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Navigating the Social Media Crisis Spectrum

If you Google ‘brand social media fails’, the results are pretty entertaining. From brands using the Arab Spring to promote their menswear, to the collapsing retail chain that forgot an intern still had Twitter access during a ‘mass execution’ of employee contracts. Following another brand’s crisis on social media can be like watching a car crash in slow motion - you know it’s going to be terrible but you can’t look away.

Naturally, it’s good to know how to keep your brand’s public persona away from car crashes, and this doesn’t have to be as resource heavy as you might think - provided you have the right plan in place. While there are plenty more embarrassments I could cite, I was both tickled and impressed by the recent Heinz faux pas. When the QR code from the packaging of a family product leads to an (ahem) adult entertainment website, the potential for social media outrage is exponential. However, Heinz has a social team that knows its business only too well. A quick and appropriate response turned the story into an opportunity for the brand to shine. But more on that later.

The words ‘social media crisis’ have been thrown around fairly often in recent times. A crisis is something that can be avoided if you can listen, identify and intercept early on. Negative engagement can easily spiral out of control if it’s not intercepted, but how can you make sure you’re one step ahead of the negativity snowball?

When forming a crisis management plan, you should always think of the crisis stage as the worst case scenario, preceded by a build-up of smaller issues. Allow me to elaborate…

Define your spectrum

It’s important to avoid applying the word ‘crisis’ as a flat definition to all social media issues. Instead, think of negative engagement as spreading across a spectrum.

While a true social media crisis should be taken seriously, the phrase is often misused as a go-to buzzword. It’s tempting to jump to the words social media crisis, but what you could be dealing with might be nothing more than an issue.

It's important to distinguish between a contained instance of negative engagement and a full blown crisis. Once this is done you can tailor the resources you invest to diffuse each one. Prevention is always better than the cure; a crisis management plan that is implemented closer to the ‘issue’ end of the spectrum will always effect better results than actioning towards the ‘crisis’ end.

Heinz pulled this off beautifully. When a disturbed customer left a comment on their Facebook page alerting them to the rogue QR code, they apologised immediately and offered compensation. With a small amount of resource they succeeded in keeping the incident as an issue, before it escalated into to a crisis.

So how can you implement the spectrum for your organization? Begin by defining ‘issue’ vs. ‘crisis’. Then outline the risks attached to each one, and the necessary escalation points. This process of definition will help your team set up the best practises for responding appropriately and in real-time.

What constitutes an ‘issue’, ‘crisis’ and the ideal response will be specific to your organization and to your social media audience. You’ll need to take some time to think about your brand persona, and the types of issues that could be problematic for it.

Step up your engagement

Your audience expects a higher level of engagement during times of negativity, and they expect that engagement to happen immediately. If you can’t deliver this, the situation could snowball. Mobs in social media move quickly, so you need to be fast to avoid the pitchforks. Remember, your social media audience is the centre of your marketing universe. If they love you, they’ll show it, so it’s important to get intimate with their expectations. Defining social issues and aligning them with the spectrum will help you achieve this: What will cause negative engagement from your stakeholders? How do they want you to respond to them?

The goal with this isn’t to set your social channels up as a people-pleasing initiative; it won’t be possible to keep everyone happy 100% of the time. You can, however, know exactly how to respond when there is a negative comment, and that’s where defining your audience’s perspective will be useful.

The spectrum will also help you to think about what types of mistakes have the potential to cause negative engagement. What type of oversight will lead to an issue? What could lead to a crisis?

It’s important to remember that a crisis is rarely confined to social media alone; it could spread to news articles, covered by influential bloggers and develop a threatening presence in search engine results.

Finally, a spectrum will enable you to align the issue with the level of resource required. Is there a pesky troll leaving antagonistic comments on your Facebook page? A lone team member whom you trust could probably handle this single-handedly. Is there a storm of angry tweets dominating your Twitter account and threatening to make it to press? This might require a little more strategizing before you can act.

Don’t let your pride be the one to blame

Handling social media issues begins with knowing when you’re wrong. This might seem like an obvious place to start, but if you don’t fully understand what causes social road rage, you won’t know how to diffuse it once it’s happening to you. The core thing to remember here is humility, because nearly all social media issues start with a mistake. For example:

- You’ve exploited a sensitive issue, and it didn’t go down well
- You’ve slipped up in customer service, and the reaction is happening on social
- There’s a weak spot in your security, and you didn’t detect it until it was too late
- You’ve mishandled any of the above

The bigger picture

Prevention. Response. Recovery. This should be your mantra when it comes to crisis management. Defining a spectrum of negative engagement will help you to nail this and stay one step ahead of the social media mobs. Want to avoid the car crash? It’s not impossible, you just need the right plan.