How to Survive a Social Media Crisis

by Julie Atherton

Posted on Apr 2, 2021

Does one misspelled tweet cause a crisis? How do you keep control when a crisis hits on social media? In this episode, host Will Francis hears from social media trainer and founder of Small Wonder, Julie Atherton how to spot, evade, manage, and survive a social media crisis. And, how to emerge from it wiser and stronger.

Julie's eBook on the same topic goes into even greater detail on preparation, with checklists, examples, and sage advice on how to prepare and manage a social media crisis. View it here.

How to Survive a Social Media Crisis



Will: Welcome to "Ahead of the Game." A podcast brought to you by the Digital Marketing Institute. This episode is a big Q&A where we explore an area of marketing through a leading industry expert. I'm your host, Will Francis. And today, I'll be talking to Julie Atherton about managing crises in social media. We'll talk about how to spot, evade, manage, and survive a social media crisis, and, of course, how to emerge from the episode wiser and stronger. Julie is the Founder and Managing Director for the marketing consultancy, Small Wonder, a business leader, author, public speaker, consultant, and strategist. She has over 30 years' experience gained working with global brands, including Nissan, AXA, Deloitte, ASOS, and many, many more. Her book, "Social Media Strategy: A Practical Guide to Social Media Marketing and Customer Engagement" was published in 2019 and is widely used by marketing professionals and as a core text in universities in the UK and the U.S. Julie, welcome back to the podcast. It's great to see you again.


Julie: Good to see you again, Will, as well. Thank you for having me.


Will: Oh, it's a pleasure. It's a real pleasure because what we're going to talk about today is kind of one of the really important pillars of social media and social media strategy because ultimately any company that publishes content on a social channel is at risk in some way of having a crisis of some sort. So, I suppose, first off, what I'd like to know is, you know, let's just sort of define the terms, like what kind of situations are we talking about here when we talk about a social media crisis? Like, does a misspelled tweet count or is it just the big stuff like major scandals?


Julie: Yeah, I think that's a really good question to start off with actually because I think there can be quite a lot of misconception about what we actually mean by social media crisis. And actually, a social media crisis might not even start on social media, it might not be anything to do with the fact that a brand is on social that a crisis manifests itself on social media. It's actually any kind of crisis, any kind of situation where an organization loses control of the narrative. It loses control of the situation and is no longer managing that conversation around their brand or participating in a positive way about their brand with the public. So, actually, something might have happened that doesn't happen on social media. You know, it might be somebody going into a restaurant and having a really terrible meal and making a complaint about that, but because they do that on social media, it then starts to become a social media crisis if it isn't handled correctly. So, you know, very often, you know, a social media crisis will originate somewhere else and it might be, you know, a disaster like an airline disaster. It might be a rogue comment made by a CEO of a business at a meeting or something that's, you know, completely separate from what's going on on social, but once it hits social media and starts to be talked about, and when losing control of that narrative, then we're in danger of being in an actual crisis.


Will: Yeah. I understand that. I mean, I don't know if you saw the news today, but Amazon created a new app logo for their app and people pointed out that it looked a bit like Hitler's face, and they quietly changed it, but by the time they'd done that, it was already all over social media. And the fact that they shortly changed it actually was all over social media as well. And they'd kind of lost control of that narrative and not really taken part in it.


Julie: Yeah. And that's interesting, that example, because there's an old example, a much older example a few years ago with JCPenny in the U.S., and they launched a new kettle. And when they launched that kettle, people said it looked like Hitler's face. But they actually, you know, the photograph, the way it was photographed looked like Hitler's face and what they did, they were very, very open about how they handled it. So, rather than saying, oh, we've made a bit of a mistake, let's just try and pretend we haven't in the way that maybe Amazon have done, they were really upfront about it. They had a single way of responding. Like, they wrote something about, you know, we're really sorry know, they were sort of kind of amused, but conciliatory in this response. And they had exactly the same response that went every time anyone tweeted about it, mentioned it anywhere on any channel, they came back with exactly the same response. And obviously, you know, they made change to the way that they photographed that product.


Will: Yeah. Okay. So, if one of the defining factors is that the conversation is out of your control, I mean, but isn't that the case with social media, isn't that part of a brand entering social media in the first place is letting go of total control over your brand and the messaging around it?


