6 Steps to Handle Social Media Crises

All happy customers are alike; each unhappy customer is unhappy in their own way.

And even if their sources of unhappiness might differ, they all react rather predictably in one of three ways:

a) they keep it to themselves
b) they tell just the people closest to them
c) they tell the world about it

Customer unhappiness is a terrible thing in itself, but c) is the worst of the lot because it has the ability to destroy a company’s reputation and bring it crashing down. Previously, a bad customer experience usually wouldn’t venture beyond a phone conversation, if that. Now, a single tweet can reach millions.

Companies have to learn to not only communicate effectively through social media, but to truly listen to social chatter and respond in a way that aligns with both brand and customer expectations. And that includes coming up with contingency plans too, for every possible scenario.

While the style of handling the crisis might differ from one company to another, there are some basic steps that one needs to follow to alleviate the damage caused by a social media crisis:

1. Make sure you keep an eye out for crises.


The trick is to catch them before they balloon into something with a life of its own. Now, you could have someone sit and manually keep sifting through social media to find these posts….or, you could use a support software like Freshdesk to monitor keywords (such as ‘your company sucks’, ‘your company bad’, and so on), capture chatter and automatically convert them into tickets for you.

This way, you won’t have to assign a support agent to the permanent (and mind-numbingly boring) task of being the lookout.

2. Know what a crisis is.


Before you jump in and start the response phase of your plan, figure out if the crisis in question is actually a crisis.

For instance, to an airline company, a person’s missing luggage is a crisis. If they don’t act fast and placate the customer (and find the missing baggage), it has the ability to snowball into a PR disaster. Balsamic vinegar instead of Worcestershire sauce in the Caesar salad, though? Not so much.

Plus, while all negative social media posts demand some sort of damage control (well, most of them but we’ll get to that later), you won’t handle them all in the same way. Your crisis plan will be different for different alerts. Some, you’ll be able to handle on your own. Others, you might need to call in the brass.

So, step one to crisis management: preparedness. Create guidelines to help your support agents classify crises into different categories based on certain triggers. This should include everything from sample crisis flowcharts based on hypothetical crises, to making sure that your frontline personnel have contact information of various executives so that they can call on them in their time of need.

Putting together the Flowchart:

3. Acknowledge and Apologize


Regardless of the type of crisis on your hands, your first step should always be the same: acknowledge the crisis. Sticking your head in the sand and pretending it isn’t real might have worked in the good old days but that’s not a strategy we’d recommend right now.

A crisis isn’t something that people would put on their Christmas lists, yes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t turn things around and make it for you. Acknowledge the crisis and let people know you’re working on a solution – this will reaffirm customers’ faith in you and it will show them that you care. It’ll also go a long way towards mitigating the panic that your crisis is bound to cause as your other users begin to wonder whether you’re the right choice.

The key is to keep everyone in the loop with frequent updates so that your users know that you’re doing everything in your power to solve the problem ala Buffer.

4. Operation: Take Control.


Now that you’ve acknowledged there’s a problem (good for you!), step two is gaining control of the situation.

There are so many different kinds of crises that if we were to start drawing you a crisis flowchart for each of them, we’d be here till the sky falls down. Instead, we’re just going to outline how you should react depending on the type of error.

Just remember that, no matter how mistaken the user is or how derogatory the post is, you have to keep calm and not lose your temper. You’re going to need all the charm and flair you can muster to come out smelling sweet.

Most negative feedback falls into one of three categories: business error, misunderstanding or spam. Once you identify which category the complaint falls into, it will be easier to come up with a positive solution that directly addresses it.

If it’s a business error:

Time for some tough love: You screwed up. It happens to everyone. No, really. It does. However, you can still turn this around.

