This article gives you a step by step guide to managing a social media crisis should one occur, but also looks a at structured approached to avoid them happening in the first place.

The Internet is awash with social media disaster stories, and blog posts titled “10 [insert over-the-top adjective her] social media fails” are almost certain to get lots of attention online. But why do we like to see other people’s disasters so much?   Beyond the amusement value of some of the incredibly dumb things that people do, it’s generally because the audience wants to learn how not to repeat the mistake. Figure one shows a word cloud (the bigger the word, the more times it was mentioned), showing the words and phrases that were mentioned online relating to social media disasters (this was created using the fantastic tool, which monitors over 90 million online sources such as social platforms, blogs and news sites).

Social Media Crisis Wordcloud

Fig 1: Word cloud of phrases mentioned online connected to social media disasters.

So, many of us are searching how to manage a social crisis, but it also seems that lots of us are searching for ways to avoid these things happening in the first place. Lets break this down a little further:


Words used in association with social media disasters.

Fig 2: Words used in association with social media disasters.

Culture and Process

So it’s pretty clear that not only do we need to try and avoid social media disasters, but we also need a realistic view that they do happen, and no level of preparation will allow you to avoid them completely. It’s important to make it clear in your organisation from the outset, that although you can minimise problems occurring and you can fix them as quickly as possible, you can’t avoid them happening altogether. The world is a chaotic place and no one can predict the future, but we can implement processes that deal with the most common patterns in which problems occur and processes that avoid us making most common mistakes in the first place. We also need a culture that understands that building and iterating processes is essential and accepts that complete control is impossible. Culture is an important point to mention here as well, because, as we can infer from the data below, the fear of social disasters is significant. Social media managers and marketers are very concerned about the impact these disasters can have on their companies, but very importantly also on their careers. Fig 3 shows the number of mentions of avoiding, surviving and preparing for social media disasters, and the spikes in mentions are not disasters happening and getting coverage, but rather a new article being published giving some form of guidance.

Peaks in interest caused by new articles being published giving advice on the topic.

Fig 3: Peaks in interest caused by new articles being published giving advice on the topic.

How to Avoid a Social Media Disaster

They key to avoiding social media disasters is process. Below I’ll outline a series of steps that should be taken to allow social media to be carried out in the most risk mitigated way possible. For some small and agile organisations, some of these steps may be overkill, but in any large organisation a ‘belt and braces’ approach can pay dividends in the long term. Also, always bear in mind that social media itself is not normally the cause of a social disaster, its more often to do with customer service or product problems, so make sure these teams are involved.

Panel Sign Off

Before anyone in the organisation is able to start and undertake any social campaigns or activity, they must go through due diligence. This basically involves clearly documenting a series of answers to questions related to that activity. This would include, but not necessarily be limited to:

  • What are the objectives of the activity?
  • How will you resource the activity?
  • What are the current topics of conversation in the topic area?
  • What are our competitors doing in the area?
  • Who are the influencers in the topic area?
  • Do we have the appropriate tools in place for managing the activity?
  • What happens if something goes wrong?
  • What does going wrong look like?
  • Have we brainstormed all of the possible disaster situations (see disaster prediction below)?
  • Do we have an escalation policy and crisis management team?

It is also worth building a dialled down version of this process into any project of any type across the organisation, so we are always asking the question “What are the social media risks?” and “What could go wrong?” Once these questions have been answered, they are then reviewed by representatives from relevant parts of the organisation. This normally includes representatives from marketing as well as legal/compliance. If the questions are not answered satisfactorily, the proposal is not accepted and must be revised and submitted again. If they are answered satisfactorily, the proposal is accepted and the team can go forwards and implement their plan, on the condition they do it within the bounds of the social media policy. This may sound laborious, but it does have an advantage for those wanting to implement their social plans. Once they have sign off, and as long as they adhere to the social policy, they don’t need sign off for every post, tweet or response going forwards.

Social Policy

Many social media policies simply list what we shouldn’t do. They are lists of rules that either live in a draw or on an intranet and are infrequently used. Although these policies should outline things we shouldn’t do, they should also be a regularly updated guide to what we should do. By giving examples of things like tone of voice and example of tweets that have been successful, a social media policy becomes useful and far more likely to be used. For examples of a wide range of other organisations policies, take a look at:

Disaster Prediction

A very simple and effective part of your social process should be a brainstorming session. Get together as many people as you can comfortably fit in a meeting room (pubs also work well in this scenario as the relaxed atmosphere leads to the right kind of thinking) and make sure you have a mix of roles, ages and seniorities if at all possible. Don’t have too many senior people or anyone that others wont speak freely in front of. You then ask everyone to brainstorm anything that could possibly go wrong with the social activity. Could the hashtag be hijacked and used for something else? Could the campaign be manipulated to look like something else? Is it just a dumb idea that people will laugh at? You need to let people be completely free to come up with pretty out there ideas. The next stage is to filter what you have come up with. You then put the whole list to an anonymous vote, allowing people to indicate if the risks identified are possible or simply ludicrous. Any deemed to be completely unlikely are discarded. Those that remain, then have responses planned for them. If someone hijacks your hashtag, what do you do? Stop using it? Respond? In each case you need a planned mechanism to either fix or contain the problem (more on this in the managing a crisis section).

Social Listening

Every social project should start with a listening project. This will allow you to understand what the popular themes of content are, who the influencers are and should also help you to identify any potential risks. You can also look at what your competitors are up to and set some expectations of the level of engagement you’d like to achieve. You’ll need a decent social listening/monitoring tool – we use and I highly recommend it. You start by creating a set of words that you want to look at, and the better tools give you a query builder to do this. You can see an example query below, that monitors a whole range of words, but also excludes some word combinations.

