How to Avoid a Social Media PR Crisis

How to Avoid a Social Media PR Crisis

Weslie Oeftering
Weslie Oeftering
How to Avoid a Social Media PR Crisis

Facebook was founded almost 15 years ago. Twitter came a short time later in 2006. Despite having over a decade to master communication on each of these platforms (and all of the platforms that have developed since), not a week goes by without a new social media crisis that leaves a company scrambling to maintain their reputation.

The worst part is that almost every communication crisis can be avoided.

In a world where almost everyone has a phone with a professional-grade camera and a high-speed internet connection, you would think that companies with millions of dollars at their disposal would have mastered keeping themselves out of trouble. And yet, here I am, writing this blog post about social media crises.

Social media snafus usually come about via one of The Five Faults:

1. Rules and Regulations

This fault has many sides to it. It can come from a lack of training that forces employees to strictly apply their organization’s rules and regulations with a broad brush rather than on a case-by-case basis. Or, sometimes rules and regulations for specific situations simply just do not exist (how do you plan for a passenger’s emotional support peacock?) which leads people to improvise – which can lead to very bad things for an organization’s reputation. If you’re Wells Fargo, it just means completely ignoring already very well defined rules and regulations. 

2. Data and Technology

This fault is more self-explanatory and received a lot of attention in 2018. Data breaches,  selling data, etc. Crises like these are based on trust. Consumers trusted Facebook when it said that our profiles and data are private. As the world’s largest social media site, not following through on this promise could be disastrous for the entire industry. It would be very, very, foolish – so the idea that Facebook ever even considered selling its user’s data in the wake of all the other trouble it has recently encountered is a whole new level of bad decision making. It begs the question: what happens when social media is the social media crisis?

3. Social Exuberance

Social exuberance is “let’s do something that no other brand has done before” gone awry. It happens when multiple out-of-touch executives are sitting together at a table (most likely without a PR professional present) and agree to something that trivializes a controversial social issue in the name of increasing profit margins; like Yahoo’s new ad, or the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad that we’re still talking about over a year and a half later. The reason we’re still talking about it is that those are excellent examples of a company that has all the resources it needs to craft an appropriate and responsible ad but still dropped the ball in a major way.

4. Sexism and Lack of Diversity

Whether intentionally driven by personal biases or not, this fault can be boiled down to the issues that arise when everyone you work with comes from the same background. If you are all of the same race, religion, ethnicity, gender or social standing, then you are missing out on a world of different experiences that can inform the decisions your organization makes. People from all different walks of life meaningfully participating in your organization can prevent out of touch ideas like “Bic for Her” from getting off the ground (women are just fine using regular pens, I promise).

5. Celebrity Style (CEO and Otherwise)

This is when your CEO, another high-level employee, or influencer does something that suggests they have completely forgotten that they represent an organization. It often results from being comfortable enough in their position to abuse it mixed with a lack of PR training. It doesn’t matter how nice Teslas are, if people find out that your CEO is a jerk, then it will more than likely hurt your brand.

Avoiding The Five Faults can be just as easy as defining them, as long as you remember to employ some basic common sense rules that are forgotten in the split-second decisions that are often the source of a crisis.

Training that employs empathy can go a long way. Emphasizing that your customers are people is a great way to help your employees make smarter decisions when interacting with them. They will be more likely to let a group of African-American men wait for their friend before ordering their Starbucks and less likely to make fun of a little girl’s name (no matter how silly the name might be).

Treat employees well. The more someone likes their job, the more they will care about the organization, and the less likely they will be to do something that could potentially be bad for it. Essentially, not only should employees be trained to remember that customers are fellow-humans, but companies treat their own employees like fellow-humans as well.

Hire a diverse group of people. Despite the fact that all of us have implicit biases that make giving into stereotypes all too easy, ignoring – and condemning – those biases is not only the right thing to do, but it will absolutely, 100 percent, benefit the organization in the long-run. More diversity at higher levels of the organization brings ideas like Apple’s “Share Your Gifts” holiday ad to fruition, instead of suggesting that a supermodel with a can of Pepsi is all it takes to fix issues that have existed in our society for hundreds of years.

Be honest. If your organization does get into some hot water, don’t make it worse by lying about how many accounts had their data stolen or hiring a firm to take down your competition instead of looking inward to see what you can fix internally to stop your organization’s scandals.

Don’t let your employees mistake popularity or celebrity for invincibility. In our new internet-oriented world, CEOs, executives, and even low-level employees can become quasi-celebrities. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as that person has been:

  1. Made aware that they are a representative of your organization and will be held accountable for negative actions online
  2. Prepared by a PR pro to be in the public eye

Otherwise, they could hijack the brand. Reward professionalism and kindness over eccentricity and cut-throat competitiveness. If your CEO, head news anchor, or any employee causes a scandal and you didn’t make it absolutely clear to them that abusing their power is unacceptable, then you are still responsible.

On that note, a personality does not make an organization’s brand. Unless your organization is selling products that were created by a celebrity (Rachel Ray’s dog food brand, Kylie Jenner’s make-up line, etc.) then a celebrity should not be your brand. This approach rests your organization’s reputation on the shoulders of a single person who is almost certain to upset someone.

However, influencers can be good for a brand as long as they do not become your brand’s message. For example, even though Nike’s new ad featured not one, but two celebrities (Colin Kaepernick and Serena Williams), it was not directly about them; it was about how capable we all are. The ad made Nike for everyone who has dreams they want to accomplish despite any adversity they may face along the way. Because Nike’s ad wasn’t directly about the celebrities it featured, when Serena Williams demanded an apology from a referee, no one demanded that Nike cancel her contract with her – at least not in a way that made any headlines.

So, how do you avoid a social media PR crisis? By making sure everyone in your organization is commits to doing the right thing.

Need more crisis resources? Swyft’s guide to Tackling your Social Media Strategy provides data and insights into social media and how to develop a winning social media campaign.


About Weslie Oeftering: Weslie is a student at The University of Texas at Austin and Swyft’s resident PR and marketing intern. She supports clients with social media, blogging, and tech PR activities. Swyft is a PR and marketing agency with offices in Austin, Houston, and Denver that provide services for tech companies all around the world who are seeking rapid, sustained growth. Some of their services include content marketing, social media strategy, as well as ad buys, email marketing, and media relations.

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