Julie: So, yes. That's a good point to make. So, when we enter social media as an organization, we are giving up some of that control to our fans, our followers, the wider public who might engage with us, but we do it in a way if we're in control of our marketing strategy, in control of our social media strategy, in control of our PR, we do it in a way which means that we are participating in a narrative with those individuals that is generally positive about our brand. So, we've got truths that we need to tell, we've got things that we want to share, and people are engaging with us in good faith and in a positive way. They may have small complaints about things. So, you know, maybe, you know, if we're a utility company, people are constantly complaining about their utility company or their rail company, or, you know, all of these things. They're standard fare for these kinds of industries for people to be making complaints. And there will always be complaints about what goes on in our organizations, because, you know, people don't always have a great experience. But if we can control the narrative, if we can respond to that in a way that's acceptable to people, and we keep it as a low-level problem management rather than crisis, where everyone's piling in, it's hitting the broader news media, people are starting to bring in wider examples and ask people to share it. So, you know, something like the Neverspoons, #neverspoons example. They even created an app to say, you know, try and find a pub to go to that isn't a spoons' after, you know, the CEO of Wetherspoons at the beginning of the first lockdown crisis implied that perhaps their people wouldn't be getting their wages because the furlough money might not come through quickly enough. And actually did backtrack later and said they definitely would.


But once that video that he created had gone viral, once everyone had started to think that, you know, maybe he wasn't treating his staff well enough, the whole narrative exploded, and the Neverspoons hashtag became a really, you know, trending on social media. And they've got no control of that. And everyone's talking about how terrible they are as an organization, rather than things that might be good about it. And interestingly, they lost so much control of the narrative that staffing came back and started to say, don't do Neverspoons, stop coming here because we're paid so little already that we can't afford... If our pub start closing or we get less hours than we've already got, we're not going to survive at all. So, actually, every aspect of what perhaps wasn't so great about the brand was highlighted over and over again, you know, from all sorts of people. And the noise was all about that and not about what the brand wanted to say, what Wetherspoons wanted to say.


Will: How could they have gained control of that?


Julie: I think that it's a challenge, isn't it? You know, when you've got a very vocal CEO with very strong opinions, somebody who perhaps isn't maybe a bit culturally naive, so in a way, as a brand, you know, they've been in trouble several other times. You know, they were in trouble a similar way over Brexit when there was quite a lot of press about them suggesting that staff were being forced to make pro-Brexit comments in social. So, I think, you need to be ready to say, you know, perhaps some media training or just being aware that this is what's going to happen. Now, maybe, I don't know the brand, maybe they want that kind of controversy in social media, maybe they are looking for that kind of controversy, but if they're not looking for that kind of controversy, then it's probably better to prepare for that, you know, those comments that might be off-message. When you've got a big personality who might be saying those, I mean, Trump's probably the greatest example of that, isn't he? He was a big personality. He kind of knew how to go off-message, then that became part of his persona on social.


Will: So, is there a test for spotting a crisis?


Julie: So, I think that we need to be very aware of who is talking about us in social media and how they're talking about us. And we also have to be, you know, very aware of the relationship between the traditional press and social. So, often social media is run not by the PR people within an organization, and PR teams know the impact of the press and they work very closely with the traditional sort of press and traditional journalists media, whether that's online or offline, I don't know, it doesn't have to be print. But the public really trust those traditional media channels, they have a lot of trust in those environments. So, I think we need to be very aware of the relationship between that traditional media and social media in this kind of crisis environment. And we need to also be very aware of what's happening with our brands. So, we should have some sort of basic stuff set up, some basic listening set up so that we're not the last person to find out that, you know, our social pages are swamped with negative comments or that we're being mentioned a huge amount more than we normally are, you know, we're actually trending on social platforms and we don't normally trend on social platforms. So, we should know, we should have alerts set up for those kinds of things.


