What is a social media crisis?

Crises are inevitable. In this post you will find out what a crisis is and what you can do to turn it into an opportunity for your brand or business.

What is a crisis?

According to NibusinessInfo a crisis is:

A business crisis is an event, or a series of events, that causes major disturbance for a business. A crisis typically occurs suddenly and poses intense difficulty or danger for the business, usually in a situation where time is short and decisions have to be taken quickly.

Let me tell you a personal story. It was 2006 and I was doing my first internship in public relations for one of the major TV channels in Peru. Sadly it was one of the worst years for the channel economically, and the workers weren’t getting paid.

One day my boss at that time was sick, and she put me in charge of an event: the release of a TV show. She told me the media would be at the channel waiting to interview the actors of the show.

When the media arrived, the actors agreed to do a little rehearsal so they could take photos of them acting.

Everything was ready, the director started the countdown…5…4…3…2…1… but neither the camera operators [HS1] nor the actors did anything. Instead, they started a strike in order to get paid in front of the media. That was my first crisis.

At that moment there was nothing I could do to mitigate the effect; in a few hours the news was on all major platforms on the internet.

As the concept says, a crisis causes a major disturbance for a business, and that is why you need to know how to handle them. Also, you need to know that a crisis can happen at any time without any notice.

However, a crisis is also an opportunity to improve your business, and to show people that your brand or business is strong enough to handle a crisis.

What is a social media crisis?

A social media crisis is anything that could negatively impact your business’s reputation or reception through social media. It represents any social media activity that could potentially hurt your brand’s reputation, or your ability to do business. A crisis can be summed up as an online or offline event that generates unwanted and negative press directed towards a company’s social media presence.

What can spark a social media crisis?

From my experience, I would say that Twitter is the main social media platform for crises to occur. Why? Well, journalists use it, and it is the perfect platform for discussions.

Let me clarify that idea with a personal experience.

It was 2014 and I was working for a digital agency as the social media manager for ALL of their five brands. One of those brands was Starbucks Peru.

One day at lwunch [HS2] time I was alone in the agency, checking the branded accounts on Facebook to respond to any comments when I read this:

Hello Starbucks, I found this nail in my croissant, please be more careful next time.”

I read that text with the photo as proof.

My first reaction was to run around in panic, and after a minute I called the creative director and the CEO to inform them about the comment.

Luckily, the comment was only on Facebook and not on Twitter— journalists don’t tend to monitor Facebook, as the platform isn’t as ideal as Twitter for discovering stories.

I spent the whole day monitoring Twitter in case someone mentioned the “accident”, but nothing happened. By that night, the problem was solved and the person who wrote the comment deleted it.

Now, Twitter is the main social channel to spark a social media crisis because journalists use the platform, so you have to be more careful when tweeting for your business, or this can happen.

raul the technology savvy social media crisis

As you can see, Burger King tried to make a joke on International Women’s Day. Bad idea. They caused a reputational crisis just for a joke.

Another example:

raul the technology savvy social media crisis 2

Yes, another reputational crisis, and this time it was the Red Cross.

How can you avoid a Twitter crisis like these?

It’s easy—just have one Twitter account for your personal use and another for your business marketing.

Never use one Twitter account for both your personal and business use. Trust me, I´ve been there and done that, and it is not pretty.

How to prevent a social media crisis?

A social media crisis can be prevented, though not entirely.

To prevent a social media crisis you need to:

Develop a social media crisis management plan before a crisis happens

A crisis plan is a blueprint for your organization when a crisis occurs.

You may think: “Wow, a crisis plan is the size of a book”. Trust me, I thought the same, but when I was conducting interviews for my thesis about crisis management, all the crisis plans were one to ten pages long, no more.

This is because a crisis plan is actionable—nobody has the time to read it in the moment of chaos.

Your social media crisis plan has to be simple:

  • Are we in a crisis?
  • Who is the crisis team?
  • How and when will you communicate with your employees about the crisis?
  • Who will be the spokesperson?
  • What are the next steps?
  • What is the approval process for what you’ll post on social media?
  • Pre-approved external messaging
  • A link to your social media policy

Every crisis is different, and that is why a crisis team exists.

The goal of this social media crisis plan is to turn the crisis into an opportunity for your brand.

You have to remember that your employees can be your better advocates when a crisis appears.

No matter how well you plan, don’t expect to resolve the issue with a few well-timed posts. The most important point to keep in mind is that people will be looking to you for a response, and you need to get it across as quickly as possible.

As a first point, this can be as simple as acknowledging that there’s a problem, and letting people know that more information will be coming soon.


This is key. As you know, social media is all about “talking”. People use social media apps to express themselves.

So if your brand is popular, people will talk about it.

Every morning when I get to the office, the first thing I do is check the company Twitter to see if it has mentions or if there is a potential crisis.

There are a number of tools that handle social listening. A good place to start is by setting up Google Alerts and keyword searches for your brand and products/services.

But there are companies who have a larger budget and can afford monitoring software like Brand24, Sprout Social, Agorapulse, among others.

Monitoring is key to prevent a crisis. You need to know what people are saying about your brand and, more importantly, to see if they have a complaint about your brand or service.

Unlike social media monitoring, which looks at engagement metrics and mentions, social listening tries to gauge the ratio of positive/negative sentiment toward your company or one of its activities, using metrics like:

  • Brand mentions
  • Industry trends
  • Relevant hashtags

You can use social listening to monitor what people are saying about your brand and respond to issues before they develop into crises. Imagine, for example, that your brand posts a photo which other users call out as insensitive. Or perhaps an ad campaign goes viral for the wrong reasons.

