Community Management, Convince and Convert, Social Business, Social Media Monitoring, Social Media Staffing and Operations, The Now Revolution

3 Ways to Tell a Social Media Problem From a Crisis

What constitutes a crisis? Discovering that someone has left a review saying they saw a mouse at your restaurant is certainly disconcerting. But is it a crisis? No. The social media monitors in your organization need to have a mutual understanding of what is a real crisis and what the subsequent escalation procedures are.

Merriam-Webster defines crisis as “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending; especially one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome.

The dictionary guys got it absolutely right, and their definition is an excellent prism through which to examine what is—and what isn’t—a social media crisis.


If you know all the facts and can respond to each person coherently and assuredly, it’s not a crisis. If you’re in the middle of the “fog of social media” and you don’t really know much more than the critics, it’s definitely a crisis situation.

As Sully’s plane hit the Hudson River, US Airways was absolutely in a social media–fueled crisis, as on-the-ground reports were conflicting and passengers and passers-by had more information than the company. Once the dust settles a bit (which can take anywhere from a few minutes to a day), information symmetry is restored and the crisis passes.

Decisive Change

If the conventional wisdom is just being amplified, it’s not a crisis.

Nike is consistently accused by certain groups (often wrongfully) of engaging in less-than-ideal labor practices. On a regular basis, blog posts are written and commented upon, tweets are sent, statuses are updated, and so on, with allegations of that nature. But, that doesn’t constitute a crisis for Nike, because it isn’t a decisive change from the established patterns of information and volume. They know it’s out there; they know how to address it, and they do.

A crisis is under way when a new issue emerges and the conversations around that issue spike far above the baseline level.

Highly Undesirable Outcome

Someone not getting the scone they paid for in drive-thru isn’t a crisis. It may be a frustrating turn of events for the scone-less customer, but it’s not likely to turn viral.

A highly undesirable outcome means that the issue affects or is of interest to a very large portion of your customers or prospective customers and has potential to do lasting brand damage. Thus, if you’re a regional or national company, local shortcomings don’t usually signify a crisis, unless the underlying issue is not geographically specific.

A social media–fueled crisis, then, is something that possesses one or more of these qualifications as it unfolds in real time across the social web:

1. You don’t know what’s happening.

2. There is a spike in commentary or a new topic of conversation.

3. An issue with very broad impact or interest is raised.

Fight Fires by Hand

But even once you have an organization-wide understanding of what’s a crisis and what’s merely a problem, social media crisis management is still largely a human issue. You can’t fight a fire until you first see smoke, and that’s more about people than technology.

Regardless of which tool you employ to monitor the social web, unless one or more persons are responsible for operating that software and leaping into action when necessary, the whole exercise is doomed from the first log-on. And that responsibility can’t be constrained by time or date. Social media doesn’t take weekends off . . . or nights . . . or holidays.

Who in your company is responsible for monitoring the social web when your business is closed? If you have a 24/7 call center or any sort of round-the-clock operations, someone on that team should be charged with keeping an eye on social conversations about your brand. If you don’t have nighttime and weekend operations, you may need to rely on an alerting system and have an especially dedicated employee (or yourself) be at the ready like a firefighter with an iPhone.

Are you ready for a crisis, should one occur?

(image by Shutterstock, a Convince & Convert sponsor)

This is the sixth in a 7-week blog post series covering themes included in The NOW Revolution: 7 Shifts to Make Your Business Faster, Smarter, and More Social – my new book with Amber Naslund, debuting February 1 (pre-order now and win prizes!).

Facebook Comments


  1. mark robertson says

    Thanks for the informative post–I love strong metaphor-makers! As someone in the fog of SM, what exactly is being seen as a crisis? It seems to be moving in fast, unpredictable ways, but who is calling this a crisis? Thanks for any insight!


    • says

      Sorry for the confusion Mark. In this post, we’re referencing a business crisis that erupts in social media, or a social media-fueled crisis. Think Domino’s when the YouTube video went up of employees putting cheese in their nose. Or Boingo when then accidentally sent thousands of customers incorrect cancellation emails. Things like that.

