Handling social media crises

When problems happen and customers take to social media to vent their frustration, it may lead to a social media crisis like the one faced by United or Comcast. So, it is important to detect problems quickly, and act effectively.

I recently published a paper, co-authored with Finola Kerrigan, Dirk vom Lehn, Cagri Yalkin, Marc Braun and Nicola Steinmetz, presenting a model to help organisations manage a social media crises. This blog post offers a brief summary of the paper, and you can access the full version here, for free. The paper presents the framework and shows its application to the well-known social media crisis faced by Domino’s Pizza, when some employees of this chain of restaurants posted a video on YouTube showing them engaging in unhygienic food preparation practices.

Monitoring Social Media Conversations

The first thing to bear in mind is that one simple tweet or YouTube video can damage the brand’s reputation. Because content can be uploaded and shared so easily, it is important to detect problems early, and act very quickly. This means that businesses need to implement regular scanning of social media platforms, to monitor their brands, and to be alerted by changes in the mood towards their brand.

The large number and variety of social media platforms, the volume of content available, and the spreadability of social media content, make this a difficult task. However, it is also true that consumers do not post on every single social media platform. Rather, they tend to favour some platforms over others, and this may vary by industry and country. Likewise, consumers use different social media platforms for specific activities, for instance talking about positive experiences on Facebook, but negative ones on Twitter. This means that firms need to focus on those platforms that are particularly relevant for their customers, and which reflect their behaviours and preferences.

We also advise that firms need to go beyond monitoring quantitative information such as sentiment polarity towards the brand, and how it changes. Rather, brands need to monitor qualitative aspects such as whether the expressed sentiment relates to core reputation elements, or secondary ones. Messages about the core reputation elements of a brand are more damaging than messages about secondary elements. For instance, messages about cleanliness are more damaging for Domino’s Pizza than the United Nations (UN), because product contamination is the biggest threat to a food and beverage company’s reputation. Conversely, messages about unfair treatment of employees, like this story, is likely to be more damaging for the United Nations than for Domino’s pizza, because the former champions human rights.

Reacting to Negative Social Media Conversations

Once a crisis is detected, it is crucial to acknowledge it, as failing to communicate during a crisis may suggest that the company is struggling, or that it does not care about its customers. A recent example here in England is how Talk Talk handled communication regarding the hacking of its systems. While much criticism is being directed at Talk Talk’s management of their technical infrastructure, the company’s openness and immediate engagement with the media, including social media, might have helped contain the damage to the brand’s reputation.

During a crisis, companies need to communicate regularly through a variety of media channels, and making sure to include those platforms where the social media crisis is panning out. So, if there is a lot of negative content on YouTube, the brand needs to post their responses there, too, so that users searching for the original video can also see the company’s response. It is also a good idea to use the hashtags, keywords or titles trending the most (in relation to that social media crisis), to help spread the company’s response.

In terms of the message itself, it is important for the response to be congruent with the brand’s reputation, the users’ motivations and the functionalities of the social media platform. This is because social media users have specific expectations about how and when firms should interact with them on a particular platform.

Finally, it is important to engage credible social media influencers in the firm’s recovery efforts. This is because the opinion of trusted parties (e.g., industry experts or advisors) is more credible than any statements put forward by the brand. Social media influencers are not necessarily the same as those with influence in the offline environment, and so the company needs to identify the opinion leaders of the online communities trusted by the brand’s customers.

My colleagues and I hope that this framework supports managers in monitoring and reacting to ongoing online conversations about their brands. Do let us know how it helps you.

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