And we should be able to recognize when something might be culturally...when it's just a complaint or a small thing that we can change quite quickly and when it might explode into something much more problematic. So, I'll give you an example of two very famous prime time co-hosts of shows, very popular shows in the UK. One of which is a show called Saturday Night Takeaway. And this show was sponsored by the brand Suzuki, and the sponsorship deal sponsored not only the show, but also the two hosts, Ant and Dec. And in 2018, Ant was involved in a car accident, but it was due to drink driving. So, obviously, as a brand, they've got a social media crisis potentially on their hands. They actually didn't end up with a social media crisis. And the reason they didn't end up with a social media crisis was because they responded really well. They instantly...they have the monitoring in place, they obviously were alerted, I presume by Ant's team that this had happened at the same time as the incident happened. And they very, very quickly made some decisions about what to do. So, they were very empathetic and very sympathetic and very understanding with the people who'd been involved in the incident. They were very clear about what was right and what was wrong. And they were supportive of Ant admitting that he had a problem and that he needed to have help. And they very, very quickly terminated the sponsorship deal.


So, they didn't try to prevaricate, they looked at what their values were, they looked at what should be right, and then they responded immediately to do that. So, if they hadn't noticed what people were saying and, you know, the feeling that was out there in social media, part sympathy for him, but part outrage that he was drink driving, you know, if they hadn't responded quickly, if they hadn't been empathetic to both him with his problem and also the people who were involved in the car accident, then they could have been in a really serious situation. But what they did was they thought very carefully how do we protect our brand, what we stand for, and also show compassion and empathy and humanity in this situation very publicly, you know? And so, I think we have to be able to spot these things by really being alert to what's going on, what's out there.


Will: And it's almost like the worst thing you can do is try and gloss over it. And the best thing you can do is meet it head-on. You know, show honesty, openness, and transparency from the off. And so, I suppose it feels like there's a bit of a kind of first response kind of process, almost like, you know, I suppose that that spotting of a crisis is followed by a sort of triage phase. You know, what steps does that consist of?


Julie: So, I think this is really interesting, this idea of a triage as you describe it. And I think also, I think it comes down to what most things in life do, you know, and most things in business do in life, when we're trying to respond to something where we have lots of uncertainties where we might be well out of our comfort zone and where we can't do it alone, we need to do it with others. And it's all I think about leadership and how we think about that kind of process that we need to go through. So, I was reading some work that was done by McKinsey over the lockdown period and looking at how organizations respond to crisis. So, they weren't really looking at social media crisis, in particular, but they're talking about crisis, in general, and how organizations respond. And they've analyzed how the best leaders have responded, and how these organizations have come through this pandemic that we've been through in the best possible way. And they've boiled it down to these four things. So, they call it pause, assess, anticipate, act. And I think it's really, really a very good way of thinking about it. And we should all probably employ that, whether we're leading that triage or we're involved in that triage process.


So, first of all, you know, don't just respond straight away. You know, we need to think about what we believe this situation is. Is it just a difficult situation or could it escalate into a full crisis? What are the signs that we're seeing now? Are we seeing things going viral or are we losing of the narrative? Do we think somebody's hacked our account? You know, all of these things that might tell us that it probably is going to go viral, or have we got some sympathy, some consideration mixed in there with what people are thinking about us? So, make that pause just so that you've got time to get the information and then assess that situation and then anticipate what might happen. What could be the worst scenario? What could be the best-case scenario? And then what are we going to do to make sure that it goes, you know, as best as possible in that direction that we want it to do? And I think the Amazon example you gave at the beginning, don't think they've probably know, they maybe haven't anticipated what people are gonna think if you try to cross over, if you don't announce what you've done, just to say, "Oops, really, sorry about that. You know, we've made a change because obviously, we wouldn't want our logo to look like Hitler." But, you know, that would have been fine. Everyone would've probably thought that was slightly amusing, but to kind of do it shiftily, it gives fuel to that fire, doesn't it?


Will: But I suppose the unique thing about Amazon is they don't really need to care too much about things like that because they've become such a necessary part of our lives. We'll buy from them, whatever, really.


Julie: And I think, yes, in a way, that's...if you think about Facebook… Facebook was very much like that. If you think at the time of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and shortly after that, we had the U.S. election, the last one, not the one we just had, but, you know, the 2016 U.S. election, where we have this complete fake news, kind of, I think people were looking at more fake news on Facebook than they were looking at real news on other channels. And Facebook responded to that in a way that was very...they didn't really respond. They took ages to respond. They gave the wrong numbers first on the Cambridge Analytica data incident. They weren't very transparent about what was going on, so they got a lot of backlash about all of those things. And I think they've started to learn how to be more transparent, how to be more open, you know, they're a big organization, and so all-encompassing, probably learning more slowly than smaller businesses might do. But if you look back to what's happened in 2020, where they've now got their ethics committee that are making decisions on content, they're being much more transparent about how they're making those decisions. And they also did suspend Trump for 24 hours, didn't they? And they did take down content. And so, they were, you know, trying to manage themselves, you know, the story about their responsibility and about how they behave so that the crisis doesn't become about them because they're distributing that media not being the story. So, I think that was quite interesting the way they responded and tried to learn from some of the things that have happened.


