There are many reasons why brands, of all sizes, become embroiled in a social media crisis and why they get things wrong; no two situations are identical.
However, most social media disasters are rooted in at least one common factor.
A social media crisis can be triggered by the smallest of sparks but, whatever the cause, the response from a brand is absolutely crucial in fighting the fire, restoring the brand to normality, and learning the lessons.
Too often a core element of good crisis management is missing, which can result in the problem consuming the brand and spiralling out of control.
They don’t take control
Empowering employees to become the voice of your brand on social media is important, but brands must have a degree of control over who has access to their social channels.
A disgruntled employee, one who doesn’t fully understand cultural sensitivities (particularly if you are operating in multiple territories) or who goes against official brand policy, be it deliberately or otherwise, has the power to create a reputational crisis for your brand.
Control is incredibly important for large brands and, in complex organisations where there are likely to be multiple people and teams with a vested interest in social media, it is important to have a robust editorial process in place that retains a degree of control over the social media output, without hampering either the agility of the operation or the level of creative output.
When a crisis does strike, this editorial process will come into its own.
They’re ignorant to context
Context is a crucial part of any conversation, and that is especially true in social media. Brands need to understand the context of the content that they are posting, as one misunderstood post could end up causing serious offence.
And this is another area where a social media editorial process comes into its own, because there is no turning back once you click ‘post’.
Ignorance is no defence, and nor is blaming it on an intern who didn’t know any better – a tactic that has often been the go-to response for a number of brands caught in this particular firestorm.
Make sure that content you are trying to post is relevant to the context of the conversation, and that you fully understand how that content relates to the conversation.
If you’re posting a famous quote, make sure you understand the background behind that quote and if you’re posting an image, understand where that image was taken, and what it represents.
It may actually stand for very different things to different people.
They lack restraint
While there is a time and a place for branded content, there are also times when it is very much unwelcome in the discussion.
Done correctly, commenting on current events can be a perfectly acceptable and effective form of marketing. However, done badly, it can create a huge backlash.
There are many of examples of brands that have been caught out by ill-advised comments on current events; Epicurious’ misguided attempts to promote itself during the Boston Marathon tragedy provide just one of many examples.
This is an incredibly difficult balance to get right and even the most well-meaning, best intentioned post can go wrong, so have some restraint and set some guidelines on what your brand does and doesn’t discuss.
They don’t recognise their flaws
There isn’t a single brand without one unhappy customer, an imperfection in its service or some sort of reputational baggage, so don’t try and hide from them when those problems rear their head on social media.
There are lots of potential risks to your brand, and these can be incredibly varied.
It could be as simple as one unhappy customer who feels let down, or it could be a significant event that could affect a large proportion of your customers, such as a product recall.
The media can also be a spark for a social media crisis.
Does your brand come under scrutiny for its tax arrangements or its environmental record? Is employee welfare something that your brand is questioned on, or are there long-standing customer service and reputation issues that still linger on the minds of your audiences?
Whatever those problems are, you either need to address them, or you need to have a response prepared that addresses those concerns.
Your response should tackle the problem positively, rather than going on the defensive or, worse still, staying silent. Acknowledge the problem, apologise and try to find a resolution.
No brand has ever won an argument with a customer.
They misjudge the audience reaction
Misjudging the reaction of your audiences is one of the quickest routes possible to a social media meltdown.
Social media is incredibly volatile, so take an objective look at your campaign and assess the ways in which your campaign could go wrong.
Identify and understand the risks behind your campaign and decide if those risks are greater that what you feel you can comfortably handle (even the best natured campaigns attract the odd negative comment).
If they are, reconsider the campaign.
This doesn’t mean deploying a completely uninspiring, structured and vanilla social media campaign.
Instead, it means deploying campaigns that are designed to minimise the risk of a backlash and ensure that if there is one, you have a readily prepared response.
They take too long to respond
More than 50% of consumers expect to receive a response to a query on social media in under two hours, so you need to have a system in place that allows you to respond quickly and effectively.
This covers a range of issues – from the hours that you staff and monitor your social channels through to the level of autonomy you give your social media teams in responding to queries.
Getting this wrong usually results in social media responses that are robotic, impersonal and, above all, simply too slow.
If you are in a position where you have to get various stakeholders around a table or on a call, particularly if those stakeholders are at different levels in the business, in different offices or even in different time zones, your response to a crisis will come long after it has consumed the brand.
Get your response plan in place before a crisis occurs, not after.
They lack the human touch
When you engage in social, you tend to be dealing with the public, rather than the mainstream media. So why respond to a problem with a heavily structured, rigid and sanitised press statement?
Your response has to have a human touch.
Too many brands go into information ‘lock-down’ in times of a social crisis, responding to events in a manner that is far too corporate, robotic and distant.
The regulated media may be used to this form of crisis management, but your typical social media user is not going to accept it.
The human approach is always the best approach in this situation. Humans can be humorous, empathetic, attentive, insightful and above all, forgiven. A carefully scripted statement is rarely any of these things.