Social Media Crisis Management: (A 7-Step Plan on How to Manage Social Media Crisis)

April 2, 2024 15 min read

Joe Manna

Joe Manna

social media crisis management

Reputation and public perception are major contributors to sales, profits, and the success of any business. 

Nothing damages a small business’s reputation more than a social media crisis. If left unchecked, a social media crisis can turn consumer sentiment against a brand. 

However, with a preventative and proactive approach to social media crisis management, small businesses can withstand a crisis and even bolster their brand’s reputation in the face of the nastiest social media crisis.

This comprehensive guide covers all social media crisis management aspects relevant to small business owners.

What Is a Social Media Crisis?

A social media crisis is a situation on social media where negative content significantly harms the reputation or business operations of an individual, organization, or brand. This situation can arise from various unexpected events or controversies, such as offensive or insensitive content posted by the brand, customer complaints, and or other misconduct by employees.

Social media crises often happen unexpectedly and threaten to damage a brand’s reputation. 

In one survey, 69% of business owners said they experienced a crisis over the last five years, and 95% of leaders said their social media crisis action plan needs improvement. 

These crises can occur for many reasons, often beyond the business’s power to prevent—in many instances, all you can do is respond. But your decision-making in times of crisis and your response make or break the public’s perception of your business. 

For example, a disgruntled customer’s negative post or review might go viral; an employee might upset a customer, or a social media post from your brand might be insensitive and misinterpreted by the public.

example of a social media update gone wrong

Social media crises can also arise if your business makes a decision that doesn’t align with customer expectations. For example, when PayPal decided to update its “Acceptable Use Policy” last year — it included a clause that allows PayPal to withdraw $2,500 from users’ accounts if that user posted anything the company deemed as “misinformation or offensive.” 

Understandably, this resulted in a social media crisis with the Twitter hashtag (now X) #BankruptPayPal going viral, with customers spreading the news about PayPal’s decision and encouraging others to take action by closing their PayPal accounts:

The boycott directly impacted PayPal’s value, causing it to drop over 13% following its policy update. This shows the potential business impact of a social media crisis: 

PayPal boycott trend on Twitter following its policy update

Other examples of social media crises include: 

  • False information being spread about your company 
  • Security breaches exposing customers’ private data
  • Illegal or inappropriate behavior by staff

If left unmanaged, these crises will spread rapidly through social media marketing platforms because nothing moves faster than bad news. This will ruin your public image, directly impacting sales, profits, and business success. 

The Importance of a Social Media Crisis Management Plan 

Every small business needs a social media crisis management plan regardless of size or industry. 

This procedure outlines who does what during a crisis and contains established steps to follow. Such a plan helps you mitigate damage by responding quickly and effectively.

Critical elements of an effective social media crisis management plan include:

Defining a crisis response team

Who are the key internal stakeholders who will make decisions and deliver the response?

Typically, this includes social media policy managers, PR and communication spokespersons, customer service representatives, executives, and legal, if necessary. For instance, customer service representatives can provide insights into customer sentiments, while legal advisors can guide on compliance and regulatory considerations.

Monitoring and listening

How will you monitor social media and the web to detect emerging crises in real-time?

Use social listening tools to track brand mentions, hashtags, negative comments, etc.

Internal communication

How will information flow internally, and how will decisions be made quickly during a crisis?

Outline stakeholders, reporting structures, and channels. Utilizing platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams can ensure swift communication among team members. This setup minimizes confusion and ensures that all members are on the same page, enabling a unified response to the crisis.

External response strategy

How will you communicate externally across social media and other channels?

Have pre-approved templates and policies for social media posts and FAQ pages ready.

Take the PayPal example, for instance. They obviously monitored social media channels (and the stock market) and were ultimately forced to respond. PayPal went through news channels and stated that the notice “went out in error” (which isn’t the best way to face a social media crisis, but at least they responded):

PayPal's external response strategy following the boycott trend on its policy update

Of course, each type of crisis, or potential crisis, must be assessed on merit. 

But having a pre-determined course of action, with go-to stakeholders and a communication system established, means you can respond rapidly and effectively and practice damage control. 

Post-crisis review

How will you evaluate the effectiveness of the response, make changes to policies and procedures, and report learnings to stakeholders?

Metrics and data should drive your review, particularly with real-world sentiment analysis and ongoing online discussions. 

Testing and training

How will you train team members on procedures and test the plan with practice scenarios to identify gaps?

Training team members based on others’ mistakes is ideal here. The fewer social media crises your business experiences, the better. One lesson we can pass on for sure is that failing to act during a social media crisis is THE WORST course of action possible. You must react and manage the crisis; how to best achieve that depends on its nature. 

