How to Create a Social Media Disaster Plan

On social media, customer satisfaction is key: the Retail Consumer Report conducted by Harris Interactive in in 2011 found that after a seller contacted consumers who left negative reviews, 34% of consumers deleted their reviews, 33% replaced their negative review for a positive one, and 18% became loyal customers. Happy customers can advocate your brand, with the same report noting that 21% of a retailer’s customers recommended that business to a friend.

Meanwhile, unhappy customers can be your business’s greatest enemies—which means you need to have an action plan in place to deal with their concerns before things spiral out of control.

Preparing a Social Media Team

First, gather together your personnel into a crisis team. Recommended personnel include your social media manager, various department managers, corporate communications representatives and someone from your legal counsel. Because different departments may have to respond to different crises, create a flowchart of various levels of controversy or scenarios that specify who will be contacted. For example, some cases might require a legal expert to weigh in before reacting, while others won’t.

Communication between everyone involved is key when navigating a social media crisis. Have a means of liaison between your social media team and corporate’s PR personnel. An important thing to consider is how these teams will communicate if a crisis is caught after business hours: who will handle a situation like this, and how will they be notified and act swiftly?

Make sure roles are clearly defined. When the appointed person has drafted a response to a crisis, who will look it over for final approval? Who will deliver it—and where? A good rule is to respond on whatever channel your crisis sprung up on first, and then respond on other networks. So if your Facebook page is being met with lots of blowback around a given situation, respond there with a statement before extending to, say, YouTube or Instagram with a statement.

Anticipate Common Feedback

Once your team is ready, identify what constitutes as a disaster or not. Every large company faces a constant stream of typical negative feedback, such as general criticism against Apple’s labor practices. These “evergreen” comments are easily anticipated and can be dealt with using a canned response. Brainstorm with your team what typical negative feedback you expect with your brand, and have a series of responses lined up—but always deliver these responses in a personalized fashion rather than a simple copy-and-paste job. Being ready ahead of times means you can respond to common concerns immediately rather than cultivate distrust in your brand.

Monitor Feedback (and Respond!)

You want to catch dissatisfaction early and deal with it quickly, before a small issue becomes a full-blown social media crisis damaging to your reputation. It may seem counter-intuitive, but allow customers to voice their complaints on your profiles; it’s better to have them do so in a forum that you control and can easily track rather than have complaints be spread all over the internet. With most of the criticism against your brand mostly organized in one place, you’re able to more easily respond to everyone. So if you couldn’t avoid a controversy, invite your customers to speak their mind all in one place—show them you’re listening, and keep the conversation contained.

You also want to respond to dissatisfied customers as humanely as possible. It may be tempting to delete or hide negative engagement, but don’t do this—it’s an admission of guilt that will only give more power to your critics. In the middle of a crisis, Applebee’s made the fatal mistake of responding in robotic corporate-speak and deleting comments left from irate customers and fans. By only further offending its customers this way, the business encouraged more and more criticism as the situation spiraled further out of their control.

Catch a Crisis Early

If a crisis is gaining traction, refer to the flowchart we mentioned above to decide how to coordinate the crisis with your team. Remember: be swift! It’s best to issue a general statement in addition to responding directly to users identifying an issue in its early stages. When necessary, apologize and validate users’ claims—they’ll be glad you did. Always remain honest and transparent, as it shows your customers that you take their concerns seriously.

When Trolls Attack

Often, a crisis emerges when a social media team hasn’t dealt with a complaint correctly—perhaps they insulted their critics, deleted comments or committed some other foible. But sometimes trolls will come out of the woodwork to attack your brand, in which case you need to be prepared to take further action.

While you typically should not censor comments, it’s very much in your interest to delete comments that include profanity or hate speech—that sort of content is not okay, and getting rid of such comments promotes a safe space for your customers. Comment moderation can use up essential time and resources during a controversy, though, so you may want to consider a tool like Smart Moderation.

Smart Moderation detects abusive comments and deletes them within the minute that they’re posted, and thanks to its sophisticated artificial intelligence, it can tell the difference between “f—ing awesome” (a comment of praise that you might want to keep) versus profanity that you’ll want to erase. With Smart Moderation, you can focus on real concerns instead of waste time with trolls who just want to incite chaos. As you can guess, this helps your human moderators and social media team navigate a disaster and respond to real people with real concerns.

Learning from a Crisis

You should research high-profile crises and determine how they may be avoided by your business. For each one, ask your team: how did this situation begin? How did the brand respond to initial customer concerns, and what was the response? What was handled well, and what was handled poorly? How long did it take for the dust to settle?

Any time your brand has suffered—or narrowly missed—a crisis of your own, consider these same questions and amend your action plan as needed. Be sure to brief everyone in your crisis management team with any new insights you gain.