But those tools only help if you have a system in place for monitoring them. Establish protocols for which member of your team is in charge of social listening, what they’re listening for and when they should be paying special attention to online chatter, such as in the week after launching a new social media campaign.

Social media crises don’t observe office hours, so determine which members of the social media team will monitor channels in the evenings and on weekends—especially during high-volume sales and peak service periods—for changes in sentiment and increased mentions.

Build a crisis team

Remember the example when I was monitoring and found a potential crisis? If you can recall, we did not have a crisis team at that agency. I called the CEO because that was, for me, the right thing to do, but we did not have a crisis team.

It is important for your business to have a crisis management team. Why? Because you need the right people to take action when a crisis appears.

Imagine that you have a crisis in your company and you have a hundred people talking at the same time. Will that help?

If a crisis happens, who needs to be in the team, what will their roles be, and what authority will they have? It is too late to decide this in a crisis, and it is essential they have worked together before the crisis happens.

Trust takes time to build. A cohesive team that trusts each other will perform much better in the heightened anxiety of a crisis than a group of people who have never met before. Make sure your team is small with limited levels of hierarchy. Decisions need to be made swiftly and with authority.

Define what a crisis is for your business

You need to know what qualifies as a crisis for your business. What a crisis looks like for you may not look like a crisis to another company.

From my experience, I can give you this example. Right now I am working for a Catholic university, so, as you can imagine it is very conservative in its politics.

One day the university was celebrating a graduation and a professor was giving a speech. During the speech he talked against free love, and immediately the people attending started to record the speech on their phones. A potential crisis was arising.

A few hours later the first tweets appeared, and a journalist started to talk about it.

That was a crisis for us, because, though our brand is conservative, your brand might not be.

At your business, not every issue is a crisis. Consider a one-off issue like an isolated outage or an unpleasant service call that a customer takes to social media. You don’t need to go into crisis mode over an incident that can be resolved by contacting the customer directly.

It’s important for social teams to be vigilant, however, because what seems like an isolated event can be the first indicator of an impending crisis—a major issue that impacts a large group of customers and requires a special response to prevent an escalating reaction.

For example, a single customer mocking a hashtag or commenting on the insensitivity of ad copy might fit the definition of an issue, but not a social media crisis. Multiple customers pointing out the issue may indicate an incipient crisis.

Always engage with your audience

This may sound repetitive, but you have to create a community around your brand or business.

In case of a crisis, a community can help you to prevent damage for your brand or business.

How? Be honest about what is happening with your brand during a crisis.

For example, your company is in crisis. They release a statement to the media and the spokesperson will hold a press conference. Your community will help spread awareness. They will use their social media presence to spread what the executive is saying and to do RT (ReTweet) to your press release.

Social profiles are frequently viewed as sales tools instead of powerful customer service platforms for customer care and building brand loyalty. By solely pitching products rather than having meaningful conversations with your followers, you could miss opportunities to address customer experience problems early on.

That is why you can’t just sell and promote, but you also need to talk to your audience.

And when a crisis appears, you need to be honest when answering comments on social media.

It’s crucial to respond quickly and professionally when negative comments about your company are discovered. Ignoring criticism, even when it isn’t posted directly to your page, sends a message to your followers that you don’t care enough about them to respond.

Hire the right people for the role of community manager

A good community manager can prevent a crisis, a bad community manager can cause a crisis. It’s that simple.

Assigning your brand’s social media strategy to an intern or an inexperienced employee may save you money, but it could also be a recipe for disaster.

A great social media manager has a level head, is capable of handling a crisis, and is well-organized and detail-oriented. Finding someone with public relations experience adds another layer of insurance against mistakes.

Prefer to outsource the work? There are many companies specializing in managing social media accounts for businesses. This option may be the most impactful if you have room in your budget.

What to do when a social media crisis hits?

You can do all of the above and be ready when a crisis strikes, but a crisis can hit you when you are not prepared. What should you do in that case?

Pause all campaigns and scheduled posts

Why? Because everybody will know that your business is in crisis. All your posts and campaigns are positive content, and that is why you need to pause them.

When a potential crisis has been flagged, pause all advertising campaigns and scheduled posts until you are ready to reply.

There’s nothing worse than appearing insensitive or salesy when the moment calls for a more tactful response.

Plus, it’s better to be a little late to the party with the right message, than find yourself sharing pre-scheduled content that further fuels a negative reaction from your audience.

Workshop your response

Once you’ve had a moment to assess the situation, you can start workshopping a timely response.

While it’s important not to rush and then regret a rash decision, you typically want to respond within 24 hours.

When approaching conversations on your social channels, check your mindset. The key is to listen and let your audience know that you value their opinions and appreciate their feedback.

It may feel natural to take a defensive stance, but this can often do more harm than good—generating more criticism and negativity.

Your response has to be according to your audience with the goal to gain their support.

Also, you have to answer the negative comments that typically come during a crisis.

Experience helps

Even the most experienced social media manager is afraid during a crisis, and that is why you need a plan beforehand.

Yet experience helps a lot. A plan is a guide, but experience will tell you what the best decision is during the crisis.

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summed up as an online or offline event that generates unwanted and negative press on a company’s social

represents any social media activity that potentially hurts your brand’s reputation or ability to do business

anything that could negatively impact your business’s reputation and reception through social media