  2. says

    This is a great post, but I have one question. Are you suggesting that one of these three or all three lead to a crisis? It has been my understanding that an uproar can actually produce some amount of good for a company it they are capable of responding intelligently. I know that Doug Karr loves a good online confrontation when he is able to funnel the public’s interpretation in a desired direction. All this may have be irrelevant if you are suggesting that all three components are required for crisis, otherwise I may have to object.

  3. Rosemary says

    It’s a great idea to separate a “crisis” from “something that needs a reasonably quick response.” As we’ve been sorting out our listening and responding mechanisms, we’ve had some situations where we swatted a fly with a sledgehammer, or responded too quickly with a half-baked answer because we didn’t take a moment to decipher the true crisis from the customer inquiry. It always helps to take time and do it right. Thanks Jay!

    • says

      You’re welcome Rosemary. The good news is that more and more people are listening and tuning in. The bad news is that sometimes mountains get made out of mole hills. If your company went to Defcon 4 every time somebody yelled at a customer service rep via the telephone, you could never get anything accomplished. We’re sort of in that stage of social evolution right now.

  4. says

    Thanks for providing some clear guidelines for how to identify an actual crisis. Especially like the points about a new topic versus existing ones, and looking for items that have long-term lasting brand damage. Your Nike example was helpful for clarifying that.

  5. says

    Interesting article. Word spreads fast in the world of social media. Therefore, it’s best to have a policy in place and be ready for a crisis, hoping that one doesn’t occur! Of course the first step is to actually decide if it’s a “crisis” or a small problem that can be solved quickly.

  6. Anonymous says

    Really good post – there is so much fear out there about starting a fire just by being in the space (really, I’ve heard this from a client). However, putting one’s head in the sand doesn’t bring success.

    Interesting thought about seeing smoke first before fighting a fire. Maybe I’m beating the metaphor to death but I’ve always been taught to locate the source of the fire to truly fight it successfully. While it may be impossible to find the source of a SM induced crisis, it is possible to address the crisis-inducing information head on via fact-based reactions on your home base and then using your outposts to further delineate the message on various communities.

    If you CAN locate the source, direct contact is the best first step in my book. Nothing is more effective than turning around a disgruntled customer – possibly creating an evangelist along the way.

    • says

      Absolutely right Paul. In the book (and also in a guest post you can find on SmartBrief) we talk about fighting social media fire with social media water, and dousing the problem at its source first. Great observation.

  7. says

    While reading this insightful post I couldn’t help but think about the crisis Chic-Fil-A is having right now. Many of their customers are enraged that they are continually and recently being linked to anti-gay groups, speakers, etc. Whether true or not, their customers have taken to the company Chic-Fil-A Facebook page and left nasty and threatening comments. Chic-Fil-A has done little except post a “Please don’t post negative stuff on here” kind of comment. I’ve been monitoring the page last night and this morning, and it seems their SM person is simply not paying attention or they are at a loss for how to remedy the situation and take back their own SM platform. Interesting crisis to follow, if you’re interested. Thanks for the additional insight!

    • says

      They need the other post we wrote (from the book) about the 8-step crisis response plan. Ignoring it certainly won’t make it go away.

      Look at what Taco Bell is doing. They got slammed on the “meat” issue, and responded with full-page ads.

  8. says

    Thanks for the article Jay – As someone who has helped me during a ‘social media crisis’ , I’m glad that you’re helping put some framework around how to deal with these issues (or determine if it even IS an issue).
    * Another thing to keep in mind is that in the world of web, things can go away as quickly as they pop up.

  9. says

    hi Jay.. I think you delivered some very vital points regarding crisis, so that it may not get confused with other things. But yes, its very important to identify a crisis at very beginning of it!!!!

  10. Anonymous says

    Great article, Jay. I completely agree that if there isn’t someone listening, the “weak signals” that can lead to a crisis may be completely missed.
    And of course a crisis always starts on a Friday evening or Saturday, joy of joys.. 😉

    Michelle @Synthesio

  11. says

    I completely agree. When you decide to join in to the social media bandwagon, you need to understand these are. It is not always a hay day in social media, at some point you experience problems and crisis. When you know what you are up to and what is happening, you can easily pin point solutions and make amends. Thanks for this informative post!

  12. says

    Dang, Jay. I just found this while researching recent articles for a crisis communication training seminar we’re doing for a couple dozen hospital CEOs. This is outstanding! How in the world did I miss something like this that boils sm crises down to their defining characteristics. Bravo!

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