How to Handle a Brand Crisis on Twitter

Let’s say you’re a major retailer and your head of IT comes to you and tells you the company has had a major data breach and millions of credit card numbers have been compromised. Or you’re the CEO of an organic baby food company and you realize you’re going to have to issue a recall on some of your products. Almost immediately, you and your team must put a plan in action for how you’re going to announce these issues to the public. A decade ago you probably just met with your legal and PR teams to determine how you’ll word the press release and craft messaging for your call centers. But these days a third team needs to be added to the mix: social media. Not only will this team have to monitor what’s being said online during the crisis, but it’ll need its own messaging in order to respond to angry consumers in real time.

Peter LaMotte is a Senior Vice President at Levick, a PR firm that specializes in crisis management. I interviewed him about how to counter activists who are targeting you on Twitter and why brands shouldn’t overreact if they receive negative feedback on the microblogging platform.

What are the kinds of company crises that will have the largest ramifications on Twitter — the kind where the company needs to devote a lot of resources to monitoring and responding to what’s happening on Twitter?

The answer is twofold. It’s usually correlated with the size of the crisis itself. With BP, at the time when its oil spill occurred, Twitter was fairly nascent, but it showed what could happen if you don’t tackle the issue on Twitter. There are those crises that actually start on Twitter. There’s the famous Chrysler tweet, for instance.

So there are crises that begin on Twitter itself, and then there are other crises that occur offline, but you know, because of the size of the company, it’s going to boil over onto Twitter.

Yeah, because Twitter, like most social media channels, it’s just a form of communication. It’s a means through which people are going to express their opinion. Companies have the option to express their position or clarify statements or refute claims in the media. Most companies are not organized enough to have their own army of supporters, all they have is their own brand. So that means they’ve got their Facebook page, their Twitter account, and maybe a few other channels if they’re a big enough company, but for the most part it’s just one or two handles. That’s their singular megaphone. Whereas if Joe Public turns on you, that’s thousands if not tens of thousands of users attacking your brand online.

If you’re a company that has activists who are trying to rile up anger against you, where are most of their efforts going to be focused? On Twitter? On Facebook?

Peter LaMotte

Because of the open nature of Twitter, a lot of people are using Twitter. But it’s almost never used successfully as a singular path. It’s usually part of an organized campaign that might originate at a microsite or a Change.org petition. Or it might be through a more traditional campaign like a TV ad with Twitter hashtags. But when it comes to dealing with the crisis, let’s take it from two perspectives. You have the perspective of someone who’s dealing with the crisis, and then you have the general public. And then you have perhaps a third perspective, the activists. The mistake many corporations will make is they’re just reactionary. Twitter is a communication tool, so it should fit into a larger strategy. Any company that is not prepared and does not have its own crisis plan will have a difficult time reacting fast enough in a way that doesn’t just look reactionary. When you look at these brands that are constantly pushing out good news and building up their brands in a positive way, when a crisis happens, they tend to have a more lenient response, because people have seen the more positive things they’re doing. But when a company is caught with their pants down, Twitter is a good way to quickly address issues and answer questions because it’s relatively real-time and can be monitored. From a communications standpoint, with the way that other platforms are closed and locked down, a lot of people don’t realize how important Twitter is for monitoring sentiment. If Twitter loses its popularity and falls off, there aren’t a lot of tools that can dig into Facebook or some of these other platforms to monitor sentiment.

The public at large is trained to search Twitter for hashtags and keywords, and an activist won’t be able to easily organize a campaign on Facebook the way he can on Twitter.

