No matter how careful you are, there’s always the chance that you’ll run into a major social media catastrophe. Maybe you posted something in jest that offended the wrong crowd. Maybe you accidentally sent a reply that was meant to be a direct message. Maybe something happened with your product or software, and your social feeds are blowing up with angry responses from other online users. In any case, your social reputation is in serious jeopardy and you have a limited amount of time to try and mitigate those losses.
If you find yourself in the midst of a social media crisis, don’t panic. Instead, focus on completing these five steps:
Your first course of action should be to stop the bleeding—that is to stay, prevent any further damage from being done. There’s nothing you can do to reverse what’s already happened, but you can take action to prevent anything else from stacking on top of it. For example, if you’ve posted something borderline offensive that seems to be riling people up, take the post down. If there’s an issue with your software causing people to angrily post on your timeline, connect with your developers and try to start fixing the issue.
The goal here isn’t to pretend like the incident didn’t happen (see the next step), but rather to prevent any further spread that you have the power to prevent. Most of the time, this simply means taking down the material in question, but there’s a limit to how much you can do.
One of the worst things you can do is try to cover the incident up. The social media world is public, observant, and fast, and if you try to stop information from spreading, that’s only going to make people want to spread it more. For example, if you posted something that wasn’t meant for public eyes and you try to delete posts that recognize this mistake, you’ll only encourage those users to post more aggressively.
Instead, address the situation directly. If you’ve made a mistake or have in some way damaged your reputation in the eyes of your users, you can start out with a sincere apology. If there’s a situation still underway, such as a software outage, you can post all the details you currently have on the subject and assure your followers that you’re working hard to correct it. The more open and transparent you are, the less backlash you’re liable to face (and the less interest people will have in rubbing your nose in it).
Every follower’s voice matters. Every response counts. It’s your job to get on social media and respond to as many individuals as possible. If you’re a major national brand and this incident has gone viral, there’s little hope for you to respond to every single individual. If that’s the case, just do your best. A little individual acknowledgement is usually enough to make even the most vocal dissenters quiet down (at least for the moment).
In your responses, be sincere, and show that you’re actually listening. Don’t post a canned response over and over again or you’ll look like a robot and open yourself to more criticism. Instead, acknowledge your followers’ complaints and concerns specifically and offer your sincere thoughts on the matter (apologizing again, if necessary).
Once the first wave of responders have been addressed and a calm begins to set in, you can take the next step—offering penance. Most crises arise from some kind of mistake or mishap by a brand that negatively affects its followers in some way. If this is the case, it’s your job to try and make it up to them.
How you make it up to them is completely up to you. A little bribery is usually welcome here, such as offering free products or discounts to anyone who was personally affected by the incident. You could also simply explain the situation and acknowledge what you’re going to do to make sure it never happens again. It’s also a good idea to give people a piece of contact information they can use to contact your company directly if they have further concerns—it shows you want to go out of your way to make things right.
This may be the most important step, since it’s going to help you prevent problems like this from arising in the future. Do a thorough review of all the steps that eventually led to this catastrophe, including who’s in charge of posting on social media, what steps were or were not followed, and any influencing factors that could have been addressed before the problem began to escalate. Determine if there’s any corrective action you can take to prevent a similar incident arising, and if there is, take it.
These five steps should be enough to get you out of even the most threatening social media crises. There’s no way to prevent all the damage, especially for larger blowups, but you can at least decrease it to a minimum and set yourself up for a speedy, graceful recovery. Even the best-prepared, most careful brands can encounter unfortunate situations. All you can do is manage their effects and prevent them from happening as much as possible in the future.