Crisis Communication Wins and Fails | Page 3-10 | Viral In Nature Social Media Agency


Natural and unnatural disasters have become a little too common in this day and age. Hurricane Sandy, the Sandy Hook massacre, the Boston Marathon bombings, and the tornadoes in Oklahoma are only a few of the most recent crises. The good news: social media is a powerful tool people can use to check the status of events as they happen and reconnect with loved ones after a crisis. The bad news: social media not only informs, but occasionally clutters during a crisis.

While there are no hard and fast guidelines for social media posting during a crisis, here are some things to consider. Keep in mind this article is geared towards businesses, bloggers, and professionals, not news organizations in the thick of events.

1. Have a plan. A strategy is especially important for those who consider them resources during a crisis.

“Develop a protocol internally,” suggests Stephanie Shkolnik, Director of Social Media at Digitaria. “Create a simple system to identify what types of scenarios are applicable to your brand and what requires issuing a statement versus respectfully going dark. These qualifiers should be defined based on your business and/or brand’s location and if you have employees and/or customers in the area impacted.”

2. Remove pre-scheduled posts. Plus, if you are running a contest or time-sensitive promotion, extend the deadline if at all possible.

“When a major story breaks, the first thing any social media strategist should do is pause any scheduled content out of respect,” says Social Media Strategist Leslie Richin. “We all know it looks bad and insensitive when brands continue to post happy-centric content during a national crisis/disaster. It is also in extremely poor taste to try to tie in your brand in any way, even if you mean well – you’ll only end up offending people.”

3. Location matters. That also needs to be taken into consideration as you decide what and when to post.

“If you were a business located near the crisis or in the area of the natural disaster, you should provide information that would help the public, reporters, or first responders,” suggests Caitlin Rick, Lead Community Manager, Snap Agency. “If your business is collecting supplies for victims such as the Oklahoma tornadoes, it is okay to post information about collection sites. … use your brand’s power to help the victims.”

4. Don’t go dark, just “dim the lights.” Make sure your message is appropriate and heartfelt. And take note of when other, larger brands resume posting before you jump back into your regular schedule.

“Being based out of Boston, we’ve known crisis all too well recently,” says Gregory Ciotti, Marketing Director of Help Scout. “Our stance on reacting as a business in the area is to keep things honest, respectful, and genuine. We sent out our condolences via social networks like Twitter (from both the company account and personal accounts), and we were fairly silent the rest of the day. While you shouldn’t let tragedy stop you from living your life (the point of terrorism is to disrupt), there is a line to be drawn, and ‘tweeting’ about tech and entrepreneurship during those times didn’t feel quite right.”

5. Don’t promote or sell. This is not an opportunity to profit off of tragedy.

“Social media happens in real time and it’s important for businesses (and everyone really) to be mindful when a crisis occurs,” adds Mike Wolfe, President, WAM Enterprises LLC. “It’s not a time to share your blog posts or your 10% off coupon. It’s a time to show your “human” side. If you can contribute in a positive or helpful way (maybe use Twitter or Facebook to help inform people), do so. If not, it’s ok to be quiet so your fans and followers can find the information that’s most important.”

Image by chrisdorney.

Burger King had a potential Stage V Social Media crisis on their hands when this image of an employee standing in lettuce appeared on the website 4Chan. The image quickly went viral, including being picked up by local news outlets.

They were able to locate the Burger King through the geo metadata in the photo in question and identify the employee by his shoes. He was promptly fired. They removed the problem and immediately shared the crisis resolution on social media along with a statement “Food safety is a top priority at all Burger King restaurants and the company maintains a zero-tolerance policy against any violations such as the one in question.” And they did all this in a little over 24 hours. Bravo Burger King.

What they did right:

  • Burger King had a Social Media Crisis Communication strategy in place which allowed them to act quick.
  • They identified the problem and resolved the situation by removing the employee in less than 24 hours.
  • They posted on their Social Media a resolution.

What they did wrong:

  • Nothing.

