Let’s face it, if you work in any kind of communications – social or otherwise – at some point in your career you are going to deal with a crisis. Crises come in all shapes and sizes; they can range from the relatively small scale to ones of epic proportions. The problem with a crisis, of course, is that negative conversations can often snowball much quicker than positive ones, and their impact often lasts longer. Take the Chrysler Twitter incident from 2011 when an employee (presumably) tweeted, “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f^%$#&*g drive.” And, to this day if you Google “Chrysler Twitter,” articles about this particular F-bomb incident comprise 3 of the top 5 search results.

The Four Phases of Crisis Communication as broken down by Sandra Fathi

The Four Phases of Crisis Communication as broken down by Sandra Fathi

So, let’s talk about how to handle your crisis when it inevitably pops up.

At the recent SMX conference, I had the opportunity to see Sandra Fathi present on Recovering From Social Media Mistakes. Her presentation broke down the steps to crisis management in such a clear and concise way that I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t get this. The truth is that even though you don’t know when the crisis will happen,  you do know that it will, and you can prepare.

According to Fathi there are four phases to crisis communications: Readiness, Response, Reassurance, and Recovery.


The first step in handling a crisis is understanding the threats that currently exist to your brand. The threats to an organization like FSC Interactive are going to be very different than those that threaten a brand like Coca-Cola. Fathi stresses the importance of not only recognizing but also anticipating and understanding your potential threats. What are the internal threats (employees, facilities, products, etc.) versus the external threats (acts of nature, legal restrictions, customers)?

Once you have established your potential threats, it is important to go through crisis scenarios. Now that you understand that your employees could be a potential threat, talk through how you would handle it if a customer posted a defamatory review of your brand on Yelp.

In addition to scenarios, what are the steps you would map out to correct such issues? Each discussion of a potential scenario is an opportunity to develop a process and plan of action for getting ahead of potential crises.


Crisis Response Times by Channel

Crisis Response Times by Channel

In addition to preparedness, Fathi stressed the importance of quick, swift, and accurate response to a crisis. In my experience, it’s the latter of those three things that often causes chaos. It is important when you respond to a situation, regardless of scale, that the information you provide be accurate. With social media, there are opportunities to address something immediately without disclosing information if all of the details have not been sorted out. Fathi broke down the appropriate and recommended time frames for responding on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and mainstream media, which can be seen to the right.

Speed is not the only step to crafting an appropriate response. When preparing a response you must consider the following:

  1. Don’t delay. Do not wait for things to “blow over,” because they don’t.
  2. Acknowledge the situation. Do not talk about the crisis in some vague way. Address it head-on.
  3. Acknowledge impact and victims. If something you did directly hurt or offended people, acknowledge that.
  4. Commit to investigate and mean it. Don’t just say something because you think it is the right thing to say. Commit to figuring out the issue and fixing it.
  5. Commit to transparency. Once you have more information to share, SHARE IT.
  6. Share corrective action plan, if available.
  7. Respond in the format in which the crisis was received.


Once you've released your initial response, it's time to reassure your audience!

Once you’ve released your initial response, it’s time to reassure your audience!


Once you have responded to a crisis, it is time to reassure people. In the world of social media, once things start to go south it’s going to take a lot of work to get back into the good graces of your community. It is not enough to apologize for any wrong-doing. You must reassure people that you are still worthy of their support and their trust. Words are great but you know what is better? Action. You will never be able to build a community if you cannot prove that the mistake or the crisis was an exception and not the rule.


The fourth and final phase of crisis management is recovery. There is short-term recovery which includes the immediate response and action following a crisis, and there is long-term recovery, which is how your brand plans to change and adapt to be better based on this experience. I know this sounds weird, but my favorite thing about a crisis is always the lessons learned part. Crises should be viewed as opportunities for brand growth – how could you have avoided this? How can learn from this, and what can you do differently in the future?

You will, without a doubt, at some point in your career deal with some kind of crisis. These four phases and this advice can be adapted to fit any situation. So get to thinking and preparing, and good luck out there!