Will: Hello, a quick reminder from me that if you're enjoying our podcast series, why not become a member of the DMI so that you can enjoy loads more content from webinars and case studies to toolkits and more real-life insights from the world of digital marketing? Head to, sign up for free.


Now, back to the podcast. So, talk me through this triage process that you talk about as PAAA.


Julie: It's pause, assess, anticipate, and act. And the pause element is just take a moment to really make sure you know what's going on, to make sure you've got all of the information and the inputs coming in that you need in order to understand the situation. Then assess all of that and think about what that means. So, there'll be lots of questioning and asking people and making sure you're talking to the right people as well and you've got, you know, the right inputs coming in. And then you need to anticipate what you think the outcome might be. So, in terms of a social media crisis, do we think this is just a general problem that's quite easy for us to respond to and move on? Or do we think it could, you know...could it, you know, suddenly kind of explode and be much worse? And, you know, maybe just anticipate what those two outcomes could be or two or three outcomes could be, and then make a decision and act. And crucially, acting is really important. You know, we need to act in a timely way. Sometimes when we're in a crisis, we become paralyzed by indecision because we don't know what to do, but we need to do something. We don't need to do it instantly. We have got time to think, but then we do need to move on and make some kind of action.


Will: Yeah. That was actually a point I wanted to ask you about. How quickly do we need to respond?


Julie: So, I think we don't need to respond as quickly as perhaps people think with all of the information. If we respond too quickly, we might not have all of the information that we need. And we may know, if we haven't done the proper assessment part of what I was talking about, we might tell people false information. And then when we come back and correct it, we seem to be out of control or we seem to be making things up. You know, that was the Cambridge Analytica example really, wasn't it? With Facebook, like they came back and said there was a certain number of records that are being used. And then they ended up almost doubling that amount when they actually did find out all the information and everyone starts to feel uncertain then. So, you don't need to say what the number is straight away if you don't know what the number is. So, I think, you don't need to respond with a solution straight away, but you need to respond to say that, you know, what's going on. So, a really good example would be Southwest Airlines, which had a really terrible incident in 2018, when after an explosion, a passenger was sucked out and actually died. And so, what was happening on the plane where people were live streaming on Facebook, the fact that they thought the end was nigh, they had people tweeting, sending messages, you know, it was just going viral everywhere. All of their stuff was going viral.


Obviously, the Southwest Airlines are trying to control the situation. They're trying to get the plane down. You know, there's so many things that they're trying to do that are really, really important to save everybody else's lives. But the CEO immediately came out with a statement which was really empathetic, really sensitive to what was going on and telling everybody that they were on it and they were sorting it. And then they kept being really super transparent all the way through. You know, they actually just kept everyone up-to-date with what was going on. They were using their social listening tools so they were being fed in real-time everything that was happening. They immediately changed their banner on their website and on their Twitter page. So, instead of it being all the bright colors of their logo, they had a gray sort of broken heart image. And so, they were just really demonstrating. Oh, and they stopped all their commercial advertising and marketing activity. So, they didn't talk about anything else apart from this. And it was all done in a very measured way. But they weren't really doing lots of social management, you know, other than the basic empathetic approach at the beginning because they didn't have enough information and they didn't know where things were going. So, as long as you keep people informed, you don't have to be continually responding.


Will: You talk about the leadership needed to, you know, respond to a crisis in a way like Southwest Airlines did, that takes a real confident leadership, whose job is it to lead that response? And how do we know who's in charge when a crisis occurs?


