5 Steps for Responding to a Social Media Crisis

If you find yourself in a particularly tough situation, follow these five steps to dig yourself out of it.

Social media is a volatile place. What moves people to action one day might bore them the next, and what’s seen as funny and tasteful to one person might be seen as objectionable to another. The reactions of your followers are difficult to predict, and your posting activity is controlled by humans, so no matter how hard you try, you’re going to end up making some mistakes.

There are different types of mistakes that can be made on social media. You might publicize something that was meant to be private. You might make a typo or post an incorrect link and fail to proofread before sending. You might post something with full understanding and the best intentions, but with a negative backlash from your audience.

The bottom line is that mistakes happen, and sometimes those mistakes will lead to a social media crisis, putting your brand in a vulnerable and difficult position. Some crises are so intense that it seems you may never recover, but countless major national brands have faced social chaos and emerged gracefully. If you find yourself in a particularly tough situation, follow these five steps to dig yourself out of it:

Step 1: Assess the Situation

Your first job is to assess the scope of the situation. Some crises can be gracefully swept under the rug, but others may require much more attention. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much time has passed since the offending material was published?
  • How many people have seen the offending material?
  • What percentage of readers are offended by the material?
  • How offended are the offended parties, on a scale of 1 to 10?
  • How out of line with the brand is the offending material?

Once you’ve thoroughly assessed the situation, you can start planning your response. For large-scale crises, you may need to recruit other team members or consult with your superiors before moving forward. For smaller ones, it’s usually a matter of responding as quickly as possible to avoid any further escalation.

Step 2: Delete the Offending Material

Once you’ve tracked down the offending material, it’s your responsibility to delete it. However, you should not delete any followers’ comments or responses to the material; only delete the material itself. I’ll discuss this in more detail in the next step, but for now, just focus on deleting the original post.

Also keep in mind that nothing on the Internet can ever be permanently deleted. If your post riled enough attention, it’s more than likely that it’s been screencapped and archived for posterity. Don’t be surprised if your post continues to pop up from other accounts; your goal here isn’t to remove the content entirely, but to show that you recognize its inappropriateness and are willing to take action against it. Sometimes, merely deleting the post and offering a public apology is more than enough to quell the anger or disappointment of your fans. In other cases, it’s at least a good start.

Step 3: Accept and Respond to Criticism

If your post reached enough people and provoked enough negative reaction, you’re going to be dealing with criticism from other followers. These could range from simple acknowledgments of your mistake to jokes to hateful or inflammatory messages. Be prepared for anything, but no matter what, you must follow the golden rule: Don’t delete a comment just because it’s embarrassing or less than ideal for your brand. If you’re caught deleting a comment unnecessarily, you’ll be subject to even more criticism.

Instead, make an effort to respond to every comment you can, directly and personally. Don’t revert to automated messages or repeated phrases over and over; genuinely read and respond to each comment uniquely. Doing so will show your followers you care and you’re listening actively to them.

Step 4: Work to Make It Right

Once you’ve addressed some of the first wave of comments, it’s your job to start making things right with your community. If you haven’t already offered a public admission of guilt and an apology, now is the time to do so.

Depending on the nature of your mistake, you’ll need to make a concentrated effort to reverse or mitigate the effects of your post. If you misled your customers about a product, you can offer a discount on future orders. If you made an unintentionally offensive comment, you can show your support for whatever group you offended. You can’t always make it right with your audience, but you can always make an effort—and it’s really the effort that counts.

Step 5: Perform a Root Cause Analysis

Once you’ve mitigated the effects of your mistake to the best of your ability, it’s your job to perform a root cause analysis and determine where things went wrong. Was it a lack of proofreading? A missing peer-review step? Poorly performed research? Once you’ve identified the actions and procedures that led to the mistake, you can correct your policies and prevent the mistake from happening in the future.

When it comes to social media crises, it’s less a matter of “if” and more a matter of “when.” If you’re posting actively and building a community, eventually a post or campaign will slip by you and turn at least some of your followers against you. When it happens, keep your cool and treat it like you would any other critical situation: Follow the logical steps, temper your reactions and make proactive changes to avoid repeating the mistake in the future.

Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.