Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

How to deal with a social media crisis like a human being

Published in Jul-Aug 2015

Instead of fearing social media when things go awry, brands should employ understanding, empathy and honesty.
Photo courtesy: MarxLayne.
Photo courtesy: MarxLayne.

1989 – The crisis:
The Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska. The social backlash: Protest limited to the affected community and selected print and broadcast channels.

2000 – The crisis:
The British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The social backlash: Millions of protestors on social media, a Boycott BP Facebook page with almost a million fans, a parody Twitter account mocking the company, which became more popular than the official account, a disgraced CEO, loss of PR, credibility and lots more.

Social media is a two-way channel. Yes, it gives a voice to people, but what brands often forget during a crisis is that it gives them a voice too. How they choose to use that voice – stay silent, go on the offensive, apologise, create confidence – is up to them.

Recently in Pakistan a number of brands have fallen prey to social media backlash. Among them, Pakistan International Airline (PIA) for allegedly serving a stale bun to a passenger, Nestlé Fruita Vitals for allegedly fungus-infested juice and Engro Foods Olper’s milk for allegedly containing ants. There are countless other examples in the socio-sphere.

What should brands do when these incidents occur? Should they first apologise or carry out an investigation? What is an appropriate response and response time? What should they expect in terms of customer reaction and goodwill? How can they make loyal customers to rally around them?

How to turn a crisis around to build even more goodwill

One of my favourite examples of a company managing a social media crisis amazingly well is that of a startup called Buffer. If you have ever scheduled a social media post on Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn or Twitter, you may have come across Buffer. The way Buffer handled their crisis actually earned them more fans, customers, trust and loyalty. I have never heard of this happening before!

Buffer was hacked in 2013 and anyone who signed up with Buffer found spam tweets and Facebook updates going out on behalf of their account. Here is a quick snapshot at what Buffer did when the crisis hit:

** Acknowledged the problem.** Within 15 minutes of the first complaint, they sent out a tweet saying they were aware of the issue and were investigating.

** Explained the issue.** They sent an email to over one million subscribers informing them about what had happened, what steps the company was taking, and what action users should take next to safeguard their account.

** All hands on deck.** Their entire team started to engage with their audiences wherever they were – Twitter, Facebook, blogs, emails, etc. Although the crisis erupted on a Saturday afternoon when no one was in the office, Buffer asked its team to instantly mobilise.

** Reassurance over and over again.** Buffer continued to keep its audiences updated, giving them screenshots of how to change passwords and protect their accounts while their engineers worked on resolving the crisis. Finally, when the crisis had died down, they released the outcome of their efforts.

** Thank you all round.** They thanked their fans for their support and acknowledged almost every single comment – positive or negative – posted during the crisis. No one was made to feel ignored!

How Buffer responded is a case study in social media crisis management, and although there is a lot we can learn from their case, I want to focus on some key aspects, which I believe can be replicated and applied by brands the world over.

Universal tactics in times of a social media crisis

1. Respond, swiftly! The golden rule is to get involved in the conversation before it blows out of proportion and the brand is left on the sidelines. There is no specific timeline that works across the board, but in general the aim should be to acknowledge that there is a problem as soon as you and your team are aware of it. Response times may range from a few minutes to 24-hours, depending on the business and the nature of the crisis. When you respond quickly, your audience will follow you instead of finding another leader.

2. Over-communicate: In a crisis the audience does not know what is happening internally. They are not aware of the steps you are taking, they don’t know the extent of the problem, they can’t understand how it will be resolved; they may not even know how it fully affects them or what countermeasures they need to take. To counter this uncertainty, brands need to over-communicate, even if it means sending out an update every few minutes with the latest development. Even if it means working around the clock 24/7; even if it means getting people across the company to be on the same page with respect to the crisis plan.

3. Apologise with empathy: This is where so many brands falter. They revert to stock apologies or apologise because that is what the crisis manual says, but in doing so they miss the mark, and customers feel they are being talked down to. Why? Because the apology is insincere. An insincere apology lacks empathy – the ability to really put yourself in your audience’s shoes and address their feelings. A sincere apology has the following components

– A clear ‘we are sorry’ statement without the word ‘but’. ‘We are sorry this happened, but…’ invalidates the apology.

– A feeling of regret for the incident. ‘We are truly sorry this caused you inconvenience.’

– An acknowledgement of the repercussions. ‘We are aware this has impacted your ability to run your business smoothly’; ‘we understand this issue caused your family extreme distress.’

– A statement that empathises with your customers’ plight. This is the most important step! Put your audience’s feelings into words and embrace them. ‘We know how embarrassed/ disappointed/scared/etc., you must feel’. How you apologise is the key. A good apology always communicates that the behaviour will not be repeated. ‘We will do everything we can to ensure this does not happen again.’

– A request for understanding. ‘We know how distressing this was but we hope to be able to serve you again.’

What is a social media crisis communications plan and how to implement one

Buffer was able to respond quickly and appropriately because they had a social media communication plan in place. You may assume that a plan has to be a complicated document outlining procedures and roles, and while that may certainly be true, sometimes the most effective way to respond is also the most human way to respond. Here is Buffer’s one-line communication plan: “We tried to simply default to our values here. Be open, be transparent, be understanding.” As you can see, it helps to have a culture devoted to open and honest communication!

Dell is famous for its crisis management skills and its Social Media Listening Centre. Here are some tips from Dell on how your brand can develop a social media crisis communications plan.

1. Designate who will be manning the social media accounts during a crisis. Typically appoint a few authorised people, but ensure that the rest of the team remains empowered because they may have social media communication directed at them too.

2. Identify the tone and messaging of your crisis communication. Do not forget to be real and human, and do not sound robotic in your delivery!

3. Identify channels of communication. These may include social networks, internal blogs, press releases, email newsletters and more.

4. Maintain a contact log of all the people who need to be contacted 24/7 in a crisis.

Instead of fearing social media when things go awry, brands should embrace the fact that things will sometimes go wrong and when this happens they need to operate from a place of understanding, empathy and honesty.

Sometimes the best way to handle a crisis is to imagine you are talking to a real person on the other end.

Salma Jafri is the host of the weekly video show "Content Marketing Tips"