Managing a Social Media Firestorm

In a world where passionate voices are empowered through social media, stories of brands dealing with an elevated PR crisis are common. Whether it results from a legitimately bad decision, a completely unintentional mistake, or through circumstances beyond control, it happens. No brand is immune from a social media firestorm.

Having worked for a global corporation that’s periodically at the center of PR issues, I’ve been on the crisis side of things. With the intent of helping brands engage in a productive conversation with their social customers, I’d like to share a story alongside some tips, and open the conversation to other pros with insight.

The Story

This story resonates for me because it touches on my passion for social progress around gender and how women / girls are portrayed in marketing. Here’s what happened (via…

Parent Lin Kramer posted an articulate, heart-felt open letter on the Party City Facebook page, expressing concerns that their merchandising and marketing plays into antiquated views about gender roles and sexualizes young girls.

Party City replied with “Hi Lin, thank you for reaching out to us. We appreciate the insight and will consider your feedback for the future. Thank you.” After a flurry couple (strike-through clarifcation via Lin on Twitter) of comments from others expressing similar concerns, Party City deleted Lin’s post with all the comments, and also banned her from the page. (Uh-oh.)

Then Lin’s letter and experience got shared by and spread via social media. Within 24 hours (and counting) the Party City Facebook page was bombarded with reposts of the letter and comments from others expressing the same concerns. At first, radio silence from company representatives, then came a cut-and-paste response in reply to each of the comments. (Double uh-oh.)

As of now, this story has not hit mass media, but there’s a possibility it will. (09-25 UPDATE: Media pick-up is building, including Mashable and Jezebel.)

With this scenario as a case study, let’s talk about…

How to Create a Better Story

BE SENSITIVE TO THE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT. When customer concerns center on a hot-button social topic, attempting to squash the conversation by deleting it will ignite the fire. In the example of Party City, I would hope leaders tuned into the elevated conversations about gender and children’s products / media long before they ever heard from Lin. (In case you haven’t heard, last month Target announced they’re eliminating gender labels in their toy aisles and this month Disney’s Halloween costumes are going gender-neutral.)

As a brand, pay attention to social conversations in your segment and proactively consider your customer’s point of view in sync with your business goals. Should a crisis erupt before a strategy has been solidified, at least you’re aware of the issue and in a better position to thoughtfully manage communications.

DEVELOP A PLAN. Every brand should have guidelines and a nimble plan for how to deal with discourse before it happens. In addition to the usual (who’s in charge, who to contact, steps to take) I’m a fan of creating a communications toolkit that empowers frontline social managers to respond in a timely, compassionate manner without jumping through numerous corporate / legal approval hoops.

KEEP IT REAL. When a legitimate concern is being loudly expressed, it’s important for anyone on the social media front lines to:

Acknowledge. Let your customers know their point of view is valued, heard and taken seriously. After all, you’re nothing without your customers.

Be actionable. When the issue is heated, a response like “we appreciate the feedback and will keep it in mind” reads like a platitude. If at all possible, communicate steps being taken to address the concerns, even if it’s simply “our leadership team is directly involved in reviewing your feedback and determining how it should be addressed.”

If you’re proactively tuning into the social environment of your business (see above), the more transparent you can be the better. “We’re aware there’s a movement toward breaking down barriers around gender roles and are looking at what that means for our customers. Your feedback will play an important role in our next steps.”

DITCH THE COOKIE CUTTERS. Regardless of how thoughtful the response, replying to every post with a word-for-word cut and paste response will add fuel to the fire. Instead, consider these options:

  1. Post a statement. Rather than responding to individual posts, comments, tweets, etc., post a statement on Facebook. As needed, reply to individuals with a link to the statement. This allows the people handling and reviewing Facebook communications to more easily listen and manage the conversation, and gives your community a central place to converse. Sometimes there will be discourse within the community, which isn’t a bad thing as long as it doesn’t digress into personal attacks and bullying.
  2. Empower your best brand communicators. If you’d rather not release a statement that might show up in the feed of your followers (who may or may not be aware there’s a heated conversation underway), use your communications toolkit and empower employees to respond to individuals in a more personalized way. Select employees who are strong communicators and proven advocates for both brand and customer.