Exactly. Brands rely heavily on Twitter to get that sentiment. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than putting together a focus group. So, they rely on that and should be monitoring it at all times, including pre-crisis, before you even think you have a crisis. Most companies know where their risks are, so they should be monitoring around those risks, whether it’s a manufacturer around some kind of consumer device or anything that might be subject to litigation. So if they’re prepared, then when the crisis happens, they should have an automatic plan to put in place. In that plan, they should know who is going to say what, what the approval process is, and make sure it doesn’t need multiple layers of approval. And sometimes the industry holds you back from that. When it comes to the pharmaceutical and medical industries, a lot of times lawyers get very sensitive to what can be said, so make sure in a crisis they’ve already signed off on your messaging. If you go into these situations unprepared you’re basically walking into a firehose of people saying negative things about you. From the opposite side, it’s much easier to organize hundreds, if not thousands, of voices. They did that with the BP oil spill. If you remember, a fake BP Twitter handle was created, and people really bought into that. They thought, for just a brief moment, this was actually a BP account, and the result was brutal. That Twitter account gave BP’s haters content that they could share and retweet, which then picked up news traffic, which is why we remember this many years later that account in particular. Any PR nightmare is typically going to reverberate across Twitter, so activists are going to organize, using all the tools that brands do, to get their message out there. From a consumer standpoint, it makes it very easy to track, it makes it very easy to keep abreast of what’s going on.

Are there situations where brands have the luxury of preparing a Twitter response beforehand? A situation where you know the news is going to drop. When you do have that luxury, what’s your Twitter strategy?

It probably happens more often than you would expect, because every manufacturer, for instance, knows where the risks are in their plant. Like there could be a fire, there could be a death due to faulty equipment, there could be an explosion. It’s not to say they’re pre-writing these tweets, but they’ve come up with response templates and that would be within a crisis plan. Twitter is just an element of amplifying your messaging. So if there’s a plant explosion, even if you don’t know how or when it will happen, you can determine what will be your messaging one hour after it’s happened, when you’re likely not to have a lot of information about what caused it. What’s your messaging a day after it’s happened once you have more information? The messaging that’s given by someone at a podium, that messaging isn’t just going to be distributed at the podium, but also on Facebook and Twitter.

So is it a matter of trying to predict every kind of message that will be tweeted out by users and here’s a list of responses to all those possible reactions?

It’s not a specific as line by line responses, but at least there should be generic messaging. Let’s say there’s a major retail outlet, they’re going to have a response for if there’s a shooting. It won’t be an exact tweet, but it’ll be a general response like “We’re looking into it.” They will draft a tweet in the moment based on that more general messaging. They’ll also have a checklist about which parties need to sign off on a tweet. And so really the key here is that your Twitter strategy should never conflict with your overall messaging within a crisis. And it should never give conflicting information from what you would give to the press. What it does allow you to do from a more acute, focused level, is respond to very similar claims. If there’s a shooting at a retail store and suddenly people on the news are saying “…and there was an explosion,” you as the head of messaging who knows there was only a shooting, you can say “Rumors of any explosion are not true.” It can put down any escalation of misinformation.

What about the monitoring perspective? I’m guessing that’s a large part in developing a crisis strategy. Are you assigning someone 24/7 to monitor Twitter in real time?

I imagine it correlates to the size of the crisis. If you’re a small retail chain in a city, you probably don’t need 24-hour monitoring. If you’re a large oil company, you’ll have 24/7 monitoring and also escalation plans in place. The good news for corporations, a few years ago if you really wanted strong monitoring you had to hire Radian6 and you had to pay an arm and a leg. Now, services are fairly affordable. The best things, like Radian6, are still expensive, but there are tiers below that, like Brandwatch, that are much more affordable but still do a good job. Sentiment analysis, I’d say, is mediocre at best.

So don’t put too much weight on claims from these tools about sentiment?

Well, if you’re going through a recall, for example, yes there will be a lot of negative sentiment, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect the overall perception of your brand. A lot of people are pissed at you for one day or one week, and it doesn’t necessarily mean your brand is mud, it just means people found this to be a sexy story. But the point is that there’s much more affordable tools out there, all the way down to free. Twitter has search functionality built into it, so if you’re someone with very limited funds, you can get a very general idea of what’s being said. Startups do it all the time. They’re just monitoring whether anybody is talking about me or talking to me. But then you want to make sure to have a search tab opened about your industry or your competitors.

