Social listening and crisis management: How social can save your brand's reputation

29th Jun 2015

Many brands will experience a crisis at some point. Whether it is a negative tweet or review, an insensitive advert, issues with a product, or an accidental post by an employee, your brand reputation is at stake so it’s crucial to have a plan in place to deal with any crisis quickly and efficiently.

There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to escalate and respond to a crisis, as long as you have an effective plan in place that can be implemented quickly, when required. As a rule of thumb, the following steps:

  • Get the facts. Assume the worst – who, what, where, when, how.... Then decide whether you're going with an instant rebuttal or damage limitation.
  • Instant rebuttal. The instant rebuttal is an absolute denial that the story is true. Make sure you are right, and remember, journalists often know in general but no-one ever tells them in detail. If necessary, in the case of an untrue report that is actually damaging to your company, you might need to consult with your lawyers and your PR professionals to obtain a retraction. There are quite specific techniques to obtain the retraction and to retain an ongoing professional relationship with the press concerned.
  • Damage limitation. Take it on the chin – take full responsibility, be empathic to the victims, if there are any, and their families and be in control by outlining the problem and how they intend to solve it.  
  • Lead from the top. The ultimate fall guy makes the statements. We need to know you care.
  • Communicate. With your staff, with your contact centre (remember, in a crisis, the person that answers the phone is as influential as top management), with your customers and with the media. Craft your message to suit your audience.
  • Remember, signals speak louder than words. 
  • Manage that valuable brand that's such an important part of your market capital and business. 

With this in mind, there are a variety of ways that social listening (and social response) can support the reputation management and crisis management process.

Early warning

Social listening can provide an early warning system to a developing crisis, help you determine the scale of the problem, and give you an idea as to the most appropriate response. It is therefore essential for modern organisations to factor social into their crisis communications strategy.

In 2012, Gartner predicted that 75% of organisations with business continuity management programmes will have public social media services in their crisis communications strategies by this year, with the analysts stating that social media is critical to a brand’s crisis management strategy.

You can use social listening tools to create alerts based on spikes of activity or specific keywords, enabling you to check for significant or sudden changes in conversation volume or sentiment around your brand.

“Most social monitoring software can show if sentiment is positive or negative, and this information is required to set benchmarks for regular activity,” says Caroline Skipsey, managing partner at Igniyte. “A crisis usually occurs when an abnormal number of negative social comments are made – if this is then shared by users with a large number of followers, or if the press pick up the activity.”

Get the facts

Lindsey McInerney, head of digital transformation EMEA at Hootsuite, believes that social media monitoring can be seen as a proactive way to monitor crises.

“Social media is the most real-time communication channel we have, so if you are tuned in and listening to it, and open to allowing it to drive business decisions, you can spot a crisis well ahead of it breaking in your typical media form.”

If you do find yourself in the middle of a crisis, social listening tools can help you assess the damage and plan your next steps.

“Monitoring social networks will give you a decent idea of how far and wide things have spread once a crisis is upon you, and whether it has been picked up by any media outlets - if that’s happened and there are target audience ramifications, then a strategy to repair reputation should be considered,” advises Luke Budka, director at TopLine Comms.

Social data can really help to mop up after a crisis and feed back into training and development, pinpointing the root of the issue and how it played out and escalated externally, remarks Tom Ball, director of digital at Immediate Future.

“The tools can also quantify the impact and speed of spread - this will help to contextualise the need for a quick response in social,” he says.

Risk matrix

Skipsey advises brands to develop a risk matrix that measures things like volume of posts, audience reach, and whether the press has picked up on any abnormal activity.

“The higher the volume of negative mentions, or when the negative comments are shared to a larger audience, dictates the steps that need to be taken internally,” she explains.

“One bad Facebook post can be buried by a few positive posts and if the user needs to be monitored, this can be handled by your social media team. If a few people join in on that post and comment, you may want to apologise and then keep monitoring. If those users then begin to tag and copy in more people and also start posting out on your other social profiles, you should start looking at escalating the activity internally.”

However, technology can only go so far, so it’s essential to have a human voice behind your processes, and a good team in place to analyse the data.

“Whilst protocols are vital to enable a speedy response, the most important thing is to ensure there is a human response to consumers in social media – the voice of a real person is critical,” comments Kate Cooper, CEO at Bloom Worldwide.

“The tools are only as good as those who use them but they can certainly help to speed up the identification, particularly when sifting through high volume,” adds Ball. “The better you are as a brand at planning for and dealing with issues, the less likely you are to deal with a full blown crisis.”

And it’s not just the PR and marketing team that need to be committed to the crisis management process. You also need direct access to senior executives in real crisis scenarios, with a slick approval process in place in order to communicate externally effectively - and this is where many brands fall down.

The public need to know you care, and this means action/statements from the top. During Toyota’s 2010 car recall crisis, it was months before the auto manufacturer’s president spoke, opening itself to even greater criticism.


Social tools are increasingly being used to identify and respond to crises, establishing themselves as vital components of modern crisis comms strategies.

One example of a brand using social monitoring to respond quickly is Greggs Bakers. In August last year, Twitter started trending with an alternative (and very rude) Greggs logo that had mysteriously appeared on Google’s search page.

That’s when the nationwide baker’s communication team set to work. In the past they may have spent a few hours carefully drafting a dry press release about the unfortunate nature of the whole affair and promising to get it fixed, but instead they banged their social media heads together and released this cunning caption on Twitter:

Thus ensued a lively exchange with Google over Twitter about baked goods, and some light-hearted banter with customers, and before long the hashtag #fixgreggs was trending and everyone was suddenly discussing what great sports Greggs the bakers were.

Similarly, Burger King had to deal with a brand crisis in 2012, when an employee posted an image of himself standing in bowls of lettuce, with the caption: “This is the lettuce you eat at Burger King”. It quickly went viral on the internet, but Burger King had a social media crisis communication strategy in place, and was quick to react. The employee was promptly identified and fired, and Burger King shared the crisis resolution on social media immediately.

McInerney remarks that many brands these days are using social to manage crises. “Any brands that have had a crisis in the last year or so, such as some of the airlines or US politicians, are absolutely using social to manage their crisis and understand the impact.”

The key thing to remember in a crisis is to remain calm and try not to panic. Don’t react in anger or become defensive. Instead, ensure your chosen responses are consistent and authentic.

“If you are going to use social media, make it real, authentic and human,” advises Cooper. “Automated responses that are copied and pasted into customer complaints can do as much damage as the complaint itself.”

It can be hard to rise above the noise of a negative crowd online, however try not to use avoidance tactics, warns Skipsey.

“Short statements are best, and so is apologising,” she remarks. “You don’t have to admit to anything, but apologise for confusion or for not keeping people informed. Use your social profiles to signpost people to a company statement, and be consistent with messaging both online and offline.”

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