Building a query for social media listening

Fig 4: Building a query for social media listening

Staff Training

All staff should be trained in your social media policy, and this should form part of your induction. They should then get updates on a regular basis to either update their knowledge or to just remind them of the key issues. This way people know what is expected of them, what they should and shouldn’t do, and what the processes and tools available are.

On-Going Monitoring

Once you start a campaign or any social activity, you then need ongoing social media monitoring tools. This will allow you to gauge the reaction to your efforts, monitor your competitors easily, identify influencers and most importantly for our purposes identify any issues very quickly. The better tools will automatically create alerts for you that flag up any change that is statistically significant without you needing to look for it.

Email alerts for topics that are growing quickly

Fig 5: Email alerts for topics that are growing quickly (screenshot of Brandwatch’s ‘Signals’ system)

Clear Responsibilities

You need to clarify from the outset who is in charge of monitoring and reporting on social media. What happens when they are not around? Who takes over? Who is responsible for dealing with customer complaints that come in via social? How quickly should they be responded to? How quickly should your internal legal or compliance team turn things around? All of these activities and more need to be clearly documented and expectations for different roles and teams made clear. Very often internal Service Level Agreements (SLA’s) are a good idea in large organisations, so that different departments and teams are clear on what the expectations are.

Response Tracking     

Once you start getting responses to your social activity, you will need to respond to many of these (whether negative or positive). The more successful you become at social media, the more responses you’ll get, and this is when you will need a tool to help you. It’s important that you track things like complaints and you respond to compliments, and make sure they are assigned to the right person and tracked through to completion There are range of tools available but two of my favourites are Hootsuite (for managing social media) and Conversocial (for customer service at scale).

Escalation Process

Once something is identified as a potential issue it is essential there are clear guidelines of what happens next. Who needs to be told? Via what channel? How quickly? It’s no good sending me an email on Friday afternoon if I’m not checking my emails until Monday morning. There needs to be a clear process for flagging up potential issues to the right people, and a fall back process for when they are not available. We also need to define what a problem looks like and who is responsible for deciding when something is becoming a problem.

Crisis Management Team

Once we’ve decided something is becoming an issue (and it’s sensible to be pretty cautious in your approach. Better to escalate something that blows over than ignoring something that explodes into a crisis!), we need to have a nominated crisis management team. This team will be removed from their day to day roles and put onto dealing with the issue head on. Therefore we also need to plan what will happen to their normal workloads.

Social Media Crisis Management Plan 

This is the process that should be initiated once things have been handed to the crisis management team.

Speed of Response

Most social media disasters happen because organisations are paralysed by fear and a lack of planned responses. It can then take too long for a response to be signed off and things escalate. Our aim is to respond to any issue as quickly as possible in a measured way. We therefore need to answer these questions as quickly as possible:

Do we have any pre-planed responses from our disaster prediction process? If so, are they fully suitable? If so, have they been signed off for usage?

If we have no pre-planned response we need to create a response. Normally an honest and open tone is appropriate, not a corporate ‘don’t admit any liability’ tone. Taking responsibility where an issue is our fault is desirable and suggesting a resolution. Always be cautious if the resolution will be seen as insufficient for the problem that has occurred. Best to make a gesture of good will than be seen as uncaring.

Once the response is created we need sign off ASAP. The crisis team should have immediate access and prioritisation of their requests to the person that is able to sign off the response.

Not Responding

Bear in mind that sometimes, no response can be the best response! If a serial complainer is complaining again, even though you’ve responded positively previously, you may make a decision to ignore the complaint/comment. Audiences are quick to identify serial complainers and often, if you respond, you simply give them a platform from to which to escalate things further. However ignoring a complaint or comment should only be done as a conscious decision and still requires sign off.

An alternative approach to not responding at all, is to respond via a third party. For example if we previously identified advocates, that is people that are positively inclined toward us and are likely to say positive things, we may ask them to join the conversation. Telling people what to say on your behalf can backfire, so we are simply asking them to join the conversation. Always remember though, that an overzealous advocate can also make things worse, so it’s important you trust how this individual will act.

Monitoring Reaction

Once the response is issued, we need to see how the audience reacts. Very often involving advocates at this stage can also help as they can amplify and share our response. Be prepared for your response to either get no traction or to not get the desired impact. In this case we loop back to preparing further responses and involving advocates again.

Holding Patterns

Very often, particularly in large organisations or when dealing with legally sensitive issues, we can’t issue a full response immediately. In these cases it is essential to issue a holding response and to set expectations. For example we may say that we are aware of the issue and that while we carry out some internal investigation, we can’t respond in full, but that we will issue a full response by a defined deadline. These kind of holding responses can help to minimise rumor and escalation before our final response. It makes sense to always have a holding response prepared and signed off in advance so these can be issued as quickly as possible. Holding responses should be carefully crafted so they are not seen as admissions of guilt or cause any other forms of further escalation. It’s worth putting your holding response through a disaster prediction process as discussed earlier as well.

Post Crisis Debrief and Social Policy Update 

Once the disaster has been averted or passed, we then need to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The crisis team should de-brief the relevant teams and then amend the social media policy to add additional advice and learnings. All staff should then be briefed/trained on the change.


The majority of social disasters can be avoided by following a series of processes that we have identified, but bear in mind, the majority of social disaster are not caused by social activity. Normally social disasters are caused by issues like customer service or product faults. Therefore the responsibility for preventing disasters lies across the organisation and all staff need awareness and training.

When social disasters do occur, we need well prepared crisis management teams and processes to minimise the damage and give a response as quickly as possible. Good luck!