Related: Social Media Management: What It Is and How to Do It Well

Preparing for a Social Media Crisis

In addition to an emergency response plan, prepare for potential crises proactively:

How to Manage a Social Media Crisis (7 Key Steps to Follow)

When a crisis emerges, having a plan allows your business to respond swiftly, decisively, and with the best chance of mitigating the fallout. 

This step-by-step process can be a good starting point to help you develop your social media crisis response plan: 

1. Assemble your crisis response team

Your crisis response team should consist of individuals from various departments within your organization, including but not limited to social media management, public relations, legal, human resources, and executive leadership. Each team member should have a clearly defined role, such as:

  • Social Media Manager: Monitors online activity and manages the communication on social media platforms.
  • Public Relations Specialist: Handles all media inquiries and crafts official statements.
  • Legal Advisor: Provides legal perspective and advice on communication and actions.
  • HR Representative: Advises on internal communication and employee-related issues.
  • Executive Leader: Makes final decisions on the company’s response and actions.

Get clear on who needs to approve specific actions. Ensure every stakeholder is aware of the social media crisis plan. 

2. Evaluate the situation

Before acting, analyze the scale, facts, sentiment, essential voices, media coverage, and overall impact of the emerging crisis. Categorize the crisis type and determine the level of response needed. Listen for misinformation to spread. 

Analyze the Scale and Scope

  • Measure the impact of the crisis on social media and other digital platforms. Look at metrics such as the number of mentions, shares, and the speed at which these numbers are growing.
  • Determine which social media platforms are most detrimental. For example, some crises may blow up on Twitter but have little to no presence on Instagram. This knowledge will help focus your monitoring and response efforts.

Establish the Facts

  • Collect all relevant information about the crisis. This includes the original source of the issue, any developments, and the current state of public knowledge.
  • Confirm the facts surrounding the crisis. Misinformation can worsen the situation, so it’s crucial to understand what’s true and what’s not.

Assess Sentiment and Key Voices

  • Use social media monitoring tools to gauge the public’s mood regarding the crisis. Is the overall sentiment angry, concerned, or supportive of your brand?
  • Determine who is driving the conversation. This could be industry influencers, media outlets, or even aggrieved customers. Understanding who these key voices are can help you tailor your response effectively. 

Examine Media Coverage

  • Extend your monitoring beyond social media to include news websites, blogs, and even broadcast media. This can provide a better view of the crisis’s impact.
  • Assess how the media is reporting on the crisis. Is the coverage factual, speculative, or sensational? The tone and spread of media coverage can influence public perception.

Categorize the Crisis and Determine Response Level

  • Identify whether it’s a product issue, a customer service failure, an employee-related incident, or something else. Different types of crises require different response strategies.
  • Assess the crisis’s potential impact on your brand and stakeholders. This will help you decide on the level of response needed, from a simple clarification to a full-scale public relations campaign. 

Listen for Misinformation

  • Keep an eye out for rumors or false information that may be spreading as part of the crisis. Quick identification of misinformation is crucial for timely corrections.
  • Develop a strategy for correcting misinformation. This could involve direct responses on social media, updates to your website, or press releases.

Finalize the Evaluation

After thoroughly evaluating the situation, compile your findings into a comprehensive overview. This overview will serve as the foundation for developing a nuanced and effective response strategy.

3. Get aligned on the next steps

Bring your team together to decide how to respond across all channels, including social media platforms and offline. Draft an official response for leadership approval. 

Don’t wing it. Be direct about what action has been taken and the next steps. 

Here’s a strategy you can implement to formulate your response strategy:

  • Decide on the response channels: Determine which channels will be used to respond to the crisis. This typically includes social media platforms where the crisis is most active, but can also extend to press releases, emails to customers, internal communication, and offline channels if necessary.
  • Outline the key messages: Develop the core messages that you need communicated. These should address the nature of the crisis, what is being done to resolve it, and what customers and stakeholders can expect moving forward. Ensure that the messaging is consistent across all channels but tailored to the specific nuances of each platform.
  • Draft an official response: Create an initial draft of the official response that includes the key messages. This draft will be refined and approved by leadership to ensure it aligns with the overall brand strategy and crisis management goals.

As part of your strategy, ensure you anticipate the type of questions and feedback that might arise from your response. Prepare answers to potential questions and decide how to address further comments or concerns on social media and other channels.

4. Respond promptly

Speed is crucial. Once your organization has determined the nature and path forward, post your official response on social media accounts and owned channels. Halt all further scheduled posts if you have them queued up. 

