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The New Frontier: Crises on Social Media

Back in the days before the Internet, organizations were in the catbird’s seat of messaging and crisis management. With a few exceptions, organizations controlled their own messaging and reached out to their key stakeholders at the time and with the messaging they carefully chose. Needless to say, those days are LONG gone.

In today’s world, everyone is watching what you do, literally. Never before in history have we been subject to such scrutiny and exposure. And all too frequently, we are our own worst enemies, behaving badly in public, or not correcting mistakes. But instead of only a few witnesses, companies run the risk of catching the attention of millions of people on social networks and these mistakes can be seriously disastrous.

What’s at stake in a social media crisis?

  1. Public safety

  2. Safety of your employees and key stakeholders

  3. Funding/revenue streams

  4. In short, your organization’s entire brand and reputation

What companies are doing to prevent and manage online crises

A recent survey shows that 91 percent of companies questioned said that they were changing the way they do business since the emergence of mobile, social digital, big data and other innovative technologies.[i] Despite this belief, most practitioners are unprepared to manage a crisis created by the 24/7 news cycle.

More than one third of CEOs fail to consider their companies’ social media reputation when making business decisions. Even more frightening, more than 10 percent say they will take no action to a negative article or social media post.[ii]

Here are a few other statistics worth noting[iii]:

  1. Seventy five percent of social media crises could have been diminished or diverted had companies prepared properly

  2. Most companies that suffered a social media crisis lacked proper social media internal education for employees

  3. The number one reason for an online crisis is a bad experience with an organization

The good news is that people aren’t following your brands to trash you[iv]. They’re following your brands to engage with you, which is another reason why you should be engaging with them on a smart and strategic basis well before any crisis develops

Well-managed social media crises

Let’s look at some examples of where crises played out on social media channels. We’ll start with two examples of organizations that handled crises on social media well.

Emory University and the Ebola Crisis

In the last half of 2014, Ebola was in the headlines around the world. Thousands of people were dying abroad, so when people with the disease were reported in the United States, social media channels exploded with traffic (and panic). The first patients went to Emory University Hospital, which handled the situation so well on social media that there is already a white paper[v] about their good work.

What Emory did right:

  1. They put a face on the story

  2. They refused to be rushed when developing and distributing their message

  3. They identified and made excellent use of key spokespeople

  4. They created hashtags

  5. They worked with reporters to meet their deadlines, being as transparent and quick as they could, under the circumstances

The bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon

During and immediately after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, the city (and the world) were in shock, looking for answers as to who was hurt, where they were, who did it and whether they had they been caught. Prior to this, the Boston Police Department had not had a high profile presence on Twitter and other social media channels, but during this crisis, they turned to social media and in so doing helped keep the public informed and safe.

Not so well managed social media crises

Unfortunately, there are many, many more examples of social media crises that were handled poorly. Here are but a couple.

Hen party gone wrong

A group of women in the UK celebrating the upcoming nuptials of one of their friends didn’t have a good experience at a Manchester restaurant[vi]. In true 21st century fashion, they took to the internet, mildly complaining on Facebook about being seated at separate tables and not having an overall good experience. The restaurant, you might say, overreacted. They posted epithets like, “chaviest worst most vile people ever to grace our restaurant” and said it would be a good thing if the group never returned. Needless to say, a relatively harmless complaint which was best addressed privately was blown up well beyond proportion thanks to the hasty and nasty response from the owners. Not surprisingly, in hindsight the restaurant said the incident was “regrettable.”

Twitter CFO who thought he was sending a direct message

Twitter’s Anthony Noto Tweeted to his followers information that was most certainly confidential about a potential acquisition of a company. Evidently he was confused by Twitter’s interface and had meant to send a DM. The Tweet was quickly deleted, but a mistake like this can adversely affect a company’s reputation and bottom line. In other words, you can never be too careful.

The best laid plans

While the social media universe will remain to be a seemingly chaotic world for the foreseeable future, there are ways to avert, manage, and successfully emerge from a social media crisis. The most important thing you can do is to have a thoughtful and strategic plan in place well before any social media crisis bubbles up.

[i] Deloitte reputation survey, 2013

[ii] Zeno digital readiness survey, 2012

[iii] Altimeter, Social Business Readiness: How Advanced Companies Prepare Internally, 2011

[iv] Technorati digital influence report, 2013

[v] “Prepared for Ebola: How Emory University Hospital managed the crisis and the health care message,” Ragan Healthcare Communication News, 2014.


Ann Morris is a Washington, DC-based CS&A Associate. Ann has more than 20 years of experience in national news media, corporate, and nonprofit communications. Her expertise is in crisis communications, public relations, strategic communications, and media relations.

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