Julie: So, I think in every organization, you need to have a team who are your crisis management team, a social media crisis management team. So, they'll have other jobs which are, you know, their day jobs, their day job might be running the PR team or it might be that they're, you know, the chief comms officer or whatever it might be within the organization who's leading it. But essentially, you've got a team with a hierarchy within that where everyone knows what their roles are. And those roles go down from being the key decision-maker to having the roles for the people who are going to deliver on the ground, you know, so you are going to manage Instagram, you're going to manage the external journalist, you're going to manage Facebook, you're going to manage whatever. So, everyone knows exactly what their responsibilities are going to be. And the spokesperson who's likely to be, you know, the chief exec of the organization won't be the leader of that team. So, the person who's managing the process, managing the decisions within that social media crisis management won't necessarily be that spokesperson. The spokesperson represents the organization if that's needed. The person who's managing the delivery of all of this process needs to be somebody who can control all of those different elements and pull all of those strings and has the authority to make those decisions.


And often, you know, in organizations, big organizations, organizations that might expect that they might have some controversy or there could be some really serious problems that they might face that could end up in a significant crisis, they might have two teams. So two teams trained up to do that so that if we have a crisis that goes on for say a prolonged period, they're able to tag team between each other so that one team gets a rest while another team continues to deliver that process. You know, in the same way emergency services have handovers, they'll practice those handovers between those teams as well.


Will: Wow, yeah. How can small businesses replicate that? Because what you're talking about there, applies with bigger brands, but I suppose there'll be listeners wondering how they can replicate that with small businesses where there might be, you know, only a few people that work at the company or a couple of people that work in marketing?


Julie: So, I think they need to think about what are the jobs that need to be done. And although Southwest Airlines is a big organization, there were some really simple jobs that needed to be done. The first job was that they needed to know what was going on. So then you need to have a tool in place that's got social listening. So, how are you going to find out what's going on and whether that tide is escalating or decreasing? So, you know, that role needs to be done by somebody, and who will do that? And in a smaller business, you may have more than one role within this thing. Who's going to be the spokesperson? So, who's going to be available to be commenting to the external media, you know, the traditional media that everyone trusts, that's going to amplify things, that's going to take it out onto TV, or through online channels? And then one of the things that's really important is to close down all the other activity that you've got going on. You don't want to be advertising money off vouchers or trying to drive people, you know, doing retargeting on ads and all this kind of stuff while all of this is going on. So, who's going to make sure they're going to stop all the other activity? And then I think we have one person making the decision and one person deploying it. So, within a small business, you'd have somebody making the decisions. This is what we're all going to do. And then you're the guy who goes through and puts that into action. So, you know, put the posts out on the social channels or stops the marketing activity on those social channels.


Will: Yeah. And you mentioned tools there, are there tools to help us with crisis management that you could recommend?


Julie: Yep. So, I would say we need to have, you know, from a free, you know, Social Searcher, Google Alerts, both free ways of finding out whether you've got people talking about your brand or alerting to you when things are going on. You might have a social listening tool, like a Talkwalker, or a Fanpage Karma, or something like that that will tell you what the sentiment analysis is. And can tell you whether your sentiment is more negative than normal or whether, you know, you've got a huge amount more traffic than you would normally have. So, setting up some alerts like that. And then I think that's also really important to have an internal comms channel that everyone can see where you've got full transparency. So, maybe that's something like Slack or Microsoft Teams where everyone can see the conversation. You can see what's going on. If you're handing over between individuals, then they can see what's happened before. And you've got a way of filing and processing all of those things. And I think that's really important that that's seen by everyone internally, but obviously isn't an externally visible channel.


Will: Yeah, of course. No, that makes absolute sense. And so, this all sounds great, but it sounds like quite a scary thing that might happen to us if we'd never really like practiced or prepared. I mean, is there such a thing as some equivalent of fire drills in the world of crisis management, is there some way we can rehearse what we would do?


Julie: Yes. And I think there's different ways that you can rehearse that. So, you can rehearse it by, you know, actually doing some know, so you are a strategist like me, you've probably done lots of scenario, future planning with clients when they're thinking about, you know, where their business is going, where their brand is going. So, exactly the same way that you might do when you're doing business development and strategy development with organizations about thinking about future scenarios, thinking about future impacts, that, you know, is very, very worth playing out. So, those kinds of scenario workshops are really worthwhile.


