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Social Media Marketing

Social Media Crisis Management in 5 Simple Steps

"If you make customers unhappy in the physical world, they might each tell 6 friends. If you make customers unhappy on the Internet, they can each tell 6,000 friends."
Jeff Bezos

With the number of active social media users worldwide standing at almost 3 billion (and growing), sorting out online comments can be a job in itself. Your brand presence on social can generate profit, but on some occasions just a single post might result in you having to carry out damage control.

When planning your social media strategy, outlining a process for handling social complaints is essential. Why? Because social media crises often happen unexpectedly and can be caused by any factor such as a faulty product or an unhelpful team member, so you have to be prepared.


“It can take 20 years to build a reputation, and just five minutes to ruin it”

Imagine this scenario: you’ve been working hard on crafting your brand image and establishing your position in the industry for the past few years. Now, you think, it’s a great time to set up your business social media profiles, so you’ve asked a junior member of staff to do it for you. It sounded like a good idea – they are young, they are social-media savvy and they know how to engage with your audience.

And then this happens:

1) By Mistake

2) Or on purpose.

No matter what the reason is, people ARE ruthless. A little 140-character post may escalate quickly enough to become a full story within minutes, especially if has been kept without the control. 

The question is how do you approach it?

Step 1: Develop an Action Plan

Social is a double-edged sword. Yes, it’s a fantastic, low-cost advertising opportunity for content promotion and brand awareness. But it’s also the first port of call for disgruntled customers.

One unhappy customer is the tip of the iceberg, with a single negative comment often paving the way for numerous complaints, which quickly become unmanageable.

The perfect example of a brand that faces a social media crisis (on a daily basis) is Southern Rail. If you even had a “pleasure” of making your journey from London Victoria to Brighton using Southern’s service, then you might be aware that train delays and endless excuses aren’t helping Southern’s PR effort. To add fuel to the fire, furious commuters have created a dedicated hashtag called #SouthernFail which brings all the complaints together.

I assume that Southern Community Manager must be super-busy throughout the day. 

To effectively manage your workload, agree on a specific plan of action. To respond quickly and efficiently, make sure you have a number of templates in your arsenal so that you can reply as soon as possible with available solutions. Your first template should always be acknowledgement. Acknowledge that you understand something has happened, or even give a ‘Thanks for your feedback – we’re on it’. It’s a simple step to show you’re listening, and prepared to take action. 

Step 2: Build Your #OnlineCustomerService Team

Would you be able to respond to endless social media comments just as Southern’s Community Manager does? Exactly. 

It needs to be very clear whose responsibility it is to look after the day-to-day management of social accounts, so best practice is to assign this job to a dedicated digital marketing team or comms team. Having a person in-house or a digital agency will smooth out the process of resolving social media crises, as it can be time-consuming. People who are using social for customer support often expect a rapid response and are sometimes are even discussing your services without tagging your brand directly, so make sure you have someone on your side that is skilled in monitoring for mentions of your brand and delivering outstanding customer service. 

Step 3: Evaluate & Approach 

Let’s face it – in a crisis, it’s hard to keep your emotions under control. In my own personal experience, I’ve observed many a crisis handled in the worst possible way. Community Managers insulting the consumers while desperately trying to defend the brands they represent - not the greatest show of exceptional customer service.

For instance, you might be familiar with Amy’s Baking Company, the infamous Arizona-based restaurant, which was featured in a memorable Kitchen Nightmares episode. In case you’ve missed it:

We’ve got news for you: Amy and Sam are not only running their restaurant like this. They’re also in charge of managing their social media presence.

Unfortunately, in this particular case, the high rate of engagement is not because people love Amy’s Bakery. For Amy and Sam, as restaurant owners, it’s hard to control emotions when hundreds of unhappy followers are attacking their business. Seeing a negative comment about your product or service can be emotive, therefore you need to keep a cool head and evaluate the situation. In this scenario, however, it’s better to say nothing.

“Silence may not be the right response, but it’s better to say keep your mouth shut than say something that won’t be understood.”

While the customer may not always be right, it is their right to express their opinion, so listen, sympathise, apologise and help to find a solution where possible.

Step 4: Action! 

  • React - People post on your social media timeline because they want to hear from you ASAP, so make sure that you get back to them as soon as the message appears. 

Going back to those templates we discussed earlier, have a range prepared. They don’t need to be complex, a simple “thank you very much for getting in touch with us, we will investigate this issue for you now” will do the job and will give you a bit of extra time to think about the next steps. Or, you might want to find an alternative solution just like Greggs did: 

Clever, huh?

  • Discuss - Step two will involve speaking to your team. You will be amazed to hear how much experience your sales colleagues will have when it comes to customer complaints, so make sure you discuss your thoughts with the entire team.
  • Respond - As soon as you have a list of solutions, consult your team and get back to the customer with a public comment. Handling complaints over the table is essential while building online exposure as it shows that you really care and value your customers. It will also avoid further confusion from other followers who may concerned about why you aren’t addressing negative comments. 
To turn the crisis into PR success (yes, it’s possible) you may also want to consider the tone of your answer. Remember than humour humanizes your voice and evoke a “feel good” response. Just look at how Greggs did it… 

…and provoked Google to get involved into conversation. 

You see? No one remembers this logo fail now. 

If you think that the grievance is fair, you may also want to offer a full refund or discount to cover customer’s disappointment. If so, it’s advisable you do this in private message so that other customers don’t catch wind and take advantage.

Step 5: Draw Conclusions!

One thing that you must take on board while reviewing a social media crisis is the fact that a negative review was posted for a reason. My top tip is to keep all comments logged in a social media spreadsheet, which really helps in terms of evaluating business weaknesses and strengths. It’s hard to keep track of complaints across different channels, and this exercise allows you to draw conclusions at a glance, and even to find patterns among complaints that aren’t immediately noticeable.

Don’t be scared to take a critical look at your brand – after all, that’s what your customers might be doing.