Continue monitoring and responding to comments in real-time. Inform decision-makers about the volume and sentiment of comments so they understand the growing (or declining) impact. 

Often, social media is the start of a brand’s crisis, but it isn’t the end. Consider posting details on your website or blog to add helpful context about the situation. 

After the initial flurry of activity, review the effectiveness of your response. Analyze what worked, what didn’t, and how the situation was perceived by your audience. Depending on the crisis’s impact, consider the next steps. This might involve a longer-term strategy to rebuild trust, address any systemic issues, or continue communicating with affected individuals or stakeholders.

5. Communicate effectively

Your communication should start with a genuine expression of concern for anyone affected by the situation. Empathy should be the aim of your message, signaling that you understand the impact of the crisis and care about the individuals involved. 

Choose words that convey understanding and compassion. Phrases like “We understand how this may affect you…” or “We are deeply concerned about…” can help in expressing empathy effectively.

For larger brands, this means arming your customer support team with guidance on responding to inbound calls and tickets and means to document or log complaints. This way, agents aren’t in a position to make up answers or inflame the situation due to a recorded call. 

Another thing to take note of is whether the crisis stems from an error or oversight by your organization. Openly take responsibility. Acknowledge the mistake and explain what is being done to rectify it and prevent future occurrences.

An outstanding example of ownership is Slack’s response to their downed systems last year:

An example of ownership - Slack’s response to their downed systems in 2022

Slack took the opportunity to endear itself to its users by thanking them for their patience and sharing part of their own perspective on the issue. 

6. Update all relevant channels

Start by ensuring that your official response and key messages are consistent across all platforms. This includes your website, blog, social media channels, email communications, advertising, phone messaging systems, and any offline materials or signage.

  • For your website and blog: Your website often serves as the first point of contact for many people seeking information. Update your homepage with a clear and visible statement or link to more detailed information. Similarly, create a detailed blog post that explains the situation, the steps taken, and any future measures for prevention.
  • For your emails: Tailor your email communications to acknowledge the situation, if appropriate. This can include dedicated emails to your customer base, updates in your regular newsletters, or targeted messages to affected parties.
  • For your phone messaging systems: If your organization uses phone systems for customer support or inquiries, update the messaging to acknowledge the crisis and provide information or direct callers to where they can find more details.
  • For all your ongoing advertisements: Evaluate your ongoing advertising campaigns across digital and traditional media. Pause or adjust ads that could be perceived as insensitive or irrelevant in the context of the crisis.
  • For physical locations: If your company has physical locations, ensure that staff are informed and that any in-store signage or messaging is updated to reflect how you are addressing the crisis.

For example, in 2018, Chipotle voluntarily shut down all locations in response to an E. coli outbreak in its restaurants so it could evaluate and train its team. All communications had a consistent, professional look and feel. And as a result, Chipotle earned back consumer trust and improved its food prep procedures. 

7. Continue monitoring sentiment

Keep listening to social media conversations and adjust your responses accordingly. Sentiment analysis can help you track whether the response is improving brand perception.

In Slack’s case, users reacted well to their social media crisis response, and the Slack social media team continued to engage with users on a personal, yet professional, level:

Screenshot showing how Slack monitored sentiment on social media after a massive outage

By doing so, Slack’s effective crisis management gave them a chance to improve their affinity with their customer base instead of letting a crisis situation damage their reputation. During a social media crisis, set up a digital “war room” for stakeholders to join and get answers quickly

Conduct a post-crisis review to determine root causes and learn from successes and missteps. Put updated policies in place to reduce future risk. 

Publicly updating policies is an important step in managing a social media crisis. 

A recent example is how Zoom responded to allegations of using audio, video, and chat content to train artificial intelligence models without consumer consent: 

An example of how Zoom responded to allegations of using audio, video, and chat content to train artificial intelligence models without consumer consent

Addressing the issue head-on is essential in any social media crisis management strategy. The problem must be clarified and addressed so your business controls the narrative. 

Related: How to Make a Social Media Plan: Crafting an Effective Strategy

Crisis Communications Best Practices

Follow these proven PR techniques during the crisis response and post-crisis recovery:

Be quick, transparent, and truthful

Respond to crises immediately, and if possible, avoid delaying giving out the information you have. This is because people perceive this as neglecting to take responsibility — which can further worsen the situation. 

Your aim here is to communicate as soon as possible, providing clear, concise, and accurate information. Transparency fosters trust; openly share what you know, what you don’t know, and what you’re doing to find out more

Using this approach prevents misinformation and speculation from filling the void and helps control the narrative. 