Most crisis situations are created by circumstances beyond a companies control such as this case. By Burger King resolving the matter in such a short turn around time and posting the resolution, this shows the majority of their followers that yes they do take food safety seriously.

The United States Air Force Web Posting Response Assessment is a twelve-point plan developed by the Emerging Technology Division of the US Air Force’s Affairs Agency that illustrates how US Airmen should respond to online blogs. The plan provides in a detailed and specific way how it is that Airmen should respond to blogs. It was created to combat blog posts that have negative opinions about the U.S government and to bolster support and credibility for positive blog posts.

This is a perfect example of how to respond online that every business should adopt.

US Air Force Web Posting Response Assessment

Viral In Nature Inc. is an award winning Social Media and Reputation Management firm located in Calgary, Alberta. We offer award winning social media management, consulting and training. Capturing the power of social media for the benefit of our clients.

A pastor who had eaten at an Applebee’s restaurant didn't want to give out the automatic 18% gratuity for parties of more than eight so she wrote “I give God 10% why do you get 18” above her signature. A fellow waitress at the restaurant took a photo of this and posted it on Reddit where it went viral. She was subsequently fired for “violating customer privacy” which would have been understandable but Applebee’s posted a similar receipt that was complimenting them just 2 weeks prior.

As news of this incident went viral and infuriated people across all social media platforms, Applebee’s responded with a short post defending their actions on their Facebook page which quickly drew over 10,000 mostly negative comments, to which Applebee’s copied and pasted the response over and over in replies to people. Their followers also accused them of deleting negative comments and blocking users.

The downward spiral continued as Applebee’s persisted to defend their actions and argue with users that criticized them. By the following day, after the original post had generated over 19,000 comments, Applebee’s decided to hide the post which only created more anger.

What they did wrong:

  • Applebee's took a defensive and argumentative approach which only exasperated the situation.
  • Copying and pasting the same response looks insincere. It doesn't take much to say the same thing but in different wording. This little extra effort goes a long way.
  • Blocking users and deleting criticism only makes things worse.
  • Saying they fired the employee for violating company policy but breaking that policy just two weeks earlier with a post of a positive message on a receipt. It doesn't matter if the customer with the positive message signed off saying they allowed the receipt to be posted, or your company social media policy only allows Communication Manager approved receipts to be posted, you're dealing with the court of public opinion and perception is reality.

What they did right:

  • As mentioned above, they made mistakes with their response, however, they didn't go silent and take the ostrich head in the sand approach.


With sophisticated monitoring tools in place, Applebee's would have been alerted to the situation ahead of time. This would allow the Communication Team, Executive Team and company lawyer craft a statement. They also need to follow the web posting response guide when classifying trolls, ragers, misguided and unhappy customers and replying accordingly, not as a copy and paste. Also when replying to their followers, they should remember the 5Cs:
Compassion – If anyone has been hurt or killed in the crisis, start by expressing your heartfelt condolences to those affected – and mean it!
Concern – Express concern that the incident has occurred in the first place.
Commitment – Make clear your absolute commitment to get to the bottom of what has gone wrong and ensure it will never happen again.
Control – People will feel much better if you make it clear that the crisis response will be managed and controlled from the top.
Communication – Undertake to provide regular updates and information to stakeholders. Speculation loves a vacuum and social media will fill it for you if you let it.

In 2012, Volkswagen wished their Facebook users a Happy New Year and asked, “…what would you like to see us do more of this year?” Sounds innocent right? Well Greenpeace, citing Volkswagen’s anti-climate policies, encouraged its Facebook supporters to reply to the car maker’s query. And comment they did, largely opposing Volkswagen’s lobbying efforts against the environment. Not only did Volkswagen ignore the negative posts, but they also began deleting them. The censorship so angered the Greenpeace community that it became an international story.

What they did wrong:

  • Ignored all comments and did the head in the sand Ostrich approach.

What they did right:

  • I can't find anything they did right on this one.


