Social Media Crisis Management: Sin & Salvation Within Your Reach

%social engagement %social listeningImagine being in a room with your best friends, your idols – with all the time in the world to kibitz, share and ask questions.

Welcome to social media cocktail hour – it starts when you login to your favorite hangout.

Anything goes here: I love you, I like you and I’m so done with you. Like bar stools and the holy trinity, all good (and not-so-good) things come in threes.

If you’re a brand at the cocktail party, welcome to your new religion.

If you’re lucky (and smart enough) to grow a community, it can become your church, putting salvation within reach. Belly up to the altar and drink the wine of acceptance – because you’ve arrived.

But what happens when your sins catch up with you? What if you screw up? Do you have a social media crisis plan in place? Do you know where and how to repent for your sins and find salvation?

Social media sinners

I’ve worked for big and small companies and many share a trait that never ceases to amaze me – they don’t plan for a crisis in social media. I’ve seen astronomical investments for sensitivity training, CPR certification – even a chain of command in case of a bomb threat.

All good things to prepare for but what about if when something goes wrong in social media? That would NEVER happen to us – we’re simply too awesome.

First lesson in the catechism: yes it can happen – you’re not as awesome as you think

In 2009, I was serving as communication director for a manufacturer that had been in business more than 15 years and was considered an industry leader. But the path to the pearly gates is paved with good intentions – and unpaid bills.

When the recession hit, suppliers panicked. Then phone calls didn’t generate action, and some of them miraculously discovered social media. It was a mass epiphany from people who’d ignored that medium previously.

As the company spokesperson and community manager, I became the target. Trouble is, social media was new and we hadn’t anticipated being crucified by a group of people who didn’t know a Facebook update from a tweet.

And we hadn’t anticipated they’d reach past the company profile and target employee’s personal accounts. Couple poor planning with a tanking economy and our happy, healthy community lynched us and then abandoned us in our moment of need.

If you’re a community manager or CEO, map your crisis path out before your begin your social media journey. Now. Before something happens. Remember, not every crisis is truly a crisis. Most of the time, there are a million opportunities to fix the problem before it hits the airwaves.

Lessons learned

Someone needs to actively listen to the community – not just monitor it.

  • Most customer service issues begin with simple questions
  • Take questions off-line with phone calls
  • Put your customer’s needs first – always

A canned apology isn’t good enough.

  • Social media is just a tool and communication during a crisis needs to be personal
  • Social media is not a press release – it must be real and honest to be effective
  • Every person who posts on the wall (positive or negative) deserves a response

Timing is of the essence.

  • Even in 2009, a weekend was too long for our company to wait to respond
  • All hands are on deck during a crisis – no exceptions

Social media saints

Companies and organizations that plan for crisis find salvation in the very people who have the power to kick them out of the church. Their congregation becomes a devoted choir ready to once again sing their praises.

After all, who doesn’t love a story about redemption? A saint with a past as a sinner – now that’s beautiful.

Recently I was part of a team that cancelled a highly anticipated community event. We had less than 2 days to map out our announcement plan, which included reaching out to sponsors, speakers, ticket holders and the community at large.

The strategy was simple to define (thanks to my hell-on-wheels previous experience).

Instead of controlling the message, we invited conversation. We announced our news – both person to person and publicly across social media airwaves – and then just talked with people. And you know what? We found out a whole lot more people wanted to help us than hurt us. It was humbling to watch.

And yes, it became my personal epiphany.

If you’re a brand on social media, the tips below will help you create a crisis plan. Take my advice: do it now before you need it. As awesome as we are, we all need to plan for when we’re not so awesome.

Social media crisis plan

Create a decision flowchart.

  • Use simple instructions for those involved. If this happens, that follows and this person is contacted, etc.
  • Attach accountability and responsibility to each action so everyone understands their roles
  • Align it with your traditional communication plan

Assign a spokesperson.

  • One voice carries one message – amplified by others if needed
  • Monitor from the director level but execute by multiple managers who collaborate and agree on the message

Do fire drills.

  • Practice so employees can see how tactical responses align with your over-arching business goals
  • The more comfortable staff are in *what if* situations, the more comfortable they’ll be massaging the message in a real disaster

Respect the clock

  • Time is of the essence in social media – 24 hours is too long
  • All hands are on deck, checking in with gatekeepers

I’d love to hear your thoughts on creating a crisis plan. If you’ve done one, if you need to do one and even if you think they’re silly.

About Julia Rosien

Julia Rosien is the founder and Chief Idea Officer of SocialNorth, a social media strategy firm as well as founder and owner of GoGirlfriend, a travel-based website for women, and co-founder of brandtannery. Julia serves on various boards of directors and is 2012 president for WithIt, a non-profit leadership organization for women in the home and furnishings industries. A much-requested speaker, she’s been named one of the most influential women in social media and was a nominee for the Roger’s 2011 Women of the Year celebration in Waterloo Region. You can find Julia on Twitter, friend her on Facebook or connect with her on LinkedIn – she's always on.


