3 thoughts on “How to Navigate Social Media Crises

  1. Great post, Olivia. I love presenting on this topic this week – it’s such an interesting one, especially to us Procom students for whom reputation management will be a huge component of our careers. I think the most valuable thing I learned this week was that staying calm and not trying to do TOO MUCH in the face of a crisis is key. Without that insight from the experts, if faced with a crisis, I might want to talk to everyone and help them all with their problems. But the real way to tackle a crisis is to address that core catalyst. This makes crisis management feel so much more manageable. I think it is a good strategy that will help us all in the future.

    1. Thank you for the comment. You are absolutely right that managing a crisis involves not panicking and addressing the catalyst of the crisis.

  2. Olivia, I enjoyed reading your post! Especially interesting was the characteristics of a true social media crisis by Jay Baer. In particular, the second one: “a social media crisis is a decisive change from the norm, routine critiques and negative comments are not crises. When a new criticism occurs that is the sign of a developing crisis.” I almost feel like its the other way around. When you read Schaffer and he talks about listening to all the customer complaints on social media and responding to them….I feel like the routine issues can gain momentum faster on social media because they can be the common factor that is being experienced by numerous consumers and so these consumers have a higher expectation that the company is working to fix it fast. However, the new criticisms could actually be outliers and may require more work to get to the root….or may have little validity. Just a thought.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s