Crisis Communication in the Age of Social Media


In the days before social media, a company’s crisis would play out something like this: company commits error, mainstream media reports it, the apology comes and it drifts from people’s minds until a newspaper recounts the story. CEOs and company lawyers likely yearn for those days. In our current media environment, a story develops in minutes and hours, and it will endure in infamy online. Moreover, it’s not just the newspaper editor setting the conversation agenda, but a legion of anonymous commentators fueling the marketplace of ideas.

Where does this leave the public relations person or team charged with sending the corporate apology or response? There are too many options to count, but one thing is clear: Don’t be dragged into a fight that you cannot win. That is, manage your communications in a space that you can control. Engaging with an angry public on a social media platform will lead to a never-ending discussion.

A recent example of crisis communication in the age of social media is the case of Delta. A YouTube video uploaded by U.S. Army service members fueled a quick online frenzy of complaints and calls for boycotts against the airline. Returning from duty in Afghanistan, the soldiers flying on Delta were charged extra baggage fees for a fourth bag, which they say contradicted their orders.

Within 24 hours, Delta had posted an article on its company blog announcing it had made an error and immediately would change its policies. Delta used its Twitter account to address the subject, but they did not advance the discussion there. Instead, they acknowledged the problem and directed people to the blog post.

Because of Delta’s deft handling of the situation, online pundits generally approved of its reaction and subsequent policy change to allow returning service members to carry four checked bags for free. The takeaway is a company made a mistake, realized it, took swift corrective action and communicated that action back to the public in a controlled environment.

While every crisis situation is different, our advice to companies facing a crisis is to engage on their own turf, not be dragged into a social media mud-slinging match and remember that excellent customer service can stave off many avoidable crisis situations.

By the way, the servicemen who posted the original YouTube video have since taken it down after Delta’s apology.