The other thing that you can do is actually work with, you know, an agency or an organization that can come in and help you do it in real-time. So, it's a more expensive option obviously, but a company like Paul Pierce [SP], where they actually run with actors real-time, people who are, you know, taking the role of journalists, they're taking the role of the public and social channels, are actually responding to what you do. And so, you can take your existing social media crisis management plan, put it into action, and they will respond to the public as though they're the news media, and will obviously try and catch you out to see how effective that plan is actually in reality. And for some organizations, if you're in a sector where it can be quite problematic, you know, quite prone to crisis, or the cost of that crisis can be very significant on your stock price or your reputation, then it might be worthwhile doing something like that. If you're in a smaller business, just scenario workshopping what those options might be and thinking through what you would do, what roles you would take, how long it would take you to respond, have you got any gaps in what you're doing, can manage that.


Will: Yes, it's partly a case of kind of asking, what's the worst that could happen? You know, what would be the worst thing that could happen to our customers as a result of our products? What's the worst thing that people could be saying about us in social media? And sort of everyone thinking through and talking through that together is just a really simple way, isn't it, of making sure that when something really does happen, it's not the first time, everyone is actually having to think about it.


Julie: Yeah. And also going back to what you talked about, what you were asking me at the beginning, Will, you know, how can we spot things that actually might end up being a real problem before we even get to that stage? So, because we've actually run through scenarios and we've thought about them, we could think about what might happen. So, I'm going back to that Dove example, really, you know, I think what was most surprising about it was that it was Dove, when everyone thinks of Dove as a really great brand. Very socially sensitive, culturally aware, all of those kinds of things, and they did that ad that was on Facebook, which is about how their skincare product was great for every kind of skin tone and complexion and type of skin. But what they did was they had a girl who was washing and then she turned into another girl who was black and then turned into a girl who was white, and what happened was then somebody just screen-grabbed what looked like a girl washing herself white, and then put that out on Twitter. And, of course, they got a huge backlash from that. But if somebody had sat there in that creative meeting and gone, oh, you know, maybe if you only saw part of this, you know, if we think about how social media is used, how could this look? You know, it's just asking ourselves some of these questions, which is so easy not to do, you know, when we're working on a really great creative idea, or we just don't think sometimes, or maybe we've not got enough diversity in our team or enough questioning in our team to really challenge ourselves, you know, to stop those things happening.


Will: Okay. So, we've identified, you know, our crisis and we've acknowledged it and we started to triage it and we're well-rehearsed, you know, we're all set up. We've got the tools and the right people and processes in place, I suppose, so what is the plan? What does the management plan look like once we know we're actually in a crisis?


Julie: So, we'll have a team, a known team, a set of people that we know are going to deal with it. In a small business, it might be two people. You know, but in a larger business, it will be many more. But we will have a set of people and we will keep that number of people to the minimum. So, we're picking them because of the skills they've got and their ability to make a decision quickly, and they will all know what their roles are. So, we'll get that team together. And then we will have a set of processes that we're going to go through. So, some of the examples I gave earlier, you know, we're going to make a public statement that probably won't say very much, but it will be empathetic and make people aware that we are doing something and give us time to do that pausing, to do that reflection and think about how we want to act. And we'll also be stopping everything else that we're doing. So, you know, if we really believe we're in a crisis, we don't want to have anything else going on. And I think sometimes people can be reluctant to do that stage, to do that stopping straight away because that's a hard decision to make. But if we've already triaged it and said it's a crisis, we need to stop the other stuff. We'll have our internal comms channel where everything will go through and immediately move into that. So, we've got a process that we'll work through in that, and we'll know who's in charge so that one person is making the decisions and then everyone else will do what has been decided. You know, this isn't a time for free forming your kind of own ideas of how to interpret this. We're going to be very clear. You know, it needs to be single-minded communication. A bit like that JCPenny example I gave you, whatever channel that was on, it was only a small incident, but it stopped from being a crisis because they all responded in a unified way.


We need to call in for favors. So, we'll have friends, we'll have influencers that we work with, perhaps we'll have journalists that we know well, and those relationships, now we won't be calling them in on a social media channel, there'll be a phone call to them, you know, to say, "Oh, hi, this is happening. You know, just want to make sure that you're aware and, you know, please come through to me if you've got any questions." So, we really open those means of communication that are offline from social media so that we can really communicate with them. And we'll know what we've got out there. So, you know, what content, what have we got that we can use to help us respond to this? Do we need to create any more content? Do we really need to create anything? And really, we don't need anything fancy, we just need basic writing, but we need to be able to articulate what we want to say in a very clear way and consistent way.


