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When social media outrage becomes a PR crisis … and when it doesn’t

By Chris Gilmour

Social media can stir up all kinds of trouble for a brand, but that doesn’t mean that everything critical that is said online begets a PR crisis.

Twitter and Facebook give the motivated and politicised somewhere to shout – the trick is recognising when you have to pay attention, and what requires a crisis management response.

I was talking about social media crisis management at the rather excellent Communicate conference run by the Natural History Consortium in Bristol earlier this week. It was for people working for environmental organisations in the public and Third Sectors, and several raised concerns with me about the vehement criticism their admirable causes receive online.

I was at pains to point out that what’s important is recognising when you have to engage, and when doing so will only damage your reputation.

You don’t want to open yourself up to criticism by accepting blame for something that didn’t happen or wasn’t your fault.

Know your facts before you speak

As with any crisis management situation, you’ve got to be sure what actually happened and where responsibility lies before making any statement.

You also have to acknowledge that there are some people who you can never sway from their way of thinking, who you can never win to your side, and decide if it’s worth putting effort into taking them on or whether that would just draw attention to their cause.

That’s why it’s important that whoever is in charge of your social media accounts – which is frequently a fairly junior member of staff – understands what kind of situations could evolve into a full-blown crisis, and how to get that message up the chain of command to people who can make decisions that matter.

That also means recognising what isn’t a PR crisis. Almost always, a difference of opinion isn’t a crisis. No; it is ill-judged actions that reflect worst on a brand.

And this brings us neatly to the most recent example of just that – Ryanair and the race row caught on camera aboard a flight from Barcelona to Stansted last week.

Inaction compounds a mistake

A passenger posted footage on Facebook of an elderly white man apparently racially abusing an even-more-elderly Jamaican woman who had been seated beside him. Cabin crew ushered her to another seat instead of calling the Guardia Civil to drag the odious old geezer off the flight. That was Ryanair’s first mistake.

But the budget airline – led by Michael O’Leary, whose plain-speaking approach to alleged “crises” I’ve long admired – compounded this by not responding to the video as it gained traction on Facebook.

Views quickly raced into the millions, and the Press jumped on board. Ryanair’s response was an overly safe one, given the possibility of legal repercussions, but not the right one: “We are aware of this video and have reported the matter to Essex Police.”

One very important thing was missing from this statement: an apology to Delsie Gray, the 77-year-old returning from a Spanish holiday to mark the first anniversary of her husband’s death, the woman who was moved seats by staff more worried about keeping a flight on time than dealing with a racist incident.

Quite simply, Ryanair should have apologised to her, not for the racist language used – that was not of the airline’s doing – but for its failure to handle the situation properly.

Formulate a crisis management response

An investigation into what happened would have taken minutes. The evidence was there for the company to see in living, colour. Shaky smartphone camera footage captured what went wrong from Ryanair’s perspective. One line added to that crisis management response – “We’d like to apologise to Mrs Gray for mishandling this situation and the upset we caused,” perhaps – and the story would have no longer been about Ryanair.

Instead, the firm is still taking flak days later. And this time, the keyboard warriors on Facebook and Twitter are in the right.

That isn’t always the case. In a crisis management situation, we need to take stock of the fact that people hiding behind a Twitter handle will quite often go to town on a brand in the heat of the moment. But how many of us calm down after giving an issue some thought, or forget about it altogether?

And never underestimate the power of the silent majority. That has been seen during elections – when social media is vocally in favour of one candidate, but another wins at the ballot box.

Social media is useful for getting a sense of the public’s attitude during a crisis. But don’t forget there will always be trolls ducking behind the shield of their screen so they can lob rocks at others, and like-minded individuals who join in on either side to throw stones of their own.

PR crisis or anger in the echo chamber?

This is what you have to be wary of when a potential PR crisis arises on social media: it’s an echo chamber, one that multiplies the outcry but perhaps doesn’t reflect true sentiment.

To engage or not to engage, that is the question?

Find the truth of the story and evaluate the source of the outrage.

Remember, everyone is entitled to an opinion – but not every opinion is equal or deserves to be listened to.

Be judged on your actions and the action you take to remedy mistakes you have made.

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