Show empathy

Genuine empathy towards those affected is a key aspect of crisis communication. Your customers need to feel understood and valued, not just as a number but as individuals. 

Ensure you acknowledge the impact of the crisis on them personally and what steps your brand is taking to mitigate their concerns. This humanizes your brand and builds emotional connections, which are particularly crucial during challenging times.

Apologize sincerely

People can smell a fake apology from a mile away — and companies that have been on the short end of the stick are still living with the scars. A popular example is Activision Blizzard’s scandal that involved several employee harassments — and a public statement that made their situations even worse. 

A spike in Activision Blizzard’s mentions based on an announcement from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing on their unfair treatment of employees.

To avoid becoming another Activision Blizzard, give a heartfelt apology. It can go a long way in healing the wounds caused by a crisis. 

Also, it’s important to accept responsibility without resorting to justifications or shifting the blame. A statement that acknowledges the mistake expresses genuine remorse and outlines clear steps for resolution is far more effective than defensive excuses. This demonstrates integrity and a commitment to making things right. 

Stick to the facts

In the heat of a crisis, speculation and rumors can complicate the situation. Ensure that all communications are grounded in verified facts. 

Avoid — or better still, resist the urge to make assumptions or release unconfirmed information. If errors occur, correct them promptly and transparently. This helps you maintain credibility and manage the public’s expectations and understanding of the situation.

Bring in experts

It’s okay not to know how to handle this or have it figured out. In this case, citing or involving experts in your communications can enhance credibility and show that you are taking the issue seriously. 

Whether it’s industry specialists, crisis management professionals, or authoritative figures in your field, their insights can provide additional weight to your messages. This also demonstrates that you are not insular in your approach and are seeking the best solutions to the crisis. 

Focus on solutions

After the initial crisis response, shift towards recovery and remediation. Detail what corrective actions are being taken and how you plan to prevent similar incidents in the future. This forward-looking approach reassures your customers that you are committed to improvement and resilience. 

Update messaging

Your communication strategy should evolve with the crisis. Be prepared to adjust your messaging based on new information, the current state of the crisis, and stakeholder feedback. This flexibility demonstrates responsiveness and an understanding of how crises can change rapidly. 

Learn and improve 

Every crisis presents an opportunity for growth. Reflect on what you learned during the event and how it can inform future practices. Share how these insights are being incorporated into policy changes, staff training, or other areas. This closes the loop on the current crisis and strengthens your brand’s resilience against future challenges.

Related: How to Build a Successful Social Media Customer Service Program

Key Takeaways on How to Handle Social Media Crises

With social media’s accelerated news cycle, crises can go viral instantly. 

Small businesses that prepare can minimize potential damage and maintain trust even under challenging situations. Remember these tips:

With the right mix of preparation and effective real-time execution, your small business can manage social media crises decisively.

Stay ahead of problems and let your customers see firsthand how much you care about them, not just in good times but also in bad.

What defines a social media crisis?

A situation that arises on social media platforms potentially causing significant harm to a brand’s reputation or financial standing.

How can I prevent a social media crisis?

Implement a robust social media policy, regularly monitor online mentions of your brand, and train your team on proper online conduct.

What is the first step once a crisis is identified?

Assess the situation to confirm it’s a crisis, inform your crisis management team, and begin monitoring more closely.

How do I know if it’s a crisis or just a minor complaint?

A crisis often involves significant customer outrage, potential legal issues, or widespread negative media coverage. Minor complaints typically involve individual customer grievances that can be resolved directly.

Who should respond to a social media crisis?

Your designated crisis management team or a trained spokesperson should handle responses.

How quickly should you respond to a crisis on social media?

Please demonstrate your commitment to resolution and transparency as quickly as possible, ideally within the first 24 hours.

Can a social media crisis be turned into a positive situation?

Yes, if handled properly, it can demonstrate your company’s commitment to customer service and transparency, potentially improving public perception.

What role does customer service play in crisis management?

Effective customer service plays a crucial role in helping mitigate the crisis by addressing individual concerns promptly and empathetically.

How do you rebuild your brand’s reputation after a crisis?

Continue to engage with your audience transparently, share positive updates and changes made as a result of the crisis, and consistently deliver excellent service. Avoid using humor, as it can be seen as insensitive. Rather, focus on empathy and resolving the issue. 

Joe Manna


Joe Manna

Joe Manna was a senior content marketing manager at Nextiva. He blends his marketing acumen and deep technical background to improve people's lives with technology. His expertise helps companies large and small serve more customers. He enjoys a rich iced latte and a non-fiction business book when he's not pressing words.

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