Thomas MustacThomas Mustac

Whenever something you post on social media harms your image or reputation, you’ve got a crisis on your hands. Sometimes, the trigger is an embarrassing photo you never thought would come to light or a post you thought was funny at the time. Anything you do on social media that compels others to question you—either who you are as an individual or your overall values—constitutes a social media crisis.

For companies, such a crisis can mean losing sales and customers, as the Bud Light controversy recently demonstrated. For individuals, it can mean losing friends or even getting “canceled.” Professional consequences may also follow. Two marketing professionals who managed the Bud Light campaign have been placed on leave, and Rolling Stone once ran an article about people who got fired due to their inappropriate social media content.

So, how can you survive a social media crisis? The best way is never to get into one in the first place.

Avoid social media crises if you can

According to an old Croatian saying, “If one watches out for oneself, then God will protect him as well.” The same goes for presenting yourself and your organization effectively on social media. If you’re proactive and look out for your organization’s best interests, then events will tend to favor you.

Toward that end, take a professional, neutral tone on social media. Double-check your posts’ accuracy to avoid spreading misinformation, which can hurt your credibility and that of your organization. Scrutinize every post and ask yourself if it could offend anyone. If so, dial it back or take it out of the lineup completely to avoid pushing buttons.

Finally, clean up your old social media content. You might think the post you made on your personal account as a teenager isn’t that serious, but it could come back to haunt you.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's May '23 PR Firm Rankings Magazine
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Be proactive: create a strategic plan

Social media crises happen quickly, so you need to be ready to respond quickly and effectively, so it’s best to plan in advance for the possibility of one. To do this, consider your organization’s strengths and weaknesses because these factors can help or hinder your efforts during an actual crisis situation. By keeping these in mind, you can maximize your chances of creating a strategic plan that protects the reputation of your brand while still allowing for transparency in times of crisis.

Next, conduct an inventory of your social media accounts to identify potential risks to the organization, brand, reputation, and team members. To the extent these risks can be reduced, take the necessary actions as soon as possible. For instance, delete posts or conduct staff training on best practices for social media.

After that, form a crisis communications team and assign responsibilities. Members of the team should understand their roles so that no time will be wasted in the event of an incident. In particular, someone should be designated as “the voice” who will speak on behalf of the company or organization. This person should be able to handle questions from both the public and the press while maintaining professionalism at all times.

That said, everyone in your organization should know what to say or do when confronted with negative comments, questions or requests for information, as well as who to contact if there’s a crisis situation. Therefore, provide a detailed communications protocol that explains who is responsible for what, when, as well as the types of information that may or may not be released at different times.

In short, plan for the worst while aiming for the best. By creating a procedure for addressing problems, you and your organization will be able to react to any crisis. In the event that controversy becomes unavoidable, here are some tips for weathering it best.

Never lie

When you find yourself embroiled in a social media crisis, it might seem tempting to lie your way out of it, but if you try to cover something up, then you may get caught and look worse than ever. People hate liars, and it’s hard to lie on social media when the content serves as a well-kept diary in chronological order.

Hopefully, you aren’t guilty of doing something wrong. But if you are, then you will need to acknowledge it and act quickly to frame the discussion from your perspective. Otherwise, the public will begin to paint the story and your image in their minds without it. If you wait too long, people may no longer be willing to listen to your side at all, saying they’ve already heard enough from “the liar.”

If you acknowledge your fault, however, people will give you at least some credit. Everyone knows it’s difficult to admit being wrong and that it takes courage and character to do so. Owning your mistakes will help to redeem you in other people’s eyes.

In these situations, the individual or voice of the organization should show remorse and apologize sincerely. You can pay the best PR practitioners in the world to represent you, but if you’re cocky or arrogant and present yourself as someone above society, then you’re asking for the worst outcomes.

Defend yourself

Sometimes, however, people may blame you for something you didn’t do. For instance, someone might have made a fake profile or circulated a fake post or image. Now that Twitter requires payment for verification, this type of impersonation has become more likely. In addition, this problem grows more prevalent and challenging as AI and "deepfake" technology gain sophistication.

In these cases, it’s important to defend yourself, but before you do, I recommend taking a social media vacation—go “Zen Mode,” as I like to call it. When you’ve been wrongfully represented, it’s natural to feel angry, but speaking or posting on social media in anger can make the situation worse as you may say something you later come to regret. Take the time you need to reconsider your or your organization’s recent actions and decide on a proper course of action. It’s okay to stay quiet as you plan how to demonstrate innocence and gather evidence.

Aim to deploy a positive campaign that helps counter the negative coverage and amplify all the good you do in your community. Release that information to the public as soon as possible. When you do, make sure the voice of your organization is prepared to demonstrate transparency and answer questions—even the hard ones from hostile sources.

The best paths

While developing a strategic plan and vetting your communications carefully can help avoid social media crises, you or your organization may confront one at some point. If you’ve been the target of impersonation, then pause and take a strategic period to defend yourself as effectively as possible.

If you face a reckoning over a painful mistake, act quickly. Remember that honesty and acknowledgment of any wrongdoing offer your best path forward.


Thomas Mustac is OtterPR’s medical and health industry PR specialist.