The Social Media Crisis: A Primer in Public Relations

Strategic Marketing Partnerships
Travis Grant By: Travis Grant

In a previous piece, I touched upon the history and changes in social media, and the way in which Facebook in particular should be used in 2020. But there remains an elephant in the room for every business that uses social media: the infamous social media public relations crisis. Put simply, if you’re using social media, the potential for a crisis exists. Therefore, you should ask yourself: “am I prepared?”  

At the height of what I call Facebook’s organic era, which was the period before the tectonic algorithm shift of 2014, I worked at the Edmonton Humane Society, managing, among many other things, the shelter’s social media strategy. While it was a profoundly exciting and pioneering time in digital communications and marketing, my greatest takeaway from that experience was the potential for volatility and toxicity among users, which seemed to be particularly acute in the animal welfare space. What was most alarming was how quickly a crisis could go from bad to worse, as the momentum of negative public commentary built into a critical mass of often blind and sustained public outrage. 

Even now, in the era of throttled organic reach, one of the few seemingly unjust exceptions to the opaque barrier of Facebook’s algorithm is the speed and ease with which a crisis can proliferate. As any business that’s endured one knows, PR crises are a major business disruption and they pose a real threat to your brand, your reputation, and, depending on the level of escalation, the safety of your staff. All of this brings us to an important question: is it possible or even worth it to moderate a space for engagement in an age where trolls (Internet speak for the people who feed on crisis) pedal outrage, dubious opinions, hoaxes, harassment, and even threats of violence? My answer is: yes, but not without knowing how to manage a social media public relations crisis. 

In the most general terms, there are two kinds of public relations crises. The first is a crisis of your own making. It involves a misstep, accident or error for which you or your staff, intentionally or no, are directly responsible. The other involves a scenario where some detail, misunderstanding, ideological or philosophical disagreement, or impassioned misinterpretation beyond your control explodes into a full-blown crisis, often completely or mostly bereft of facts or reason. Both types of crisis require different strategic approaches. 

You’re in the Middle of a PR Crisis—Now What? 

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you’ve made an error that has potential public relations consequences in the digital public square, don’t panic. If a crisis were severe enough, I would generally recommend consulting a PR specialist to shepherd you through it, but the general strategy is simple enough: get in front of it, own up to it, be accountable, apologize, and outline the measures you’ll take to prevent the situation from occurring in the future. People will forgive you if you come at it honestly and sincerely. The best way to have a misstep of your own design explode into a public relations crisis is to deny, defer, obfuscate and shift blame. No one will respect you for it, the Internet will revolt, the media will be unforgiving, and it will always make the situation inestimably worse. 

More often, a PR crisis will take the form of an aggrieved section of your audience and the people they influence, digging in on a fundamental disagreement or issue that no amount of reason or rational discourse will temper. It’s frustrating, irrational, stressful, and time consuming but by no means insurmountable. 

Before a crisis occurs, it’s important to craft a clear social media commenting policy. This policy should clearly outline the rules of engagement, as well as the circumstances under which you reserve the right to delete content and block users. When a crisis devolves to the point where content needs to be deleted and users blocked, you want to be able to point back to an established policy outlining the rules of engagement. This set of ground rules can help calm the tone and tenor of the conversation once people see what is and isn’t tolerated. What’s more, this policy will prevent any accusation that you’re hiding from the truth or trying to bury a controversy when you delete or block content. Let it be known that everyone plays by the same clearly stated rules, which are non-negotiable. 

Another good pre-emptive strategy is to develop a crisis communications plan that determines who crafts and delivers key messages. This will keep your response measured and consistent. Without key messages, the risk of scattered and inconsistent messaging is high, giving fodder to the aggrieved, increasing the threat of damage to your brand and business.  

Even with all of this in place, a social media PR crisis can still rage on. The key is to be calm and stay above the fray or, as common wisdom in various corners of the Internet puts it, “don’t feed the trolls.” There’s a psychological current that ebbs and flows through online conflict, and the legitimacy of your position is directly proportional to the way in which you respond. Every confrontational bit of venom you volley back will only reflect poorly on you, confirming, for me at least, that there’s a distinct Nietzsche-like quality to it all. When confronting trolls, beware not to become a troll yourself. For if you stare too long into that abyss, the abyss will stare into you. 

Although it always feels like the world is coming apart at the seams when you’re in the middle of a social media PR crisis, it’s good to pause, reflect, and gain a little perspective. There’s always an observant silent majority taking stock of how you’re handling the crisis. Some may even come to your defense. Once third-party reason interjects on your behalf, the conflict is almost always exposed for what it is: an unreasonable overreaction that deserves to flame out. But even if the crisis rages on, rest assured that patience and time will always win the day. Stick to your key messages and exercise restraint. By doing this, you’ll deny the controversy the oxygen it needs to survive.