Social Media Crisis Management: Four Ways to Put Out the Flames

You’d think the world would have had enough of silly love songs, but when Paul McCartney looks around, he sees it isn’t so. I feel the same way about social media crisis management. By now it should be like the Heimlich Maneuver: everybody sorta knows what to do, even if you haven’t actually had to dislodge a chunk of prime rib from your date’s windpipe, and you’re just hoping your skills never have to be put to the test.

But the topic is worth continually revisiting, because we marketers learn something from each fresh crisis. It’s an opportunity for marketers to check their crisis readiness while indulging in a little schadenfreude, which is a fancy German term for taking pleasure in the misery of others, and its social media equivalent, schadenfacenbooken, which is pleasure in watching someone else’s brand get flamed on Facebook. (This is not to be confused with schadenfacenbooken der zuckerberg, which is pleasure in knowing that while Facebook’s CEO is a 27-year-old billionaire, he’s still a dweeb.)

Most advice on social crisis management quite rightly focuses on prevention, because an ounce of prevention… you know the rest. I can recommend several good reads on the subject here, here, and here, but my aim is not to provide an analysis of the barn door after the social media horses have escaped. Let’s assume instead that the horses have already run amuck, are trampling the vegetable gardens, and that your CEO is calling to find out what you plan to do about it. I’ll outline four common crises in ascending levels of severity and offer advice on how to remedy.

1. The scathing brand assessment

From Amazon reviews to forum complaints to full-blown blog-based diatribes, the scathing brand assessment is woven into the DNA of social media. Its popularity is not simply a function of consumers having more access to outlets: as I have argued elsewhere, negative feedback is a natural and necessary way for consumers to gain equilibrium in the marketer-consumer relationship, as consumers find their voice in what has historically been a one-way conversation.

Let’s stipulate that you know about negative feedback soon after it occurs, because you’re actively monitoring social dialogue about your brand. (If you’re not monitoring, I don’t have room in this article for the scolding you’ve got coming to you. You need to go wait in the corner until the article is over.) The reality is that most brands choose not to respond directly to the majority of negative feedback they uncover. This is, in part, the same human instinct that might stop you from thrusting your arm into a badger’s den. Marketers fear making a bad situation worse by giving consumers cause to heap further negativity on their response.

But this way of thinking is misguided. Consumers aren’t griping for the sake of the gripe. OK, some of them are, but most would like to know that they’ve been heard by the brand. It’s very rarely the best course of action for a brand not to respond at all, but the way you respond makes all the difference.

I’d like to be able to tell you that I’ve unlocked the secret formula for responding to scathing assessments, but I’m just as happy to tell you that someone else beat me to it: namely, Yelp. I’m prepared to declare that Yelp’s guidelines for brands large and small contains everything you ever needed to know about responding to negative social feedback. Their wisdom is both clear and complete. See for yourself.

The rules really are as obvious as Yelp makes them out to be: Remember that these are your customers, acknowledge their position and don’t fight them on it, and tell them what you’re going to do to fix it. As exotic as social media can seem, and as hostile as digital natives sometimes appear, the ground rules are ground rules because they work. And Yelp’s approach works just as well for big brands as it did for Floyd’s Gas ‘N Sip in Topeka in the wake of the rancid beef jerky crisis.

2. The rogue employee

The high-stakes US-Soviet negotiations that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly fell apart when, instead of standing down, a rogue U2 spy plane out of Alaska strayed into Soviet air space. When Kennedy learned of the incident, he grumbled, “There’s always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.”

Brands may feel a bit like Kennedy when they take the trouble to put social media governance policies in place and find that a single employee has gone off the rails and created a social media dust-up that jeopardizes their best-laid plans. Again, in the interests of staying focused on the horses that have escaped the barn, I won’t preach about the need to have a social media governance policy in the first place; you can read that sermon here instead. Whether you have a policy or not has some bearing on your available legal actions toward a rogue employee, but I’m more interested in how you respond to the public in the wake of an employee’s bad behavior.

Let’s take a recent and widely publicized example: the social media agency employee who accidentally tweeted on Chrysler’s official account that motorists in the Motor City did not know “how to f**king drive.” Chrysler first claimed their Twitter account had been “compromised,” then outed, blamed, and ultimately fired their social media agency, which ultimately fired the offending employee.

While Chrysler got half the crisis management equation right by acting swiftly, they got the other half wrong by acting heavy-handedly. In such crises, brands should indeed distance themselves from errant messages, but that part isn’t especially hard: few consumers would actually believe the Twitter rant was part of Chrysler’s official brand stance, so not much needs to be said. You acknowledge the mistake and move on.

By firing the agency and/or the employee, Chrysler ripped the veil off everything that his human, fallible, and therefore authentic about social media interaction, inadvertently portraying itself as a corporate puppet-master guarding its brand at all costs. Brands that are agile in their use of social media take an implied stance with consumers that leaves room for error: as long as we stay honest with each other, we can afford to trip on our tongues once in awhile, and it will all be ok.

A simple acknowledgement, a bit of distance, and a dash of rueful humor are most often the right ingredients for handling rogue employee incidents like this one. For instance, Chrysler had recently hired Eminem as its celebrity spokesperson. Eminem… expletive-filled tweet… Do I have to draw a map here?

