Brand Reputation

Navigating the storm: building a resilient social media crisis management plan

Some social media marketers will admit that they live in a constant state of low-level anxiety. Social media is a dynamic arena, where brands face risks from going too boldly, or miss opportunities from going too cautiously. Social media is also a two-way channel where things can blow up and cause severe damage to a brand’s reputation. The anxiety comes from constantly handling potentially explosive material, second-guessing and third-guessing the public’s reaction with your cursor hovering over the “publish” button. 

Unless you get a kick out of a career that feels like watching a horror movie and waiting for the next jump-scare, you’ll want to ease your mind a little by putting in place a corporate crisis management strategy and plan. 


The importance of a resilient crisis management strategy

For better or worse, social media has become a pervasive method of receiving news and information. According to a global study by Reuters, more people discover news through social media than directly from news outlets. But it’s usually not just the hard facts of news reports that they receive – it’s information laced with the opinions of others in the form of comments, likes, and reshares. These include personal, emotional, bold commentary that people would rarely deliver in a face-to-face situation. The speed, reach, and invective of social media can really stir the pot.

Brands often bear the brunt of outspoken dissatisfaction on social media. In situations like Dolce & Gabbana’s social ad campaign that leveraged cultural stereotypes to promote a Shanghai fashion show, they had a good chance to foresee the scandal it caused. But sometimes a PR crisis is beyond your control. British Airways required some unexpected PR crisis management to respond to a legion of irate customers when Heathrow Airport’s systems failed and flight departure screens and self-checkout kiosks were unavailable. The simple fact is that if you could predict your next social media crisis – it wouldn’t happen. You’d have the foresight to address or mitigate the issues causing turmoil.

Most companies take at least some tactical steps to get in front of emergencies. Using a hypothetical example, a utility provider might prepare crisis communications for an area likely to be hit by a hurricane. “Technicians are on the ground… we are working to restore… etc.” Now imagine that the lights are out and a customer with pent-up anger vents on Facebook against your company’s “unfair” billing practices, leveraging a policy issue to stir up the frustration of other customers during a vulnerable moment. That’s the kind of unexpected twist a crisis can take.  

How to build a crisis management plan

Building a resilient social media crisis management plan is an exercise in preparing for the unknown. It requires some diligence in four areas: planning, people, process, and practice.

People: Define the right group to handle any social media emergency

You want to have a core group that has the expertise and organisational reach to deal with any form of public relations crisis. The group should include:

  • A clear leader with undisputed accountability for addressing a social media crisis, as well as a second and third choice in case they are unavailable. This should be someone who is action-oriented, unafraid to make quick decisions, and has a firm grasp of social media cultures. Typically, this is a senior leader from the social marketing team. 
  • A representative from key business areas that are typically engaged during a PR crisis. Business crisis management stakeholders will often include Operations (customer support), Human Resources, Legal, Product, and Corporate Communications. And as with any form of public-facing crisis, PR will play an important role. The larger the organisation, the more representatives required. It’s important that these delegates have decision-making support from their business leaders. A crisis response should not be slowed by the standard pace of hierarchical decision-making.


The common thread across the entire team should be a keen and current understanding of the intricacies of social media. This is especially relevant to your Legal counsel. You don’t want a lawyer who will insist on writing ineffective cease-and-desist letters to social media platforms when the right action is joining in the online conversations with some carefully crafted messages.


Planning: Map every feasible crisis you can think of

Your team should start with the most obvious crisis scenarios, such as major product issues, backlash from a campaign, or controversial statements from an employee. With each one, sketch a scenario that includes the risk, potential impact, the key company representative to engage, the appropriate spokesperson, and potential responses. 

As you progress you’ll recognize repetitive patterns. These can be categorised for easier reference. You may want to go a step further and draft some standby communications for the types of crises that seem most probable.


Process: Assign severity levels and communication routines

By creating and assigning severity levels, you equip your day-to-day social media watchers with criteria to help them determine the right actions to take. There’s no magic number for severity levels. Just ensure your lowest level is a minor incident requiring no action, and your highest level is something that will be front-page news for major media outlets.

Crisis communication strategies should define a specific channel for the team to collaborate during a disaster. For example, a dedicated Slack group. There should be a clear process of crisis management steps to follow for generating an external response as well as internal messaging including alerts, actions, status updates, and resolution. 

Once your plan is complete, get buy-in! While you hope it never sees action, it’s important for senior leaders to understand that a plan exists and for them to know the key people and processes.


Practice: Conduct a trial run, at least once a year

Fake emergencies are no fun, and it can be hard to get everyone to take them seriously. Yet it’s very important to put your plan to the test. It helps you test availability, communication routines, and those all-too-critical response times.


The power of social listening for crisis management

In a study conducted by Twitter, 61% of respondents said that brands should react to moments of crisis as they happen. Detecting issues early is critical, and virtually impossible with only manual monitoring or platform-based alerts. You need specific brand crisis management tools to keep up. With a social listening platform, you can scan millions of digital properties including blogs, online media sites, and several social media platforms. Through 24/7 scanning and reporting on the keywords and phrases relevant to your business, you’ll be notified almost immediately when trouble is brewing.

Within your social listening dashboard, you can sort and filter mentions of your brand by sentiment (positive vs. negative). You can sort your responders by influence levels, to determine which have the most potential reach and impact. While the team is formulating “official” responses to the crisis, it’s important that a social media team member is engaging and responding to the community, and these filters can improve the efficiency and impact of their effort. With a well-coordinated response, you can monitor improvements in sentiment in real-time.

Best Practices to follow when a crisis strikes

We’ve seen plenty of examples of social media disasters that offer valuable lessons in crisis management in public relations. Here are some best practices that may be valuable additions to your crisis management procedures:

  • Pause any active or scheduled social media campaigns: At best, they just present another opening for your detractors to lash out against. At worst, you can seem completely tone-deaf, like Weber Grills posting a meatloaf recipe hours after the death of the rock star known as Meatloaf was announced (in fairness, they responded quickly and appropriately). 
  • Silence is incriminating: The longer your company is silent on a recently-exposed issue or accusation, the greater weight the public attributes to the validity of the wrongdoing. Social media teams have to tread the excruciating terrain between what’s publicly perceived, what’s legitimate, and what the company can actually say without adding legal jeopardy. At minimum, acknowledging awareness of the issue and indicating the company is investigating is infinitely better than mute silence.  
  • Don’t argue with the Internet: No matter how valid your position, nothing stirs up an angry mob more than taking a defensive position. Be empathetic, be human, apologise, and propose a solution if possible. KFC had every reason to blame their new food delivery couriers for the shortage of chicken they experienced in the UK. With some skilled handling of public relations in marketing, they stepped up and explained the issue with a sense of ownership
  • Always do a post-crisis review: No matter how thorough your crisis management and communication, there will always be new insights gained from weathering a real crisis. While everyone wants to put the stressful episode behind them, it’s important to connect while the experience is still fresh in order to optimise your plans.  

Detect and prevent social media crises with SentiOne Listen

Crisis communication management tools allow you can take action quickly to avoid a public relations crisis. SentiOne Listen is a powerful social listening platform that connects you with the opinions, questions, and pain points of your clients and prospects. Monitor brand mentions, conduct trend analysis, configure alerts, or gather insights from SentiOne Listen’s extensive reporting capabilities. To learn more, visit or book a demo