That was my next question: What should you be actually searching for during these crises outside of mentions of your brand?

Everything I learned about how to use Twitter was done while I was running a startup. What we looked at was our industry, our handle, but also variations of our handle. We looked at individuals, our CEO, the president of the firm. We looked at our competitors. What we’d typically get out of that is more for marketing purposes. Was anyone reaching out to our competitors and saying “Hey, can you guys help?” You’re looking for journalists who are covering your industry to get in front of them.

So you should put Twitter lists together?

Absolutely. You do what makes sense to your business. When you’re a small business and dealing with a crisis, typically you don’t have to have a team monitoring every mention of your business, because typically you’re up 24/7 dealing with it. Or if you’re not your team is in some form or fashion. Really it’s the monitoring when you don’t have a crisis, that’s the difficult part, because crises can emerge without you at first realizing it. Something you said in an ad, something you said in an interview. I think the real difficulty, and this is something we try to tackle here, is can you predict a crisis using social media? Especially from an activist perspective? Can you see the vague threats out there? Are these activists trying to organize a new campaign? And in doing so you need to determine how influential they are, how many people follow them, what’s the real impact they’re having?

Is there an analysis going on where you see people trying to stir up shit on Twitter, and there’s a debate over whether you should respond or if responding will just stir the pot and give them momentum?

In most cases you don’t want to respond at all, unless there’s a financial threat. Most activists out there, that’s their goal, which is to start the fight. They’re never going to lose, because they have no intention of ending it. So what you want to do is if they’re starting to say you’re a bad person, then maybe you should starting thinking about corporate social responsibility initiatives to provide a sort of counterweight to those claims. Then you can use Twitter to amplify and drown out the bad things people are saying about you. One thing you must realize is that people who hate you are going to continue to hate you.

Would you ever buy advertising against a hashtag they’re using?

I would first go to Google and buy those search results. Place a Google ad for any of those key terms. A lot of people who even see a hashtag might look it up on Google first to see what it’s about. And that’s why to this day BP still runs ads if you do any search for gulf oil spill, the first response is an ad for BP that shows what great things they’re doing to repair the gulf.

We know the Twitter demographics, that there is very limited penetration, at least compared to Facebook. Is there a tendency from a client to overreact based on something said on Twitter even if it’s not representative of what the public at large thinks?

If companies lose Twitter, they’re going to be hard-pressed to really get a good sense of what people think outside of expensive focus groups. And I think that’s a mistake companies make, is they see one tweet, or one tweet that’s retweeted 10 times and they think it’s a movement. The fact is it’s an open platform. It could be an ex-employee. It could be someone who has no say in the market whatsoever. If you’re a consumer packaged good, they probably don’t buy your product anyways, and unless they really get traction, they’re not going to have any impact on your bottom line. So you have to have a really good sense and err on the side of caution, because the nature of Twitter is binary. One tweet has the same value as any other tweet. Now the individuals tweeting have their own value in terms of how many followers they have, but followers don’t always measure influence. You see that when these platforms make a purge of spam accounts, sometimes you see users with thousands of followers lose 15 percent of their following because they had all these fake lists. That’s where a lot of these software applications try to measure true influence, and any of them that make this assessment just based on number of followers are not making an accurate assessment. Twitter has influence, but it’s not more impactful than if major media outlets pick up the news. There have been times where something trending on Twitter will jump over into the media, but if it’s something that’s trending on Twitter, you already know about it and you already hopefully have a crisis plan set up for that.

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This article is excerpted from my book: Your Guide to Twitter Marketing. I sought out some of the world’s most powerful marketers and grilled them on their subject matter expertise. This book gives you direct insight into how the world’s top marketers approach Twitter and use it to drive sales and influence.