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“Strategies for Responding to a Social Media Crisis”

InsideCounsel By Johanna M. Wilbert

What will you do to protect your brand in a social media crisis? With more than 1 billion active Facebook users, it can take just minutes for a crisis to spread and reach the masses. Whether the buzz is caused by an insensitive tweet, a natural disaster, or an industry-specific concern, when your brand is at stake silence is not an option. This article offers thoughtful strategies for responding to a social media crisis, including ideas to implement before a crisis takes place as well as steps that should be taken to limit exposure during a crisis.

Before a Crisis Occurs

Have a Social Media Crisis Plan: Having a plan in place can avert a potential crisis by guiding your team to take positive action immediately when a situation arises. Any social media crisis plan should identify who the decision makers will be, what to do during off-hours or if key players are not available, and a plan for implementing social media updates and responses. This plan should also address concrete actions that may need to be taken such as how and when to inform employees, how and when to inform customers, what social media updates should be posted, when website changes should be made, and when third-party press releases should be used.

Prepare Preapproved Statements: When used appropriately, preapproved messages can allow companies to respond quickly and efficiently. Part of any social media crisis plan should include some pre-approved messages or message templates addressing predictable problems. For example, if it is discovered that your company’s Twitter or Facebook account has been hacked, it is often appropriate to acknowledge the hack, apologize, and let your followers know you are working to resolve the problem. This message may include instructions for your users regarding changes to their passwords or contact information. This type of post can be preapproved by your legal and marketing teams so that action can be taken quickly.

Monitor Social Media: It is impossible to respond in a timely manner to a social media crisis if you are not aware of it as it develops. For example, how quickly would your company notice and respond if its Twitter account was hacked? Every company should have some mechanism in place to monitor activity on its own sites and how its brand is perceived on a broader level. There are dozens of social media monitoring tools on the market that can help with this and provide metrics that may also be valuable to broader brand management.

Conduct Fire Drills: An efficient response to a social media problem can prevent a problem from developing into a crisis. It is important to know in advance how long it will take your company to make and launch responsive content in a variety of formats and circumstances. Additionally, not all issues may need the same response team or format. Before a crisis occurs, work with your legal advisors to map out and test various processes and determine lead times for various possible media responses with the key players involved in that type of response. For example, if you operate a large restaurant chain, the social media response plan to address a YouTube video about workplace conditions may be different than the social response to address a location specific crisis such as an E. coli outbreak or a shooting. These different scenarios should be mapped out and tested.

Respond to Take-down Requests and Demand Letters Promptly: The use of unauthorized images is a common issue that has the potential to create a social media crisis and a copyright infringement lawsuit. Sometimes, as in the case of Duane Reade communicating about Katherine Heigl frequenting a store via twitter, these disputes can lead to lawsuits. Other times, a prompt response on social media can diffuse the situation. For example, in 2013 photographer Brandon Stanton posted on Facebook that a DKNY retail store was using his photography without authorization. His post received more than 30,000 likes and thousands of comments. Within four hours, DKNY posted an apology and made a charitable donation in Mr. Stanton’s name to a charity he had identified in his post. Many problems can be avoided by taking take-down requests and allegations of copyright infringement seriously. Have a policy in place to promptly remove the content at issue to avoid continued liability and work with your legal advisors on an appropriate response.

After a Potential Crisis Has Been Identified

Respond First in the Media Venue Where the Crisis Broke: The communities on the various social media platforms are not always as interconnected as they may seem. A video response posted on YouTube is unlikely to gain immediate traction on Twitter. Thus, if a social media crisis broke on Twitter, it is important to post your official response on Twitter, and then evaluate how to respond on other platforms, if at all.

Do Not Argue: The best responses to a developing social media crisis are prompt, concise, acknowledge the issue, take responsibility when appropriate, and provide additional information or next steps. Do not argue or engage on a personal level with individual posts. Although it may be tempting in the moment, adding comments to a rapidly expanding thread will not allow your followers to find your response and will, instead, just encourage the argument. Instead, plan to make one thoughtful statement as its own post or entry, not as a comment.

Pause and Re-evaluate All Scheduled Posts: Prescheduled posts may not set the right tone in the face of your current crisis, and may even cause a crisis of their own. In a highly publicized example of prescheduled posts, Joan Rivers’ scheduled posts started promoting the new iPhone 6 after she had died. This can be avoided by suspending and re-evaluating all scheduled posts when faced with a social media crisis.

Consider Creating a Forum for Additional Comment: Consider directing the public to a website, e-mail address, or other mechanism for you to receive comments. Doing so will allow the public to vent in a controlled environment and will allow you to see the comments, moderate the discussion, and provide additional information or responses as appropriate.

Document and Preserve All Posts and Responses: While the crisis is taking place, preserve all tweets, status updates, blog comments, and e-mails. This information can be important for any related lawsuits. It is also helpful to have in the aftermath to analyze how the crisis broke, where it spread, and how your response system worked.

Thoughtful and measured responses to social media crises are critical to protecting brand equity. If you haven't already developed a plan to limit exposure during a crisis, it should be at the top of your team's to-do list in 2016.

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