How to Handle a Viral Social Media Crisis

The last couple weeks produced some high profile negative issues and full blown viral social media crisis situations. I thought it might be a good time to revisit a piece I wrote a while back on dealing with viral social media events. Having been there, done that, my best piece of advice (in addition to what is below) is, strap yourself in–you’re in for a bumpy ride. But the more prepared you are, the better. Read on.

surprised student at computerWhat would you do if you woke up one morning, looked at your Facebook page, and saw hundreds of angry comments about your brand surrounding a thoughtless comment made by an employee? No matter what kind of crisis plan you have, there is nothing that can completely prepare you for what comes next.

Crisis managers sometimes give the impression that all online crises are alike. Well, they are not. Each crisis has its own rhythm, and prescribed systems will only work if their tactics are flexible and customized. In PRSA’s Strategist, Ketchum’s James Donnelly wrote, “Bad things happen when you apply too much science to what is essentially an art. Thus, social media crisis management tools become highly inefficient when they attempt to provide one ‘golden solution’ for each aspect of social media risk.”

Recently, I had a client who experienced a viral global social media crisis. By the time they called me, they had been besieged by media requests for interviews and had unpublished their Facebook page out of sheer panic. For the next two weeks, we walked through the fire together. Thankfully, we made it through–a little scorched but still alive. Keeping in mind that every crisis has its own mind, here are the key lessons my client learned.

1. Manage a crisis for the long run. True, there are bleeding wounds that require immediate tactics, but don’t lose sight of the long term implications of what you are doing. Even though an attacking swarm from Reddit can descend and wreak havoc in your social media, they eventually go away if you let them have their say. More on that in number two.

2. It’s okay to temporarily disable Facebook comments or visitor postings to get some breathing room. Some experts don’t like this option, but my experience has shown that it doesn’t affect the long run recovery period if done correctly. Only do this long enough to take a quick assessment, gather facts, and craft an initial response-an hour or two at the most.  And do it only if the viral crisis has caught you off-guard and you need to find out what’s going on.  Post a status update saying you are doing so while gathering facts, and give an exact time when comments will be accepted again and you will be back with the facts. Make it no more than a few hours.

In the case above, after a quick needs assessment (which included sentiment analysis, volume spikes around critical comments, crisis mentions vs. non-crisis mentions, identification of key influencers, and common concerns or questions expressed by comments) and a strategy session, the client reluctantly re-published the page, leading with an apology statement (pinned to top of the page), answers to common concerns, and contact information to ask additional questions. It was an invitation to host an open forum where they were sure to get crucified. But in this case, it was the best thing to do. I did some quick fixes to the page to be sure the conversation could be managed using Facebook filters and re-posted their comment policy. We offered to have offline conversations about specific questions and answered selected comments publicly to assure people we were listening. I monitored the whole conversation with an application that allowed me to see everything, including comments that were kicked out by Facebook’s filter.

3. The viral swarm does not define you, but they need to have their say. The biggest mistake I’ve seen in a viral social media crisis is when brands are absent from their social media channels in a crisis. This alone is the best reason to hire an outside manager to handle a viral mess. It’s tough for CEOs and management to watch their company attacked. Often, the additional time a crisis requires stretches a communications staff thin and social media can fall by the wayside.  Bringing in an emotionally detached crisis manager can cut down on the stress of monitoring hate speech 24/7. Even if you are innocent or the event was caused by a misunderstanding, you have to ride out the storm in the boat. We had three different viral cycles in the first 72 hours of this crisis. Remember, you can be dealing with different time zones, and the waves rise and fall according to the popular drive times across the globe.

4. Once the swarm leaves, the important work begins. The end of a viral event is the beginning of the arduous task of reputation recovery. Post-event evaluation should not only look at the event—what happened, how did we handle it, what can we do better if it happens again—but also should include a frank discussion about the work ahead. In the case of this client, those strategies included focusing their resources on setting up a company website (which they didn’t have) that aimed at telling the stories of their products and vendors.

One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to managing an online crisis. Make sure your online crisis plan is flexible and has response tactics that can be scaled to any situation. I’m interested to hear from you—ever experienced a viral online crisis? Would you add lessons you’ve learned in the comments?

Updated March 3, 2013


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