Social media is undoubtedly one of the most powerful tools any PR team has at its disposal. It enables you to quickly and effectively share messaging with a truly global audience. Unfortunately, this quality can also make it a venue for crises to breed and develop swiftly.

💡 Read Crisis Management 101: How to Save Your Business When a Crisis Strikes

There are many different types of social media crises, from a full-on, industry crisis to an emerging crisis you need to nip in the bud. If even a minor problem manages to go viral, the reputational damage can be immense. If you need examples of social media crises, there are many — but the point is,they can happen to anyone. This is why it is so vital to create a solid social media crisis plan. 

Let’s explore a handful of the essential elements your plan should include and why these make a difference.

Response Structures

The last thing you want to do when a social media crisis arises is to make a panic-driven response. Yes, delays in responding may affect the brand reputation, but a poorly thought-out reaction tends to exacerbate things.

A good example of this is when United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger due to overbooking in 2017. As videos of the incident went viral and criticisms spread on social media, United Airlines’ immediate response was to post statements that appeared to downplay the issue. This caused further criticism and painted the brand as one with a lack of empathy or accountability.

Respond structure
Social media crisis arises

Your social media crisis plan should, therefore, include a well-considered structure for responses. This should include scripts for the most immediate acknowledgment of the situation, with language guidelines based on empathy and assurances of transparency. Your structure should then have a timeline for follow-up responses. Determine when updates will be provided to the public and by whom.

Situational Reviews

A social media crisis isn’t always immediately cut-and-dried. Sure, sometimes it’ll be clear who or what is at fault, which can speed the process of resolution. Nevertheless, some issues are more complex. Even in a landscape as immediate and dynamic as social media, it’s important to do your due diligence with situational reviews.

Why should your social media crisis plan include steps for this? Well, firstly it prevents your brand from claiming undue responsibility or dismissing concerns as a knee-jerk reaction. Not to mention that it demonstrates to your audience that you take the issue seriously rather than just paying lip service to the incident.

In your plan, make certain that there is clarity on who should perform the review for any given incident. You can use tools or solutions like Determ’s media monitoring software to get notifications immediately when you are mentioned online, and learn why. Establish the intentions of reviews, from identifying the cause of the incident to finding who is at fault. This is a data-gathering mission to enable you to make informed decisions about rectifying the issue.

Situation reviews
Make informed decisions about rectifying the issue

Be transparent about situational reviews, though. Use your social media channels to set expectations about the review. Inform followers what the intentions are and what department or company leader is heading the review. Even if there is a clear-cut fault on the side of the company, use your channels to assure audiences that the situation is being reviewed to prevent problems in the future.

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For example, when CD Project Red faced severe backpack for releasing a half-baked game after years of promising otherwise, they turned to social media to send a message: they were working on solutions to this problem and were determined to make things right among their player base. By the end of 2023, they claimed to have “transformed the game through various patches and updates” on their X account. The recent resurgence in popularity of the Cyberpunk 2077 game seems to validate these claims.

PR Crisis Management Ebook

Clear Communication Protocols

Social media is, at its core, a communications forum. How you approach communications during a crisis tends to influence the outcome. 

For instance, KFC faced a backlash in 2018 when they had a supply disruption that led to the temporary closure of stores. It chose to be transparent in its communications about this issue. The clarity this provided was enhanced with humor. Alongside key information, they posted an image of a KFC bucket with their initials transposed to read “FCK.” This approach kept customers informed and diffused what was becoming a difficult situation.

The success of this type of campaign wouldn’t be possible without clear communications protocols in place as part of the social media crisis plan. These should include:

Who performs communications

In each situation, it’s important to identify who performs required communications. In what circumstances will it be sufficient for customer service staff to respond to customers? What type of crises requires communications to be spearheaded by senior staff or executives? It may be wise to create a dedicated social media crisis communications team and train them with the specific skills to manage such situations.

It’s important to identify who performs required communications

Who needs to be informed

Establish who needs to receive information in any given situation. Does the severity of a crisis require information to be escalated up the chain of management? Do supply chain partners and investors need to be kept abreast of how the issue is affecting brand reputation? Alongside positing responses to the public, do you need to contact individually affected consumers?

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What style of communication to use?

Different types of crises require different tones. The humorous nature of the KFC case was well-judged, but comedy must be used carefully. Be clear about when humor is allowed to be used in crisis communications and what forms this should take. Be specific about when to apply solemnity and sympathy, too.

Alongside creating communications protocols, you also need to effectively communicate your strategic plans. This helps to ensure that all members of the team understand and buy into the social media crisis plan. Hold all-hands meetings that give everyone a chance to learn about the strategy and give feedback. Create highly visual documents that provide clarity on each step of the plan. 

Read 4 Ways To Improve Your Crisis Communications Strategy

Preventative Measures

It’s always in your best interests to include processes that aim to head a crisis off at the pass. Even if a situation is underway, you can adopt preventative measures that prevent escalation.

So, what can prevent a crisis or escalation? Well, you should avoid simply trying to handle it with prizes. Equifax experienced a consumer data breach in 2017. As a result, it attempted to prevent the escalation of social media criticism by offering free credit monitoring. This was a pretty transparent attempt to mollify consumers and did little to boost trust in the brand.

Instead, utilize tools that help you keep on top of issues and avoid a social media crisis. For instance, in the example of data leaks, you should adopt strategies that allow you to promptly detect password breaches. Breaches can occur due to a range of issues, from phishing methods to pure guesswork. Though passwordless security models may be preferable, it’s wise to regularly have staff check online password breach lists. This enables them to see if their accounts have been compromised. As a result, you can spot and address breaches before they become problematic.

Additionally, it’s wise to use social listening techniques when a crisis is beginning to arise. Get some solid data on what consumers are already saying about you on social channels and what their concerns are. This enables you to make the most relevant communications, rather than trying to assume what might be effective.

Leadership Engagement

Accountability is an important part of any crisis management. On social media, it may not always be enough for your social media managers to be present during incidents. Audiences may feel that the situation warrants leaders to demonstrate their involvement and even be accountable. It’s not a good idea to wait until your audience demands this. Instead, make leadership engagement a key part of your social media crisis plan.

Read 5 Crisis Communication Examples: Here’s How to Do It

leadership engagement
Make leadership engagement a key part of your social media crisis plan

Certainly, the level of leadership involvement will depend on the crisis at hand. It likely wouldn’t be practical for the CEO to make a formal statement for every minor situation. Indeed, an executive being involved in a small incident may give the impression that it’s a more serious crisis than it really is, affecting the public’s perceptions. 

Instead, it’s wise to formalize what leaders should engage and how far their involvement should be. Consider a framework that initially sees heads of department joining situations relevant to their expertise. For instance, customer service managers can be a part of the response for product complaints. Human resources (HR) leaders may be appropriate for staff conduct issues. Executives may be reserved for crises of ethics or significant financial problems.

While your crisis or PR team may be spearheading all such social media incidents in general, the relevant leader should be meaningfully involved. They may need to issue statements in posts, of course. However, they should also be behind the scenes to give insights into the challenges of their department and show that they are genuinely being accountable.

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A social media crisis plan can ensure you can respond to developing issues in a structured and impactful way. Your plan needs to incorporate a range of elements, from your approach to communication to how you can better understand the nuances of each situation. Remember, though, that each crisis can have its unique challenges. Use your plan as a foundation, rather than an inflexible set of rules. This enables you to make the most relevant decisions for each crisis your brand faces.

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