  1. flemingsean says:

    As someone with a lot of crisis comms and social media experience (relatively speaking, after all the latter is still a young field) I’m afraid I only go along with you so far.
    First thing I believe it’s important to clear up… there is no such thing as a social media crisis. There are crises, end of story. Some go public and some don’t. 
    I come from the school of thought that says, just because social media is new (ish) doesn’t mean you have to forget everything you learned at Grandma’s* knee (* – other childhood influences are available for the purposes of illustrating my point).
    What I mean by that is… be nice! Unless you want people to think of you as a tool, don’t act like one. The way to successfully handle a crisis via social media is to be consistent in all your words and deeds and to continue being yourself (all of which applies equally to brands and individuals).  It’s all about authenticity, after all; if your audience/community/customers have bought into who you are and what you are like, don’t lose that in the heat of a crisis-fuelled moment.
    In the example you gave of the company you worked for that had trouble paying its suppliers, it wouldn’t really matter whether there was a plan in place or not. It’s not cool to not pay people – they will hate you for it and they will cause trouble for you no matter what you say or what you do. Some bullets can’t be dodged… it’s the “don’t be a tool” thing I mentioned above.
    Have plans, of course.  Plans are good.  But don’t let a plan get in the way of talking to people the way they have grown accustomed to you talking to them. Otherwise you may have two problems on your hands.

    • JuliaRosien says:

       @flemingsean Great comment and I agree 100% – hands down!
      I was asked to write about a crisis from a social media standpoint, but I agree the term is a misnomer – the crisis is ALWAYS real. In the example I gave, the real life stuff was exactly as you described. The company wasn’t delivering on promises on all levels and it got ugly very fast.
      The problem arouse for me when the powers-that-be saw the social media issues as unimportant. We could apologize nine ways to Sunday online but it wouldn’t have mattered because bills weren’t being paid – nothing was aligning. Employees were being harassed for issues over which they had no control. Nothing like working in a hostile environment AND being attacked from the outside. It was a good lesson for me.
      As for talking to help solve the problems, absolutely agree. The plan must be in place but human beings with feelings need to carry it out. Employees need to feel comfortable chatting with people and empowered to solve their problems. Both have to go hand in hand.
      Thanks for the comment – great to dive deeper into this conversation!

      • belllindsay says:

         @JuliaRosien @flemingsean  As the great Supertramp once said “Crisis? What Crisis?” LOL Great thoughts here guys, and what I find interesting is the massive hammer swing that’s happened online from the date of Julia’s first rather unfortunate story, to today. I’m sure that had it not been 2009, that company would have been much more proactive in responding to their communities, etc., and much of the chaos and abuse that you went through Julie might not have happened. You’re a class act in the social space, but lessons learned are so valuable, no matter who you are or what you do – the way you handled your recent “event cancellation” was 100% perfection, top to bottom. :D 

        • JuliaRosien says:

          Thanks so much, Lindsay, your comments mean a great deal to me and I’m grateful for the nod of approval at that most recent event.
          Couldn’t agree with you more about lessons learned. When I read a book on social media or listen to an *expert* speaker, I want to hear about how they learned from their mistakes – not what I should do. Sharing those stumbles helps us come to smarter solutions together.
          Thanks for having me here and for the opportunity for me to learn from all of you!

  2. hessiej says:

     @JuliaRosien I love the example about the event you had to cancel. The knee-jerk response is “how do I do this quickly, then get out”? It’s so much easier to avoid the pain than face it head on. Social media humanizes a company that typically has used traditional PR tactics to save face and keep the reputation intact. The fact that you stuck it out and faced your registrants head on… inviting the inevitability of their responses — was a bold, but smart move.  It’s a great lesson for all of us.

    • JuliaRosien says:

      Thank you for your comment, Hessie. As stressed and disappointed as I was about canceling this event, I kept our community’s needs front and center. If I had bought a ticket to a concert and it was cancelled, how would I feel? I’d be disappointed but then I’d have questions – and I’d want somewhere to ask those questions. Questions are not always negative and even if you don’t have all the answers, sometimes people just want to know you care.
      When I speak at corporate events, I often use the Motrin Moms example of a company that clearly wasn’t listening during a social media crisis. As bad as that crisis was, only 35% of the responses were actually negative. Imagine how much could drama could have been avoided if the company had simply answered the questions? The power of actively listening – it’s amazing!

  3. techguerilla says:

    We’ve found that there isn’t much more powerful than developing out the policies, processes, and governance models to get an organization started down the road to becoming a social business (even though this is a social media focused exercise).  It has benefits that go far beyond being prepared, namely it forces an organization to start seeing things from a holistic organizational perspective vs. a departmental one since there’s no way to do this properly without involving other groups including infrastructure ones such as HR, Legal, and IT.  We call it Social Scenario Modeling but it’s essentially the same thing
    Thanks for the great topic, there’s not enough written about it in my opinion.
    Matt Ridings
    CEO, SideraWorks

  4. Elaine Cosme-Petersen says:

    Excellent topic and great post by Julia Rosen…Kudos!!

  5. karyrafizadeh says:

    @MariSmith @jugnoome great article with good advice!


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