How to tell if you are dealing with a real social media crisis

I frequently get asked about the risks of using social media. However, when I follow this up with a few questions of my own, it normally turns out that it’s not about a social media problem at all, but about something that needs to be dealt with differently.

  • Syringe. Photo: ZaldyImg on Flickr

    If members if your staff are killing people, social media is the least of your problems. Photo: ZaldyImg on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    Case 1: Not even remotely a social media problem

A couple of years ago a representative of an organization that runs hospices came to me with his concerns. He said that in the past it had happened that staff mistreated the people in their care or even hasted their deaths. He was worried that, if that happened again, social media would create massive problems for his organization.

Piece of advice: if your staff is killing old people, then social media is not your main problem!

While this is certainly an extreme example, it’ s a sentiment I hear very often. When your organization or your employees have done something wrong, then that is the problem and not the fact that people are talking about it on Twitter and Facebook. If you f*cked up, then you need to deal with what went wrong and fix it!

In fact social media is a very useful tool for crisis communication, since it gives you an opportunity to talk in real-time about what your are doing to address the issues.

  • Case 2: A problem that is surfacing on social media 

As you probably  heard, the New York Police Department recently asked people to post photos with a member of the police force and tag it #myNYPD. Here is the original tweet:

However, instead of photos of policemen helping old ladies across the street or kittens from trees, the hashtag got very quickly taken over by hundreds of tweets that showed the police in violent situations.

A lot was written about the fact that the NYPD could have seen this coming – and they probably could have. But it also shows that the outside perception of your organization can be very different from what people inside the organization expect. And while I believe that these negative images are vastly disproportional to the many daily, unspectacular acts of kindness and assistance that police officers provide, it nevertheless brought a bigger issue to the surface; the fact that the NYPD has a massive image problem with parts of their community.

Of course there will always be people who hate the police, but the fact that the critics weren’t drowned out by the supporters shows that the NYPD has much bigger issue to address in their community relations – and blaming Twitter is not the way to solve this.

  • Case 3: An actual social media problem

In my opinion, you can only call something a social media problem, if there hadn’t been a problem at all without social media. This is very rare.

One example I can think of is the release of singer Susan Boyle’s album in late 2012. To promote the “Susan Album Party“, the PR agency created the hashtag #susanalbumparty – which was immediately misread as “Su’s Anal Bum Party“. Oops.

Other, actual social media problems: US Airways tweeting the picture of a woman with an airplane up her vagina or Epicurious trying to push cereal and “breakfast energy” in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing:

In summary …

You can definitely get into trouble on social media. But in a lot of cases, blaming social media is just blaming the messenger. The next time someone asks about social media risks, ask him/her or yourself where these problems lie and who is in the position to address them. While social media is not creating (most) risks, it creates more transparency and accountability. In other words: it’s more difficult to get away with bad stuff – but that is a good thing.

If you are delivering what you are promising – be it services or products – and if you are open and transparent about mistakes and how you will fix them, you have very little to fear from “social media”.

What were your social media crises, real or imagined? Please share them in the comments!