In times of crisis or viral issues, social media can be both overwhelming and distracting. It can seem as though everybody has an opinion, a question, a speculation, a comment… and the reality is that the longer your team takes to respond to inquiries and correct misinformation, the more trust and credibility the brand risks losing with its key stakeholders, as today’s Crisis Response Penalty* (CRP) can be both impactful and unforgiving.

This is one of the realities of managing crises and viral issues in this always-on, digital era. However, the good news, is that when your team is prepared in knowing what to expect and the best practices for overcoming the challenges they will be faced with, social media becomes a powerful communication tool that can give you an advantageous edge in successful crisis and issue management.

Being “crisis ready” means your team is trained and empowered to quickly detect, assess, and respond to issues that threaten long-term negative impact on your brand’s reputation and/or bottom line, in real-time. In order to help you and your team become crisis ready, following are some top tips for leveraging social media to your advantage in times of crisis.

Tip 1: Define the difference between an issue and a crisis.
Social media can quickly send something going negatively viral against your organization. However, just because an issue goes viral, doesn’t make it a corporate crisis. Therefore, defining what an issue is, versus a crisis, for your organization is important to ensure you respond to both types of situations accordingly, as overreacting or underreacting are both risks that you want to avoid—especially when your brand is already garnering unwanted attention!

To help you begin to define “issue” and “crisis” for your organization, following is a high-level definition of each, taken from my new book Crisis Ready.

A crisis is: a negative event or situation that will stop business as usual to some extent, as it will require immediate attention and decision-making from leadership. It will require leadership’s attention as the situation will threaten long-term negative impact on one or all of the following:

  • people (stakeholders),
  • the environment,
  • business operations,
  • the organization’s reputation; and/or
  • the organization’s bottom line.

An issue is: a negative event or situation that either:

  • does not stop business as usual (i.e.: it does not demand escalation to leadership), and/or
  • does not threaten long-term negative impact on any of the five business attributes listed above.

However, just because issues are not crises, does not make them any less important to quickly detect and manage. Mismanaged issues chip away at the trust your stakeholders have in your organization over time, while well-managed issues do the precise opposite—they build trust, credibility and goodwill within your brand, each and every time.

Bonus tip: Once you have “crisis” and “issue” defined, use these definitions to help you identify the most likely high-impact scenarios within each of these categories, for your organization. Doing so will give you an edge in being even more prepared for early detection and effective management.

Tip 2: Understand the impact of emotion and relatability.
When you’ve identified a potential threat on social media—such as a PR campaign or a customer incident that is garnering unwanted attention—being able to quickly assess the potential impact of the incident on the organization is essential. For example, are you faced with an issue that has a high-risk potential of going viral, vs. a potential crisis that needs to be escalated, vs. a situation that needs to be left alone and monitored, as it will die out on its own?

Understanding the impact of emotion and relatability is a key component in helping your team quickly and effectively evaluate the potential impact of a situation.

When something is emotionally compelling and highly relatable, its likelihood of going viral is heightened. As a PR professional, you know this. When assessing the potential scope and impact of an issue or crisis on social media, it’s important to use this knowledge of virality to help you assess the threat of the situation.

For example, the debacle that Crock-Pot faced in early 2018, when people were upset that a slow cooker was the culprit in the death of Jack Pearson, NBC’s This Is Us’s beloved patriarch character, the situation quickly became a viral issue for Crock-Pot. People were devastated and scared: devastated at the way in which Jack died (at the hands of a slow cooker) and scared that this type of incident might actually happen to their family, as they themselves have slow cookers in their homes.

Crock-Pot was quick to detect and assess the emotional relatability of this situation and, therefore, the potential impact it risked having on the brand’s good name—for example, customers were so emotional that they were threatening to throw out their Crock-Pots! As a result of this quick and effective assessment, Crock-Pot was able to quickly address the situation on the appropriate social media platforms before it escalated to a point of material impact on the brand.

Tip 3: Respond to negative emotion with emotional intelligence.
One of the Crisis Ready Rules from my book, Crisis Ready, is: “Emotion always overpowers reason”. This means that, in order to regain control of a highly emotional negative situation, you need to be able to match that emotion with emotion, in order for your facts and logic to effectively reach your stakeholders in an impactful way. In other words, you need to reach their hearts, in order for them to let you into the logical parts of their minds, when emotion has already taken over—or risks taking over.

If we continue to use the Crock-Pot scenario as our example, Crock-Pot knew they needed to respond quickly if they were going to deescalate the situation. They also realized that customers were emotional and, therefore, simply telling them that their slow cookers would not short-circuit would not be enough. They needed to first validate their customers’ emotions, relate to them on an emotional level, and then provide them with the facts that would calm their irrational concerns.

Crock-Pot did this well. Here’s an example of a tweet that showcases the emotional intelligence they demonstrated in their response to this viral issue:

This Crock-Pot scenario is a great reminder that, in this hyper connected world, negative events can stem from anywhere—even fictional TV shows! If your team:

  • understands what a crisis and an issue is and means to your organization,
  • is trained to quickly assess the emotional relatability of a negative situation, and
  • is equipped to respond to negative events with emotional intelligence,

then you can sleep easy knowing that, no matter what you may wake up to in the morning, your team is crisis ready, and in a position to manage any surprise in a way that will mitigate further escalation, and strengthen the relationships you share with your stakeholders, rather than depreciate from them.

To your brand’s invincibility,
Melissa Agnes

* The CRP is an important consideration. I use it to calculate the monetary and reputational impact of a crisis or viral issue, in direct correlation with the organization’s response to the incident. The longer an organization takes to respond to a crisis or viral issue, the more control over the narrative they lose, and the higher the crisis response penalty is on the brand.


Author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, Melissa Agnes is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. Melissa is a coveted speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today’s leading organizations faced with the greatest risks. Learn more about Melissa at melissaagnes.com.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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