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08 November 2012

Managing a social media crisis - the do’s and don’ts


By Ruben Pillai

Last week, American Apparel found itself fighting a Twitter backlash after it used the site to promote a ‘Sandy sale’ at those directly affected by the hurricane that left parts of the US devastated. On tweeting the words  “In case you’re bored during the storm, 20% off everything for the next 36 hours”, the brand received a barrage of complaints, with users branding the move ‘tasteless’, ‘insulting’ and ‘low’. Arguably, its not what American Apparel did that caused the issue, but the way in which they launched it somewhat flippantly via a tweet.

For brands, the freedom of expression that Twitter allows can be something of a blessing or a curse. It’s great when consumers follow what you are doing, retweet the bits they like and generally interact positively. It’s not so great when you have to defend your name or your actions via the Twittersphere. For this reason more and more brands are adopting a crisis communications strategy.

With this in mind, here are my dos and don’ts of crisis communications management in this age of immediacy.

Do – remain calm under pressure

The recent Lance Armstrong debacle has caused a headache for every one of his sponsors who have been forced to drop him. By far the most high profile of these is Nike, which didn’t immediately terminate its contract with Armstrong, but ultimately took the only available course of action in the face of ‘insurmountable evidence’. 

I think it’s quite refreshing that the brand didn’t jump straight to conclusions and panic, instead standing by their man until the facts became crystal clear. Usually brands bow to pressure and make quick decisions to ‘save the brand image’, which ultimately did result in Nike dropping Armstrong a week or so later.

Lance armstrong

Don’t – take your eye completely off the ball

Last year, WH Smith learnt a lesson the hard way, after a Twitter user tweeted a photograph appearing to show that the retailer had moved its copies of Gay Times and Attitude to keep them out of sight. The picture, which was uploaded over the weekend, received hundreds of retweets, leaving the brand to deal with a Twitter storm by the Monday morning. It quickly issued a statement explaining its actions but by then it was too late – the damage was done.

Don’t – view social media as a secondary news channel

Livestrong used Twitter to announce that Armstrong had stepped down as chairman in wake of the scandal, with many subsequent media reports opening with ‘Livestrong confirms Armstrong step-down via Twitter’ or similar. Was this the correct thing to do? With the severity and enormity of the story, was it enough to ‘just tweet’ about it and let the leaves fall as they may? I think that more should have been made out of it, with a press conference called at the very least.

Do – take responsibility for social media blunders

Recently an employee from a US brand called Kitchen Aid tweeted something unsavoury about Barack Obama. Kitchen Aid deleted the Tweet and issued an apology, making clear that the offending tweet did not reflect the brand’s opinion. Next up the head of Kitchen Aid talked on the record to popular tech-site Mashable to apologise for the tweet, taking immediate responsibility. Mashable went on to publish an infographic demonstrating how quickly mentions of the brand reduced as the apology and media interviews were broadcast.

One final tip I’d offer (to brands and footballers alike) is to always take a deep breath and count to ten before sending out a tweet when emotional. Once a tweet is out there, it can be out there for your followers and the general masses to remember indefinitely, regardless of whether you immediately delete it or not.


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