3. Social backlash

Even as social media marketing reaches its mature stage, brands that continue to sit out the social media dance persistently cite one primary reason: fears that their honest efforts to engage will be met with a storm of hostility. These fears are stoked by several years of widely publicized incidents in which brands’ social engagement has provoked backlash: Motrin running afoul of moms with a snarky viral video, Target caught secretly paying for positive mentions on Facebook, or Gap’s ill-fated attempt to crowdsource its logo change.

In almost all cases, these backlash incidents have some basic blunder at their core, like not being engaged with the audience you’re targeting, or failing to set up ground rules for engagement. But again, prevention is not today’s topic, so let’s assume that the social media ship is already on fire and listing badly, and you’re contemplating whether it’s better to drown or go up in flames.

The most common mistake brands make in these instances is replacing dialogue with monologue. It’s reflexive: embattled brands fall back on traditional PR tools for crisis management, reasoning that press releases and official statements have the best chance of ringing out loudly and clearly across the media landscape.

But in a social media crisis, a press release is just more kindling for the fire; it’s easily misunderstood and misconstrued because it can’t talk back. Even when it appears to dampen the flames, the hurt feelings remain. Motrin tamped down the Motrin Moms incident by pulling the offending video and issuing an Official Apology on its website, but that’s a poor substitute for direct, boots-on-the-ground dialogue with the moms that expressed anger.

To extend the metaphor, brands have to think of these crises as not simply a matter of putting out the fire, but also repairing the smoke damage. Once the brand’s response has been established, the response has to be tailored to every conversation in every medium, through direct, 1:1 dialogue that’s humble, honest, and specific. Brands that haven’t devoted the resources to building active dialogue in social channels have no business trying to leapfrog direct engagement with in-your-face campaigns that are ripe for backlash.

4. Brandjacking

The social media crisis type most responsible for increased sales of antacid among marketers is the “brandjacking” variety, in which consumers take over, either directly or through satirical commentary, some aspect of the brand’s identity. In the most notorious example, the Mars candy brand Skittles launched a site redesign that entirely replaced the traditional brand material on the home page with live feeds from user-controlled social media content related to Skittles. This prompted pranksters to steer all Skittles-related conversations on those channels into obscene territory, invoking uses of the candy best left to the imagination. The site came down in 48 hours.

More recently, Greenpeace launched a parody ad attacking Nestle’s lack of action against deforestation in its palm oil harvesting; Nestle tried to invoke its trademark to have the video removed from YouTube, then responded to flaming on Facebook by scolding fans who created satirical versions of its logo. AMC invoked its trademark rights to “Mad Men” to force Twitter to suspend the accounts of fans who, playfully and affectionately, tweeted as the show’s main characters. A surge of fan backlash and negative publicity forced the brand to relent.

Brandjacking is a sticky wicket, because brands do, of course, have certain trademark rights that must be protected. The brandjacking typified by the “Mad Men” tweets demands an especially careful approach, because consumers are expressing affection while they’re violating your trademark. Coca-Cola’s solution is worth emulating: In April 2009, it was revealed that the second most popular “fan” site on Facebook (after Barack Obama’s) was Coca-Cola’s. The site was not owned or administered by Coca-Cola, but rather by two unaffiliated consumers. Coca-Cola’s response was to fly the site’s creators to the company’s headquarters to thank them for their brand evangelism and to ask what the company could do to help. Facebook’s rules required that the site be shut down or turned over to Coca-Cola, but the company wanted the two consumers to continue their effort, so they agreed to jointly administer without interference. The company gained a measure of brand control while

Since satire is protected speech, brands will gain nothing by imitating Nestle’s heavy-handed response to negative parody; they should instead follow the direct engagement strategy outlined in the previous section and open up a dialogue with consumers. The temptation to brandjack a company stems at least in part from the perception of a large brand as monolithic, unresponsive, and unassailable. It’s a lot more fun to go after a player that deserves to be taken down a few pegs; this has been a basic rule of satire since the ancient Greeks.

Companies that are highly engaged in brand conversations through social media don’t necessarily shield themselves from brandjacking; they merely defuse its explosive potential by shifting the weight of the conversation toward the positive. For instance, the Venezuelan-owned oil and gas company CITGO has been the target of vehement denunciations in social media because of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’ anti-American rhetoric. The company’s response has been, in part, to create an online user-generated content contest that rewards participants for acts of charity within their communities. Notably such a strategy does not at all attempt to engage the Chavez issue directly; rather it simply seeks to start a different, more positive conversation, and to put company resources behind driving that conversation forward. Thus the effort has been effective not in making the Chavez comments disappear – no social strategy can accomplish that – but in diluting them within a larger conversation about the company’s efforts to reward good deeds.

Finally, no crisis management advice would be complete without a shameless plug for the role of the agency. While the largest brands have made huge strides in building social media infrastructures internally, the reality is that most mid-sized marketing and PR departments are managing social media on top of everything else, leaving precious little time for monitoring and responding. The advantage of working with a specialized agency is that they’ve had to perform the Heimlich more than once, and are less likely to break a few ribs in the process.


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