The other thing that we need to think about is what social channels we need to be on. So, in a small organization, we're probably likely to be on less social media channels, but the crisis might be happening on lots of different channels that we don't normally operate on. So, that JCPenny example I gave you actually started on Reddit, which, you know, it's not mainstream social that everyone's on. So, but it was somebody on Reddit who said it that the JCPenny kettle looked like Hitler, and that's where it originally started. So, you need to be aware of where this conversation's going on and you'll need to be responding on those channels, even if what you're doing on that channel is saying, you know, go to our social media feed on Facebook or blah, blah, blah, to find out what's happening, you know, but you do need to be aware that you might need to operate in a place where you're not normally live.


So, I know lots of brands who don't use Facebook anymore, smaller businesses don't use Facebook, might use Instagram, but they still need to maybe make sure that they've got some way of responding on the channel where the crisis is. And then think about what your tone of voice is. You know, sometimes we've got these cheeky brands that have got quite quirky, funny, light to take, the meek kind of tone of voice. That probably isn't going to be appropriate in this situation. So, just think about how you're going to flex that tone of voice to be really empathetic. And then the other thing is how are you going to measure what's happening? So, you'll need to be listening all the time to what's going on to interpret, you know, how you might want to respond, but also how you might recognize that we're actually in a situation where things are improving. So, do you know when you're coming out of it as well as when you're going into it so you can start to manage that?


Will: Yeah. No, that's great. That's a nice, succinct overview of the process really. Being prepared for a crisis and responding well in a crisis feels like it's something that certain companies just inherently do well because of their internal teams, because of their internal culture. So, what sort of teams do you think typically fare well in a crisis and how can we make ourselves more like them?


Julie: One of the important things is that this team does know each other and that they've practiced doing something well and, you know, they've gone through that crisis scenario planning together. They kind of know who each other are and they feel confident asking each other questions or, you know, asking for clarification, making sure that they're all on the same page. So, I think the kind of organizations and the kind of teams that work well are ones that have got a level of trust between them. And they know that people make mistakes. And what we're trying to do is we're all trying to work together for the sake of the organization to do the best job that we can. If something goes wrong, which, you know, in a high-pressure environment, we might not do exactly how we meant to do it, we might have to recover, you know, from ourselves by maybe making a false step. But we're not in a kind of blame culture, we're actually in a very, very supportive environment where everyone trusts each other to do the job that they're responsible for in the situation to the best of their ability. And if something goes wrong, as a team, we'll pick ourselves up and face that as a team, not as a kind of individual finger-pointing exercise. You know, because we may have even caused the crisis ourselves, you know, by an employee might have gone rogue or we could have done something. All sorts of things, you know, things could have happened. We might have responded too flippantly ourselves to a comment in social and it's gone wrong. And we can't be pointing the finger, we need to be thinking as a team to respond.


Will: I think that's a really good point actually. I think it's very important that we eradicate any trace of blame culture in a team because you're right, it's so hard to act in a sort of confident, transparent, open manner to a crisis if there's a perceived high risk of having the finger pointed at you, you know, for exacerbating the crisis or causing it in the first place. So, yeah, you're right. A very supportive atmosphere and one where there's not the risk of finger-pointing.


Julie: I think there's another thing as well that we should think about in teams. So, you know, there's a lot of talk, isn't there, now about diversity of thinking within organizations, having people from lots of different backgrounds, lots of different perspectives within an organization. And I think organizations who are like that are much more likely to be socially and culturally sophisticated rather than socially and culturally naive. So, they're less likely to get themselves into trouble in the first place and they're more likely to spot things that might be problematic. So, it's another reason, I suppose, for trying to ensure that we have more diverse and inclusive organizations and teams particularly in an area like social media crisis management, and actually in social media itself, you know, because I think it's really important that we are aware of what that community is, because we're engaging directly with the community, whether it's our followers or in a situation that goes into a crisis situation, the general public. So, we have to be able to understand what that cultural feeling is, you know, that's there.


Will: Yeah, that's very true actually. That's another good point. So, you know, obviously, we need to learn from crises, you know, it's an opportunity in a way to come out stronger, better prepared. Is there a process for doing this as sort of gathering and, in some way, storing and getting value from those learnings effectively?


