3 ways to extinguish—and survive—a social media firestorm

When your brand comes under attack, address the issue right away. Take control of the online conversation, and make sure your team is equipped with clear, concise messaging.


Social media offers boundless marketing and PR opportunities.

However, social media platforms can also be quite a dangerous arena for brands. It can get ugly—fast. Today, one negative comment can snowball into a full-blown PR crisis. Your marketing and branding strategy can unravel in just a few hours.

When a PR crisis hits, confusion, chaos and negativity can quickly disrupt your business and harm your image. However, a bit of strategic preparation can help you extinguish the fire before it spreads. It’s often possible to turn a crisis into a PR success—if you act swiftly and smartly.

Here are three tips to survive a social media flare-up:

1. Address the issue clearly and quickly.

The first step is to identify exactly where and how the crisis originated. One easy way to spot a brewing social media firestorm is to set keyword alerts to look for conversations with negative context or intent. Try adding different keywords that frequently appear in negative comments.

Once you have identified the issue and verified the authenticity of the complaint, take steps to address it directly and clearly.

United Airlines rightfully came under fire this year after a passenger was dragged off an overbooked flight. After a disturbing video of the incident went viral, Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, apologized on Twitter. Unfortunately, his apology came too late, and his message just made matters worse.

Instead of apologizing for humiliating the passenger, Munoz apologized for the inconvenience caused to other passengers. Munoz had to apologize again, and United ended up suffering perhaps the worst PR debacle of 2017.

The situation spiraled out of control because United failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. The company did not initially address the issue quickly or clearly, which prolonged the blowback and extended the negative coverage.

2. Jump into the conversation.

Instead of trying to make negative conversations disappear, enter the fray. Try to turn the narrative in your favor.

GitLab, a startup hosting service, stumbled into a major PR embarrassment when an employee accidentally deleted client data from its server. All attempts to restore the data failed. As a result, the company lost six hours’ worth of client work.

Fortunately, the GitLab team had a smart crisis management plan in place. The company quickly informed clients of the crisis—before social media started flooding with negative tweets and complaints. GitLab communicators provided a detailed account of what happened and how they planned to fix the problem.

There was no sign of getting the issue fixed in a timely manner, so GitLab staff roped in the coding and tech community for help. GitLab shared a Google Doc with live notes and live YouTube video streams, which garnered widespread participation and engagement. This strategy turned GitLab’s crisis into an enticing challenge for fellow community members to solve.

GitLab even published a blog post explaining what happened to the developer responsible for the crisis, who became known as “team-member-1” on social media.

By taking control of the conversation from the get-go—and tapping into the power of community-based teamwork—GitLab defused what could have been ruinous situation.

3. Communicate with internal stakeholders.

Of course, you must communicate with external stakeholders when a PR crisis hits, but don’t forget about your colleagues. Making sure all employees, partners and influencers are apprised and informed will give you crucial messaging momentum when you need it most. Provide approved messaging to ensure consistency and prevent the spread of misinformation.

A crisis will probably affect your entire company, which may require adjustments to your marketing strategy, work policies, communication channels and even management activities. That’s why it’s essential to make sure all internal stakeholders are aware of the crisis management plan and prepared for communication battle.

Share your side of the story with each stakeholder, but make sure your internal dialogue is consistent with external communications. Stick to an honest, detailed account of all developments. If you fail to communicate, workers will assume the worst. Transparent communication builds trust and encourages people to soldier on.

Just about every organization will face some sort of social media crisis. Do you have a plan to respond? Your company’s survival hangs in the balance, so make sure your team is ready.

A version of this post first appeared on the Cision blog.

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