Social media is all about interacting with your fans and customers. The benefits of engaging users in meaningful conversations are many – it helps them feel valued, it makes your brand feel more interesting and engaging, and it helps you foster relationships with users which can turn into conversions for your business…..

Unfortunately, social media can be something of a double-edged sword. With dialogues, you can only control the message so far; sometimes users will take an oppositional reading to the communications you’re putting out on your social accounts, and when that happens in large numbers, things can get ugly.

The good news is, with careful management of the backlash, you can minimise the damage, repair the bridges you’ve burned, and perhaps turn a bad situation into a good one. Here are a few tips on how your brand can survive a social media crisis.

Don’t delete anything!

The most common response to a sudden and unexpected backlash is to delete the offending post. This is absolutely the worst thing you can do, because it activates the phenomenon known as the Streisand effect.

Essentially, deleting the post suggests you’re trying to pretend the issue never happened, and you’re assuming everyone else will just play along. Even worse, by deleting the post, you’ll probably be deleting all the responses to that post. People don’t appreciate having their intelligence insulted, but they especially don’t appreciate having their voice silenced.

The result is that you’ll end up fuelling the flames of the backlash. What might have remained as a simple argument centered around a single post will now likely spread to other posts and perhaps the wider internet, tarnishing your brand name.

Perhaps you’re only deleting the post to curb the flow of angry responses, and you plan on acknowledging the issue and apologising fully later. Unfortunately, the result will often be the same – to your social audience, it still looks like censorship to save your own skin. For now, keep the offending post up, and only delete it once you’ve posted a response.

Recognise the issue

Sometimes a backlash will be fairly clear-cut; other times, it can be difficult to understand what’s actually going on. For example, if people are upset with you about a certain wider issue (such as your environmental policy, for example), they may bring up that issue in other conversations where the context doesn’t make sense.

It’s important to respond to complaints as quickly as possible, but don’t rush your response; instead, take the time to understand why social users are upset with you. If you address the wrong aspect of the complaint or a completely unrelated issue by mistake, it signals to your fans that you’re just not listening to them.

Are users genuinely angry at you? Sometimes negative feedback isn’t entirely malicious; it’s just a bit of fun at your expense, such as the infamous #waitrosereasons hashtag campaign. Beware of blowing situations like these out of proportion – you’ll appear out-of-touch and desperate if you treat every less-than-positive communication as a big disaster.

Understand what caused the issue

Now you know what happened, you need to work out why it happened. There are two main benefits to investigating the underlying causes of a backlash; as well as being able to provide more context in your response, you’ll also be able to take steps to avoid similar scenarios in the future.

Here are a few of the more common culprits:

  • Designating your social media presence to an untrained staff member. Some companies still view communicating directly with millions of potential customers as a job for the office intern. Your social presence should be in the hands of an expert at all times.
  • Not planning campaigns carefully enough. Negative feedback often comes when the company in question confuses the reaction they want from users with the reaction they’ll actually get. You should not only consider the other possible outcomes of your campaign, but also identify why people will want to participate positively. For example, are your fans really likely to use your hashtag just because you keep spamming them with it?
  • Having a poor awareness of your brand perception. You need to anticipate what people are likely to say about you; including those who aren’t fans of your brand. Social media crises like these aren’t pretty, but they can offer very valuable insights to help you improve your public perception.
  • Lacking awareness of the wider context. Stay up to date with current social issues and news events, and try to ensure your posts can’t be misconstrued as insensitive or ignorant. You should also be aware of your own corporate responsibilities and what you’re doing as a company to maintain them.
  • Making light of serious issues. Occasionally a bit of political incorrectness is appropriate if it fits with your brand persona, but never try to use other people’s suffering to promote yourself.
  • Not monitoring social activity effectively. Missing a customer’s complaint can be disastrous. Make sure you have listening tools set up to monitor all mentions of your brand name – not just the ones that are addressed to your social accounts directly.
  • Taking a lax attitude to security. Hacking can affect your website, the online services and products you sell, and even your social accounts themselves. Be sure to have adequate security protocols in place.

Work out how to fix the problem

By this point, you should have a clear understanding of the problem – now you need to figure out a solution.

If it’s something you’ve done wrong, your followers need to know how you’re going to put it right. For example, if you’ve messed up with your customer service, get in touch with each of your unhappy customers and offer to resolve their problem in private. If a rogue tweeter has posted a deliberately inflammatory tweet, reprimand them and let your followers know.

If it’s something you can’t fix right now, but you’re working on a solution, let your followers know you’re aware of their concerns and you’ll bring them more information as soon as you can.

Respond honestly and transparently

Now it’s time to post your public response to your social media backlash. This part is critical – getting it wrong can end up sparking further outrage and harming your brand further.

If you’re dealing with a particularly severe backlash, your response should combine everything you’ve learnt so far. It should empathise with your audience and the problem they have, acknowledge where you messed up, offer your genuine apologies, and provide a solution to keep them happy and/or prevent it happening again.

Apologies should be straightforward, honest and sympathetic. Avoid overusing corporate language, which can make you come across as cold and defensive. (By the same token, it’s dishonest to apologise for something you’re not responsible for; however, you can still let users know that their voices have been heard and you take their feedback seriously.)

Beware of posting longer statements on short-form platforms like Twitter, as you’ll have to break up the statement into sections which are dependant on the rest of the statement for context. Linking to a full statement on your site or a different social platform (such as Facebook) might be more appropriate instead.

Meanwhile, if it’s a smaller and less serious issue, sometimes all it takes to defuse the situation is a light-hearted tweet or two – but remember to admit to your mistakes and offer a resolution all the same.

The timing of your response is important. The longer it takes for you to answer to the negative feedback, the larger it can grow. In some situations, it’s best to post an initial acknowledgement of the issue first and provide a full apology when you’ve had more time to prepare your response.

Recognise the positives

Nobody wants to suffer a social media crisis, but if it happens to you, it can be a useful learning experience. Not only will you know how to deal with similar future incidents, you can also gain a better understanding of your customers’ values and attitudes towards your brand. Take stock after a backlash situation and see how you can do things differently going forward.

Occasionally, a social media fail can have a happy ending. Consider the case of the American Red Cross, who accidentally tweeted a slightly irresponsible post about Dogfish Head beer and responded in good humour. Inspired by the situation, Dogfish Head then encouraged its own fans to donate to the Red Cross.

There’s also the aforementioned Waitrose fail – which may not have been a fail at all. Some commentators have argued that the ridicule they received only reinforced Waitrose’s brand position as a high-end supermarket (and got them a lot of new followers and publicity to boot).

Most of all, don’t let it put you off social media as a marketing tool. Social users will respect you for your honesty and your efforts to recover your customer goodwill.

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