You need to act fast and act now. In most cases, a speedy resolution is nice. In this case, it’s necessary. So you need to:

  • Apologize. Don’t just acknowledge there’s a problem; dig your heart out, be sincere and apologize.
  • Work on the solution asap. After a formal apology, providing a quick fix to your customers’ problems should be the first thing on your agenda. Post updates on your progress and make sure everyone is on the same page.
  • Offer them an incentive. If it’s a serious enough problem or if it looks like your users aren’t satisfied with your solution, offer them a service or a discount for their inconvenience.

If it’s a misunderstanding:

This could be anything from a simple misunderstanding on the user’s part to a troll. So, make sure you read through the post at least a couple of times before you address it. Check the facts and examine it from every angle possible.

If there’s been a miscommunication on your part, apologize and let the customer know what the real deal is. If they’re not satisfied with the conclusion, offer them a refund.

If the misunderstanding is on the user’s part, gently correct the user. Make sure your tone isn’t condescending. Check again with someone else, just to be sure.

If it’s spam:

You have two options here: you can report the post as spam or you can send a formal message to the owner of the post, asking them to remove it. Be warned, though; the chances of them responding are pretty low so be prepared to report it.

A subsection of this is a troll who’s just messing with you. If you suspect it’s a troll, don’t bother replying.

flow chart social

5. Steer towards recovery


Managing a crisis is about more than just short-term damage control; it’s also about restoring your reputation and winning back your customers’ trust. Your actions to mitigate the crisis and solve the user’s problem will speak volumes on your behalf but it isn’t the same as accepting your mistake and showing that you’re doing everything you can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Some businesses do this by putting up a detailed post after the crisis to detail how they went about managing the crisis and the steps they took to make sure it can’t happen again. While this kind of transparency invites a lot of scrutiny and criticism, it can also reaffirm your users’ faith in you and in your ability to properly handle crises thrown at you.

6. Prepare for the next crisis


Once all the hullabaloo has died down, it’s time for you to prepare for the next crisis. Document every aspect of the crisis so that you can prepare a crisis management flowchart and add it to your stash. This way, the next time something like this rolls around, even if it’s not exactly alike, your team members will know how to deal with it, even if you’re not on deck.

Once you’re documenting the whole crisis, perform a root cause analysis. What led to this point? Did your copy not convey the point properly? Was your sales team misinformed? Is there a problem with inventory? Trace the problem to its root and fix it before it gets up to its old tricks.

Pearls of Wisdom:

  • Try to take the crisis offline. If it’s your fault, take it offline. Even if it isn’t, take it offline. It’s very very easy for a crisis to get out of hand so you need to make sure that you take it offline as soon as possible.
  • Get in touch with the customer. If it looks like the situation is getting out of control, get in touch with the customer. Call them, if possible. Hash the whole problem out with them and work out a solution. If you reach a mutually peaceable solution, ask the customer to post the resolution and their satisfaction with it to help mitigate the damage.
  • Offer a workaround if there’s no immediate solution. Sometimes, you get really really lucky with your crises – a solution can be found almost immediately and your customer is agreeable enough that the crisis never balloons into its full potential. Sometimes, you’re not. If there’s no immediate solution in sight, apologize and offer a workaround. If they’re unappeased, throw in a discount/freebie.
  • Manage access to your social media accounts very carefully. There have been instances when employees have mistakenly posted personal messages from their company accounts, without realizing they haven’t switched to the right account. There have also been instances where employees have taken to social media to air their woes because people in the company seem to be unresponsive. We’d advise you to hand out your social media credentials sparingly to avoid crises like these.

To sum up, when a crisis comes a ringing:

  • Show them you care. Empathize with their problem and do everything you can to solve it.
  • Be transparent with your customer. Be honest. If you can, take it offline.

Having a solid plan in place to address a crisis in a timely and transparent manner will not only help preserve your company’s reputation, but confirm yet again that you are a business that cares about its customers and are willing to do everything possible to make them happy.

So there you have it! A crisis management playbook for you to handle a social media disaster and get yourself out of a tight spot.