When a group as big as Greenpeace decides to attack you, you are instantly and immediately in a Stage V Social Media Crisis. What they should have done right away is reply "Hi Greenpeace, we're interested in hearing more and perhaps even working together for climate change. Could you please contact us directly by using the Facebook messaging system and giving us your contact information." Now by doing this it might set off your Boss by suggesting a promise, but the only thing you've really promised is to take the conversation offline. It's certainly not up to the Social Media person to decide company policy, however, you know the old saying "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em". This is a potential marketing opportunity. By working with a big group like Greenpeace, this may bring you a whole new group of future VW owners.

What stage of communication crisis is your business in?


Stage Level Description
I No current threats A crisis communications plan should be drafted long before you encounter a problem. Make a list of all the things that could go wrong – labour dispute, accident and so on – and draft out ahead of time who will speak and what will be said.
  • Identify possible future threats and run practice drills.
  • Have approved communication tactics and empower your Social Media Manager to implement those when needed.
  • Set up Google Alerts to know where the conversation is about you.
  • Have an employee Social Media policy in place.
II High potential of a future Social Media Crisis

Due to the nature of your business, like for example an oil and gas pipeline, there is a real possibility that something bad could and will happen that would warrant a Stage IV Social Media Crisis.

  • Identify possible future threats and run practice drills.
  • Have approved communication tactics and empower your Social Media Manager to implement those when needed.
  • Set up Google Alerts to know where the conversation is about you.
  • Are there groups out there like for example, the Greenpeace vs Volkswagen, who may choose to wage a social media war against you?
  • Have an employee Social Media policy in place.

A minor Social Media Crisis is happening right now

This consists of one or a few disgruntled followers over a situation that does not appear to be going viral.

  • Try and take the conversation offline by asking them to call or email you and try to resolve their complaints.
IV Imminent Social Media Crisis

Do you know that you are within days or (in most cases) hours of a Stage IV Social Media Crisis? In many situations this is commonly a newspaper article that you know is coming out tomorrow. A good reporter will call your Communications Manager before the story goes out for a chance to give your side of the story.

  • Make sure your Communications Manager lets your Social Media Manager and the Executive Team know it's coming. You'd think this would be common sense but at one company I worked for this would happen time and time again. Your Social Media Manager needs to know if he should be cancelling those dinner plans with the in-laws.
  • If you’re a company that is being accused of making a mistake or doing something wrong, then you must have an executive-approved statement ready to go. Not having the bosses signed off on a statement creates the potential for crisis paralysis, as those executives debate what should be said. The company needs to come forward and respond to whatever is being said immediately, and not allow discussion to fester while the company stands by in silence. But that means everyone in charge must be signed off on what will be said. This is best done before you get into a communications crisis. If the crisis begins at 10 pm on Saturday night, a statement at 1 pm the next day is just simply too late. Your ideal response time is less than 15 minutes even if you have 0 answers. Your Social Media Manager should also be replying to those viral comments all night long, and not a copy and paste but real responses even if it's just "We're working on the problem"
V A major Social Media Crisis is happening right now This is a business killer. Just ask United Airlines who's stock dropped 10% and a $180 million dollar hit or this KFC franchise who closed for good after a video went viral.
  • Admit there is an issue on your blog or website
  • Share this admission on your social media channels
  • Respond to those replies on your social media channels

To promote her new album, Party, the star's PR team decided on using three words "Susan Album Party" #SusanAlbumParty. However, that could also be deciphered as #SusAnalBumParty, or "Su's Anal Bum Party". This had her and her Social Media Managers seeing red.

What they did wrong:

  • How could they possibly miss that hashtag?

What they did right:

  • After realizing the mistake, they poked fun at themselves.

The best way to overcome a blunder like this is to apologize and make light of the situation joking about yourself. On the bright side, she gained much attention by the media. This reminds me of in the 80's when Coca Cola changed their formula in order to regain the marketshare that Pepsi had won. When outrage ensued over the formula change they brought back the old formula and called it Coke Classic and instantly gained all their marketshare back and more. When asked in a press conference if that was their plan from the beginning, Coke CEO replied "We're not that smart, and we're not that stuipid." For that reason I'm putting this in the Social Media Epic Win category.


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