A panel at the 2014 South by Southwest festival highlighted five ways to avoid a social media crisis.

Among the most valuable sessions I attended at last month’s South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas, was one entitled “Tomorrow Is Another Day: Surviving A Social Media Crisis.”

The session threw cold water on anyone who might believe that social media crises are uncommon things that happen only to other companies. A slideshow of high profile fiascoes offered a compelling view of just how commonplace these events have become.

Here are a few key takeaways I took from the panel for how to keep a company from being the next entry on the steady parade of social media disasters:

Do not try to capitalize on catastrophic events. The number of brands that get themselves into trouble by attempting to capitalize on trending and important topics in inappropriate ways was an eye-opener. Memorials for 9/11, Superstorm Sandy, Pearl Harbor Day and the Boston Marathon bombing are only a few that were mentioned. Just because a topic is trending does not mean it’s necessarily a good opportunity to promote a brand. Companies can express solidarity or sympathy in appropriate ways, but they need to think twice before knee-jerk efforts at pushing their products in similar situations.

Plan ahead for social media fiascos. Just as companies develop a plan for other emergencies — such as fires, earthquakes and other natural disasters — so a company should develop a plan for handling social media emergencies. When these crises occur, they often develop too quickly to respond effectively unless leaders have already thought through how they will respond. A well-considered response may be the best approach to heading off a social media crisis before it gets out of control. This includes being aware of situations that have the potential to lead to a crisis, such as making sure you have control of the company’s social media accounts before you announce employee layoffs.

Social media crisis plans may have several important elements. One is to ensure that a company identify a senior decision maker who is empowered to act in such a crisis. Other key decision makers also need to be in place to authorize deviations from the plan to account for a rapidly changing environment. The plan should have the mobile or home telephone numbers where key decision makers can be reached. It may be necessary to wake someone up to deal with a crisis; morning may be too late.

Train employees to use social media in the context of your business. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention may equal a pound of cure. In a 2009 piece for Harvard Business Review, my co-authors and I encouraged companies to develop social media policies and guidelines for employees. The American Red Cross takes this a step further today, offering social media training for all its employees. Managers cannot assume that even active social media users know how to use social media appropriately in a business context (see my MIT Sloan Management Review blog post “Strategic vs. Procedural Approaches to Social Media” for more).

Recognize that the world is eagerly waiting for you to make a mistake. Neal Mann of the Wall Street Journal admitted that journalists are on the lookout to identify and exploit social media gaffes by companies. It makes compelling news to watch a company try to manage a social media backlash, particularly if they're doing it badly. Customers are now empowered to respond on social media, adding their own fuel to the crisis.

Adopting conservative social media behavior to pre-empt a crisis may simply raise the stakes when a mistake is made. The SXSW panelists agreed that companies with strong and engaging social media presences are given greater leeway when minor gaffes are made.

Remember that fiascoes can also present opportunities. The panel highlighted several instances where brands benefitted following a social media fiasco. Burger King, for instance, ended up with greater attention to its social media presence after it had been hijacked by unidentified hackers. The American Red Cross strengthened its online reputation by an effective and humorous response to its own social media crisis.


Effectively handling a social media crisis can prove to benefit a brand. People who find a company’s social media presence just because of the fiasco can be converted and made more aware of a company’s strengths. (Of course, the benefits of social media fiascoes have led some companies to engineer their own social media fiascoes in an attempt to leverage the upsides. I suspect this approach is akin to playing with fire.)

Social media represents a double-edged sword for companies, constituting both an opportunity and a threat. Thinking through and preparing for possible social media crises will help mitigate damage from an inevitable future social media crisis, and potentially turn it to a company’s advantage.

Acknowledgments

We at MIT-Sloan Management Review want to express our sympathy and support for all those who were impacted by the tragic events at SXSW on March 13, 2014.