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How NOT to Handle a Social Media Crisis

Social Media Strategy

How NOT to Handle a Social Media Crisis

How do you turn a viral video into a global PR disaster? Let me count the ways.

No, really. Get out your calculators. Over the past several months, United has not been able to catch a break. Here are just a few of their very public snafus:

  • Two girls kicked off United flight for wearing leggings
  • Passenger is violently dragged off a plane
  • Giant rabbit dies on United flight

United took so much heat this spring that it arguably spared other brands (*cough*Pepsi*cough*) from the full brunt of their own PR disasters simply by dominating the news cycle.

United’s customer service problem aside, there are several lessons for social media and crisis communications teams here about what not to do in the face of a crisis. Here are a few things United did that you should definitely, positively avoid…unless you’re one of those who believes “all press is good press.”

Social Media Crisis Management Gone Terribly, Horribly Wrong

1. Don’t prepare for a crisis.

“The two most important words in modern marketing are just these: what if?” — Jay BaerClick To Tweet

Act as if nothing can go wrong. Continue with the status quo. Whatever you do, definitely don’t prepare for the possible scenarios that might come your way.

Obviously, that’s not a good plan. Social media is the wild, wild west, and you need to be ready for what might come your way. Melissa Agnes, an international crisis management speaker, asks brand managers to answer the question “What if today were our opportunity, or what if today were our crisis?”

When a deluge of attention comes, it helps to be prepared, whether it be positive (to amplify and harness) or negative (to mitigate and protect). Engaging in scenario modeling with your whole team can go a long way toward building the “muscle memory” that can make or break a brand in a crisis.

2. In the face of a public outcry, double down.

United’s first crisis of the year — the infamous leggings debacle — was fairly benign. In fact, many people argued in favor of United’s decision, especially those who had personally worked for airlines in the past.

However, United’s response to the incident only added fuel to the fire. They cited their “Contract of Carriage” ruling, which gives them the right to deny transport for passengers who are improperly clothed in a series of tweets.

It’s not that they were incorrect about their own rules, but when facing a public outcry, it’s better to listen and react accordingly than to be tone-deaf and recite their self-composed rule book. The point was that their rules were, in the public’s view, sexist — not that they weren’t rules. Reading the room, so to speak, goes a long way on social media.

3. Make it about you.

By all means, don’t listen to what your critics are saying. If your brand has done something wrong, focus on how difficult the situation is for your employees and your brand.

Mr. Munoz’s (and the communication’s team’s) sin here is writing an a pseudo-apology that takes more time extolling the virtues of its team’s patience than it does addressing the violation itself (in this case, having a man violently dragged off a plane). The legalese of “re-accommodate” doesn’t help matters either.

4. Don’t worry about matching your internal with your external messaging.

This is perhaps the most cringeworthy misstep of all, the CEO of United Airlines wrote a letter to employees calling the removed passenger “disruptive” and “belligerent” — a stark difference from his later, press-friendly statement that “no one should ever be mistreated this way.”

In the age of social media, it’s very hard to keep internal communications confidential. Moreover, today’s audiences value authenticity to a much higher degree than in past years. Trust is harder to gain, and easier to lose.

5. Ignore social media. The world hasn’t changed!

The blatant truth of the matter is this: Smartphones and social media have completely transformed the crisis management landscape. The act of forcibly removing a passenger from a plane would have been a lot easier to explain twenty years ago, before the advent of smartphone cameras.

Everything is public now, and this heightened speed of the news cycle makes it hard to get ahead of story before story is already ahead of you. According to Agnes, “Crisis management needs to in large part be instinctive, rather than solely reactionary” (another great argument for scenario modeling!).

The only way to cultivate the necessary instincts in your team is to choose to be proactive every day and build a bank of community trust by going above and beyond to engage with your advocates and adversaries daily on social media.

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