The Myth of the Social Media Crisis

rodents of unusual size and social media crises

“Rodents of Unusual Size and social media crises? I don’t believe they exist.”

“How would you handle a crisis in social media?”

I was sitting across from an interviewer and had been handling the quick onslaught of questions coming at me with wit and grace, if I say so myself. I paused at this one though because, like Rodents of Unusual Size, I don’t believe crises in social media exist.

That’s not to dismiss the very real damage to a company that can happen in social media channels, but it’s misleading to consider them “social media crises.” Just as a Band-Aid won’t fix a broken arm, correctly identifying the problem is the key to fixing it.

So when your bad news goes viral, the exact time when you wish it wouldn’t, remember two things:

1. It’s not a social media crisis, it’s a brand crisis. Customers use social media channels to get attention for the same reason you do: it’s public and easy to share. It gets lots of attention. The wider the audience the more it can affect brand perception. Negative brand perception creates real losses in sales and customer loyalty, and increases costs in the scramble to undo the damage. What happens on Twitter doesn’t stay on Twitter.

2. It’s not a crisis, it’s an opportunity. This sounds like something you’d read on a motivational poster next to a photo of a mountain or a field of flowers or a knight in shining armor being eaten by a dragon, right? It’s hard to see a silver lining when the tweets are fast and furious, but changing your outlook can make a real difference. Suddenly you’ve gone from a fear-and-dread-filled crisis that must be handled and squelched into an urgent and unexpected opportunity to solve a problem and be a hero. Keep in mind that when the spotlight is on you for something negative, they’ll all be watching when you knock it out of the park.

When I worked at an online-only financial institution, a website crash meant much more than a disruption in service. It damaged the trust our customers placed in us and made potential customers wary of using our service, and it almost always came to our attention first via social media. To turn the crisis into opportunity I followed the four F’s:  (no, you dirty bird, that’s not one of them.)

  • Find the problem. It may be playing itself out on Facebook, but the problem likely doesn’t have anything to do with Facebook. Get to the bottom of what the issue really is and if it takes a little research, give a response before the fix is ready. “I’m looking into this and will update you as soon as I have more information.” is not a solution, but it sends the message that I’m listening and take matters like this seriously.
  • Fix the problem. I may not always be able to give the customer exactly what they’re asking for, so I’ll find alternative ways that directly solve the problem. For the guy trying to pay his bills on payday, the problem isn’t that the website is down but that he needs a way to pay those bills. Can he do that over the phone with customer service? Can I direct him to use the gas company’s website instead of waiting for online bill pay to come back up?
  • Fill in your colleagues. When the problem is being identified and fixed, I’m in a constant communication loop between IT and customer service, making sure we all have the same knowledge of timelines for resolution and language to use. Once it’s fixed my next stop is marketing so they can watch for dips or bumps in brand sentiment. Then it’s back to IT and customer service to get tips for how to do it better or different in the future. An email summary to department heads and an update to the Opportunity Communication Plan is the final step in keeping everyone in the loop.
  • Follow up. Most people are satisfied with problem resolution. When the website is available again they’re happy. But remember, this is an opportunity, so it’s the perfect time to take it a step further and follow up with an email, a phone call, maybe a hand written note to say “Thank you for your patience while we fixed this.”

Don’t believe the hype about the so-called social media crisis. When going viral turns bad keep a level head, take a deep breath, and take the opportunity you’ve been given.

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  1. says

    Nice one, Jen. The Four Fs are a great framework for a team’s tactical response playbook.

    I agree that the mythical social media crisis so many people think they know and understand, is, as you say, not actually a “social media” crisis, it’s a brand crisis.

    But, that said I think that there is an actual, for real beast named the “social media crisis.” That crisis is when there is a brand crisis that is playing out (in whole or in part) in social media channels but the social operators don’t have a solid, pre-made and practiced plan for dealing with it.

    So many times, when there’s a brand crisis, you can see that the messaging on social media is clearly hijacked away from the operators – the actual community managers and medium experts are suddenly made mouthpieces for corporate communications directors (or outside crisis consultants, or even worse, the lawyers) who do not at all understand the best way to message to the audiences in those channels.

    The goals and overall message of the corporate crisis superstructure may well be laudable, but typically the messages and tactics used are utterly inadequate for the realities of the social channels.

    I’ve long been a believer that corporate communications & legal teams need to pre-game their “brand crisis” plans, and have a senior, actually-experienced social/digital operator at the table when the plans are drawn up and gamed. The directors, consultants and lawyers need to understand that things like your “Four F’s” are designed to manage those channel & audience realities, and the plans need to take those channels & audiences into account.

    Ultimately, without a marriage between crisis response strategy and tactical plays like the Four Fs, the Four Fs alone aren’t enough to manage audience outrage / outcry.

    Nothing frustrates an operator more than knowing that they – the pointy end of the stick – are being sacrificed on the altar of public rage by corporate higher-ups, not for any grand purpose, but simply because they didn’t believe enough in the medium to take it seriously in the planning process.

    Operators, convince your leadership that this stuff is real – social & digital are not just for marketing, and they’re not a silly afterthought. Leadership, believe your people when they tell you this stuff matters. It’s where your customers are, whether you want to believe it or not – even if you don’t sell through social, your customers still live there.

    Remember: nothing makes a brand crisis worse than an actual self-inflicted social media crisis.

    Great article, Jen!

  2. says

    Thanks, Seth! Your points are spot on. Maybe what we’re both saying has roots in the same issue: taking social seriously. I’ve been in situations where social is an afterthought (“Here, we’ve designed this communications plan and don’t forget to write a tweet before it launches tomorrow.”) and it’s a huge detriment to any brand to devalue the impact social media channels can have – good or bad – on a brand. I feel another blog post coming on…

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