How To Deal With Brand Controversy On Social Media

They say that all publicity is good publicity, but I'm not sure that's so true in the social media age. There have been some serious PR fails from two major brands in the last few weeks which received huge backlash on social media: namely United Airlines' refusal to let a customer onboard for wearing leggings; as well as their forcible removal of another passenger from an overbooked flight; then Pepsi's advert starring Kendall Jenner handing out a can of Pepsi to ease racial tension at a protest. 

Pepsi Advert with Kendall Jenner

Prior to social media, research shows that an unhappy customer would tell 11 people about their bad experience. Today a dissatisfied customer might have 1,000 friends on Facebook, several hundred followers on Twitter and Instagram, and their negative review of your business could be indexed on Google for years to come. Social media provides and amplifies the customer voice. So if your brand does something wrong, people will call you on it. If we look at United Airlines as an example, both controversies were incidents which affected single customers, but were shared with the entire world through the power of mobile video recording and Twitter. Customer interactions are no longer just between just and the customer.

So how can your brand's social media team deal effectively with a PR controversy?

Here are my 5 top tips for managing a big brand controversy on social media. 


1. Convey a united brand message

Your response to the controversy needs to be the same on social media as with your other communications channels. Your social team should act in line with the message provided by your public relations team. The worst way to react is to panic, start responding to hate messages, and not give the carefully crafted response which your brand needs to provide. Find out what the party line is and make sure to include social media in your brand's overall plan for disseminating the message. This might include putting a statement on your company website which you could link to from social media. You need to decide whether you plan to respond to the negative comments. If you think you should, you need to respond calmly, fairly, and get the situation offline as soon as possible by offering an email address or private method of contact to the customer. If the controversy is on such a great scale that you cannot respond or you decide that no good can come of responding, then post your brand's statement and nothing else.



Posting the same type of content that you usually would will elicit a negative response from your followers because they'll feel like your brand is sweeping the controversy under the rug. Cancel all pre-scheduled posts and make sure people can see you've responded to the situation when they land on your profile. Post out your statement and pin it to the top of your social media profiles if the situation is severe. Pausing your regular posts until the crisis has died down will demonstrate to your followers that you are taking the issue seriously. 


3. Make sure your team has enough resource

It's likely that your brand's notifications will be much busier than usual in the backlash of your PR controversy. You need to have enough people in your team who can monitor social media and respond to comments. Even if your chosen approach is to not respond to any comments on the subject, your team should still be monitoring social media to get as much data as possible. Social media is like an ear into your audience's living rooms. Use it to find out what they're saying about you; which part of the controversy they are focusing on; what upset them the most about what you did; and why they care in the first place. You'll learn a lot about your direct customers, your wider audience, and anyone else affected by the fallout. Take these lessons on the chin and learn from them (both to guide your actions in the current situation but also to make sure this kind of controversy doesn't happen again for your brand). 


4. Use a dashboard for social listening

Your team will need some high-quality social listening tools to make sure that you are picking up all of the mentions of your brand. Brandwatch and SocialSignIn are two paid services which you could use to do this. If you need to start using a dashboard immediately but are waiting on budget approval, use Tweetdeck to set up monitoring streams on Twitter for free. We recommend choosing a dashboard which will record data about your brand mentions for you, such as how many people are mentioning you, from where in the world they're posting, and at what times of the day. It's an impossibly time-consuming job to record all of this manually and not an effective use of your team's time. A dashboard will also measure the sentiment of each post mentioning you, deciding whether it's positive, neutral or negative. This is a useful way to judge when the controversy is subsiding and when you could resume posting as normal again, as you'll see the number of daily negative comments start to decrease. As well as monitoring comments from angered customers, set up streams to watch how the press and your competitors are reacting to the matter. Fellow airline Delta took this cheeky jab at United over their leggings scandal. By comparison, Delta's average post gets around 50 retweets, so this will undoubtably have been their best performing tweet of the year.

Delta Tweet About United Airlines


5. Report back to the rest of your team

Once your social media team is collecting all of these useful insights and data on what your customers and people around the world are saying about you, it's important to feed it back to the rest of your team. This should include the PR team, the team lead or director, and any other relevant people who have asked to be kept in the loop with what's happening. Provide some overall numbers as well as any stand-out posts which you think deserve a mention. The PR team will be looking to you for an indication of how the public are reacting, so don't be afraid to give a frank commentary. The social media team are likely the most well-informed on public opinion, so you'll be able to speak as experts. Social media at this stage is like a massive focus group for your brand, so make sure you're taking notes and learning from the discussion. 

Successfully dealing with PR controversy on social media

By following these tips and dealing with the situation effectively, you will minimise the damage of the situation on social media. Dealing with the situation erratically and without consideration will only dig a deeper hole. If repeatedly reading negative comments gets too much for your team, remember to take a deep breath and keep in mind that all of it will blow over eventually. It's important to take your personal emotion out of the situation and work hard to placate customers in whichever way your organisation has deemed best.

Do you have any questions about dealing with crisis communications on social media? Get in touch or tweet me @CorrieFJones for advice.