Julie: Yeah. So, I think a lot of people, they are quite used to doing post-mortems and they're used to sort of going through processes after, you know, they've maybe implemented a new project at work and all of those kinds of things. So, a lot of these skills and techniques that you use in those kinds of situations are going to be really, really relevant post a social media crisis as well. I think there are these, I call it a kind of questioning approach. So, actually, it then is about driving out the insights of what's happened, but in a structured way. And a way to think as best to structure it is into three areas, the experience itself, what we've learned, and what we've improved. So, when we're trying to dig out what happened in the experience, so what did the experience feel like? What did it feel like for your team to go through that crisis? What did it feel like as somebody working for that organization? How do we think it felt for somebody who was a fan or a follower of our business who really maybe has been disappointed in us or has changed their opinion of us, what did it feel like for them? Should we do a bit of research to find that out? Can we ask them or can we try and think about what that might feel like? Do we think that their opinion of us has changed? And how do we feel about our own business? Do we feel more positive about our business or less positive about it? Is it getting down to what the experience of it has done to us and what it's done emotionally with us and our community is really, really important? That's slightly different, I think, than the normal kind of post-mortem kind of activity that you might do in another sort of project.


And then the next two stages are probably more similar to a normal post-mortem. So, you know, what can we learn? And we want to learn what we can learn internally, but what do we learn from our community about ourselves? And what do you think our community learn about us? And what worked and what didn't work, all of those kind of things. And then what are we going to do that's better, or what could we do that's better? Can we change anything? Can we tweak some of the things that we do? Can we change some of the things that we've been thinking about? So, you know, I gave the example of Facebook earlier doing things differently in the 2020 election than they did in the 2016, and I'm sure that is because they thought about what the backlash have been about the way that they responded to the fake news and the Cambridge Analytica, and they've tried to learn from that and do that differently, and be much more transparent, more open. And have set up structures that seem to be taking seriously some of these issues that the public really, really care about in terms of ethics and responsibility.


Will: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, you know, in their own way, these crises are a way to keep companies on track and keep them in touch with what matters to their audiences. And in some ways, like in the Facebook example, there are kind of necessary course correction, you know?


Julie: And the Southwest Airlines example I gave earlier, they're a relatively small player in the U.S. And, you know, somebody dying has never happened to them before. It was the most horrendous thing that could happen. And, you know, obviously, their stock price went down and all sorts of things happened immediately, but within a few months, they came back and were voted as the best airline in the U.S. in a YouGov poll, because actually, they got a huge amount of publicity about themselves and about how they responded. One of the things that they did as well as the communication that they had and the clarity that they had on the communication, the empathy, they were also very generous. So, they gave everyone, I think, who was on the flight $5,000. They gave them another $1,000 worth of credit to take flights with them in the future. And they took everyone home and made sure they were all like, hey, afterwards. So, they were kind of not just communicating that they cared, they were demonstrating that they cared. And I think we have to marry that action with what we say. It's not just a communication situation, it's also, how do we act in that situation?


Will: That's a very good point. Yeah, you have to be your ethos and your values, not just communicate. And this is a good note to end on I think. Thanks, Julie. That was great. That's really informative. I should remind our listeners as well, you've written an ebook all about crisis management, which is available to DMI members. And to access this and lots more invaluable resources you can sign up for free at Julie, where can people find you online?


Julie: You can find me on Twitter, or on my website,


Will: Thanks again, Julie. That's great.


Julie: Thank you so much. And lovely to talk to you again, Will. Take care.


Will: If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review wherever you listen to your podcasts. Myself and all the team at the DMI would really, really appreciate that, and it would help us get the podcast to more people hoping to learn more about digital marketing. So, thanks again for listening. Take care, and I will see you soon.

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Julie Atherton
Julie Atherton

Julie is an award-winning digital strategist, with over 30 years’ experience. Having worked both agency and client-side, she has a wealth of knowledge on delivering marketing, brand and business strategy across almost every sector. In 2016, Julie set up Small Wonder. Drawing on her past experience, she now supports a wide range of businesses, from global brands, to educational organisations and social enterprises.She is the author of the book, Social Media Strategy which was a top read chosen by Thinkers360. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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