Four Tips to Maintain Brand Trust and Protect Your Reputation During a Social Media Crisis

Michael Queroz

Vice President of Digital

We’ve seen it so many times over the last eight months. The social media world has been dominated by inflammatory messages on issues like injustices to Black lives and violent political views and actions. . Amidst these challenging, uncertain events there is one certainty: a company or an individual will post a statement on their feed that is insubstantial, insensitive to or ignorant of what is going on in the world. This January I’ve seen so much of it, that was frankly both sad and frustrating on both a personal and professional level.

When—and how—should you respond to volatile issues on social media?  As communicators and digital strategists, we have often had to develop a recommended action or responses to a budding crisis on our clients’ feeds – often within minutes. We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t.  We offer you these tips to keep in mind when you are deciding how to respond when trust in your organization is threatened or your reputation and credibility can be damaged.

Be the calm in the room and ask pointed questions.

Organizational stakeholders including internal staff can sometimes be too quick to react and want the company to say something ASAP about an incident on social or through traditional media. As communicators, we have the unique ability to be the steady presence in the room (the Zoom room, these days). Avoid feeding off anxious energy by level setting: pause long enough to explore the pros and cons of responding. Ask your team questions that will help them come to a consensus on a proposed non-emotional response, like:

  • Do we have to say something about the incident?

  • Who is waiting for us to put a statement out?

  • Will we be in a bad position if we release a statement in a few hours, or is it vital enough we do it at this very moment?

  • Do we have all the facts and knowledge to craft a proper response?

  • What would be likely immediate responses to our posting?

  • What might long-term responses be?

  • What about unintended consequences?

Ensure actions back up the words.

One of the most important questions you can ask your team centers around real actions the organization can and should take in response.

We’ve seen organizations struggle with the after effects of knee-jerk statements that do not have depth, or postings that sound good but are not backed up by actions an organization has taken or intendeds to take. Avoid airy, speculative statements. For example, if your company struggles with diversity it is not enough to just say we can do better – tell audiences how you will do better. Then be sure to deliver results by the timeline you share. Will you be starting a diversity, equity and inclusion committee? Will you be reviewing your hiring process to determine if there is implicit bias? Within your organization, discuss practical opportunities for improvement before making an empty statement. If your employees are not aligned and do not believe the statement you post to be the truth, they will be the first to call it out. Sometimes, it’s okay to say we do not have the answers yet, but are committed to finding them. And be sure to follow through with your actions and update your followers. Your employees should learn about any new initiatives from you before reading about them on social media.

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Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Tale as old as time. Instead of waiting until it’s perfect and getting nowhere, in a crisis when timely response matters, accept when it is good. At the same time, when you have decided to respond, take time to do it right. Too often communicators get stuck between the push and pull of their executives who demand immediate reply or deny it’s really a crisis and hope it will go away and board members who have different opinions on what to say if anything. Such debates are inevitable but you can prepare to resolve them quickly.  If you don’t already have a written crisis communications plan with standby messaging (you should!), advise your colleagues what you intend to do and what actions you plan to take and the importance of putting out a solid, substantiated message. A crisis is an opportunity to show your leadership.

 Avoid “business as usual” during a national or international crisis.

We saw this in early January with the violence at the Capitol. Many organizations and influencers did not “read” the social media “room” well, commenting too quickly before more details of the event were known or trying to leverage attention to the event for self-promotion.  If your organization has nothing to say directly about a national crisis in ways that align with your core, demonstrated values and daily actions, don’t say anything at all and avoid appearing self-righteous or pompous. Pause digital content and resume posting across your digital channels once public and media interest has subsided. Learn more tips on post-crisis communications here.

Fair warning: not every crisis is clear-cut or easily defined. There are so many layers to a crisis that your decisions about your organization will truly be unique. What’s important is that you take the time to assess the crisis, be deliberate and purposeful in your actions and words, and do so in an impactful yet expedient way. If you need an extra nudge or strategies to help your team get out of their groupthink, let’s talk:

Vice President of Digital Michael Queroz leads Public Communications Inc.’s digital practice. He is particularly passionate about integrating media and digital strategies into client programs to support all communications needs, and has worked with a variety of Chicago-based and national nonprofit, conservation, destination and healthcare clients.


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