How to Keep Engaging Customers During a Social Media Crisis

by Peter Friedman

Social Media CrisisIn retail, social media has become a proving ground for building loyalty, driving traffic and sales, advertising and customer service. Customers find out about new products, in-store promotions, and online sales. While it’s a great channel for dialogue that leads to sales and loyalty, it can also backfire.

When a customer has a bad experience, or the company makes a PR misstep, social media can turn sharply on the company. And no matter how good the company is on Twitter, Facebook, or other social platforms, it’s likely that the backlash will be sudden. The age-old retail rule that a missed sale is never made up for holds here too, but magnified by the word of mouth effect in social media. There’s nothing worse than being caught without a plan to mitigate a social media crisis, especially in retail, when customers have so many choices. To avoid the wrong reaction – or no reaction at all – there are five things you can do to help when the inevitable firestorm ignites to mitigate damage.

1. Flip the sign to “closed” (on social media).

Just as you’d close up a physical shop when something goes wrong, closing up social media – at least for a little while – can help you better manage the crisis. Put the kibosh on your regularly scheduled content and paid advertising program, checking the tools used and other avenues for automatic posts. This will give you a chance to re-evaluate your content and determine if you need to craft new messaging to customers and the general public.

After you’ve got a handle on the crisis, you can open up your social media spigot again once you’ve reviewed future posts for possible incendiary content. You’ll also want to keep a close eye on new posts until the problem truly is in the rearview mirror.

2. Hang a virtual “We’ll be back” sign on the door.

Your paused posts don’t mean you can’t post anything at all. During a difficulty, a response of some sort is critical, and you’ll want to hang your “back at noon” sign on your social media door. You’ll customize the posts to the audience and medium, but when you do post, you’ll want to have these three messages clearly embedded in the post: 

• We hear you and acknowledge your issue.
• We don’t have an answer yet, but are working on one.
• You can expect an update by <time> on <URL>.

Likely, your message to an individual customer will look like this: Hi Jenny, thanks for letting us know about the problem with our [product/service/people]. We’re investigating to get to the source of the issue, and we will have an update posted on our blog at [URL] by tomorrow at 9 a.m. CT. 

Just remember that the message has to feel authentic – not robotic or forced. Use natural language, and avoid cutting and pasting responses mechanically. Use the language that is typical for the brand’s communications, e.g., laid-back or formal.

Also, with individual customers, it may be wise to pick and choose to whom you respond. If it’s just one conversation happening on Facebook, like under a brand post or on the page itself, it may be easier to post a blanket response. But if customers are blowing up Twitter, it may be worth it to respond to just the most influential people.

3. Choose response platforms wisely.

Social Media CrisisSometimes, a grand response isn’t required if you’re able to catch the problem early enough. If it’s just one person or a small group causing a commotion on social media, get your most empathetic employee on the phone with them! Find out what went wrong, and make sure you’re offering the customer a solution, not empty apologies. For example, if the customer is furious about how she was treated at one of the brick and mortar locations, let her know that not only are you reviewing training procedures, but also offer her a gift card or something to let her know that she’s been heard. This may actually flip the dialogue, and she may instead post about her excellent experience with the brand.

If it’s too late to contain by phone – it’s gone viral and there is a Facebook group called “Acme Widget Store Sells Contaminated Products” – then it’s time to herd your cats, so to speak. Get everyone on the same platform, like a blog, to consolidate the discussion. Create a space where the customers can vent. And make sure you’re paying attention to where the chatter is; if your customers are all complaining on Facebook, with nary a peep on Twitter, by all means keep the discussion centered on Facebook. Sometimes one channel, say Twitter, is lit up on the issue, but it turns out to be all media and industry analysts, not your customers who are happily moving along on Facebook and don’t care about that issue. Understand who is involved and tailor your response accordingly

4. Respond with caution.

It’s all too easy to fall into a trap of empty platitudes and apologies that mean nothing to the customer – and can actually be more fuel on the fire for them to believe the company doesn’t care and isn’t accepting responsibility for what went wrong.

Own the problem. “We’re sorry you feel that way” is putting the blame on the customer, but “We’re sorry that we didn’t meet your expectations” is taking responsibility, which is what customers want. Then you can explain what went wrong.

But make sure you start with the apology, not the explanation. Don’t try to talk your way out of it; be humble, acknowledge that there is a problem, and make sure you’re communicating that steps are being taken to fix the problem, whether it’s addressing off-color executive behavior, a defective product, or a regional issue. Acknowledge that the customers are upset. Have the team cynic read your responses to play Devil’s advocate, before you post, poking holes in anything that could be misconstrued. You want to be deconstructed before you post, not after, when customers already have their feathers ruffled and don’t need any more provocation. How you handle it after that may vary, but on social media, a humble company is much more likely to be forgiven.

5. Keep in touch.

As with switching out products in brick-and-mortar stores and online storefronts, you’ll need to be just as vigilant after you respond to the crisis. Once customers have been burned, they’re extra-sensitive, and it may not take much to ignite a new firestorm. Keep answering questions and responding to posts for the original problem, but also monitor all your channels for possible new or related problems.

Finally, make sure the PR team is in the loop. It wouldn’t hurt to collaborate with them to make sure the messaging is unified for both social media and the general public, and to make sure that blogger outreach is also in full swing. The PR team can help with contacting influencers to make sure they’re getting the right information to feed their readers. Thank the influencers. Make sure you’re showing – not telling – that you’re learning from the incident or incidents so that your brand’s story is one of improvement.

We hope you enjoyed this adapted excerpt from The CMO’s Social Media Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Leading Marketing Teams in the Social Media World, by Peter Friedman. To read more, download a free PDF version (, or buy the hardback or ebook via