Ott, Larissa; & Theunissen, Petra (2015). Reputations at risk: Engagement during social media crises. Public Relations Review, 41(1), 97–102.


As people spend more time on the Internet, managing reputation on social media becomes increasingly important for public relations. The latest figures show that Internet users spend most of their time on social networks, and half of all social media users said that at least once a month they had expressed complaints or concerns about brands or services on social media.

Research into social media and social networking sites has focused on its advantages for organization–public relationships. Potential risks to corporate reputation have been largely glossed over, but inappropriate strategies can create or fuel social media crises. This article is based on an in-depth analysis of three multinational profit-making organizations experiencing social media crises after 2010 (Facebook, Applebee’s, and Jetstar). It was found that each organization employed different engagement strategies with varied outcomes. Authenticity of voice and transparency were crucial factors for success, whereas engaging indiscriminately with emotional individuals could potentially escalate an issue. The article offers strategies for engagement during social media crises.


The research used a multiple case study approach. Additionally, Coombs’ (2007) Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) was applied. Three multinational profit-making organizations in different industries that had experienced a social media crisis were selected (Facebook and Greenpeace “Unfriend coal” campaign; Applebee’s “I give God 10%, why do you get 18?” and Jetstar’s cancellation of several Christmas flights). Data came from blog posts, websites and posts on Facebook or Twitter that were collected using the website Storify™

Key Findings

  • The cases discussed showed that public Facebook and Twitter sites offered forums for angry online users to share their points of views and vent their feelings.
  • Anger spreads fast on these platforms and because organizations are perceived as disembodied entities, they are more likely to become targets.
  • While dialogue is often recommended and almost all organizations claim to use it, the reality during social media crisis communication differs significantly. In the highlighted cases, organizations often employed tactics of negotiation and persuasion combined with traditional crisis response strategies like denial and justification.
  • Following a more strategic and selective approach, e.g. not engaging with emotional, but unaffected users and initiating conversations with important stakeholders, prevents issues from escalating.
  • Authenticity of voice and transparency are crucial factors in successful crisis management.

 Implications for Practice

Social networking sites are similar to other social settings, and to be authentic, communication should match the setting and the organization’s usual style. Genuine dialogue is not easily achieved during a social media crisis. Nevertheless, organizations should provide forums for discussion. Controlling the discussion to the extent that offensive and abusive content will be deleted is acceptable only if there is a clear policy.

Although social networking sites have been recognized as useful channels for relationship management, inappropriate or conventional strategies can ignite social media crises. Not only are organizations well advised to employ a coherent crisis communication strategy and provide relevant information on their social networking sites, but public relations practitioners need to understand the underlying principles of relationship-building and dialogue in order to apply them effectively during a social media crisis.

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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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