Part 3: Dealing with Keyboard Warriors

How to contain a local issue before it becomes a nationwide social media crisis

By Hwee Yee Tan

It may start off as a one-time, local issue that doesn’t affect anyone aside from the person involved, so you don’t think anyone will notice it. The next thing you know, it has spiralled into a full-blown crisis the next morning, and you’re not even sure how it started.

Sometimes it begins with a lonely keyboard warrior who is bored and wants to pick a bone with one of your campaigns, or with an incredibly popular social media influencer who has had a bad experience using your product or services. Whatever it is, it is damaging your franchise’s reputation at the speed of light. Public outrage goes viral faster than that cute cat video, and it is something that no organization or brand can afford. Many studies have been done to track what moves the viral needle faster on social media, and the unanimous conclusion is rage. According to a New York Times article, anger is the emotion that spreads faster than anything else on social media. Just scroll down your Facebook timeline and you’ll understand.

But all is not lost. The good news is that communication can help manage a serious issue before it becomes a crisis. There are solutions to help prevent or contain such situations. With the right preparation and strategy, you can identify potential issues and manage them effectively in order to minimize the damage.

Here are some tips for you to think about before your franchise experiences a crisis.

Always have a crisis management plan in place
The first thing you need to do is to put together a plan which will help you act quickly and effectively when a crisis hits. This plan will include guidelines to measure the severity of the crisis and
the roles of every department and executive during the crisis, and will help you establish a point of contact for each of these departments. Having a plan in place will allow you to take immediate
action to prevent the crisis from spiralling out of control. From key company executives to the most junior employees, everyone needs to know what to do or say, or what not to do or say, on social media during a crisis. This must also include how they are expected to communicate on social media if someone, including family members, reaches out to them with a question.

Identify and understand the issue
Once you have a plan in place, you can start identifying the issue and the best way to respond. It’s important to understand its cause and severity, especially if it is something that you have anticipated could happen. There are many issues for which you can prepare in advance, especially if the issue relates to a product recall, service interruption due to a predicted situation, or an
existing issue surrounding the industry that is ongoing for many companies or brands. Then there are those unexpected issues that may have happened outside of a franchise’s control. Upon identifying the issue, you will need to be able to categorize the severity of the problem: Who is complaining? Is it a journalist or a social media influencer? How influential is this person?
Are they just a typical keyboard warrior? The answers to these questions will impact the response level needed. The last thing we want is to step on the toes of a social media influencer, because
this group of people can quickly turn a local issue into an international crisis, depending on their level of influence and authority.

Acknowledge the issue as soon as possible
People use social media as a platform to vent their anger and dislikes, hoping to reach the right person quickly – usually with great success. However, when these displeasures are not recognized
immediately, they could escalate into mass outrage, and by then, it’s too late. Many companies are not prepared for situations like this, and will quickly feel overwhelmed by the speed and complexity of the event as it unfolds. Always remember that speed is everything when it comes to social media; if you’re not prepared to keep up with the keyboard warriors, you shouldn’t be on social media.
The KitchenAid incident that occurred in 2016 is a good example of how a speedy, sincere, and earnest response helped save the brand’s reputation. In 2016, a KichenAid employee accidentally posted an insensitive post about former U.S. President Obama’s deceased grandmother, thinking he or she was using a personal account. KitchenAid quickly took the post down, apologized to the Obama family, and acknowledged the mistake. They also took action against the employee and announced that to the public. All it takes is a simple acknowledgement from your company to
contain the negative sentiment around the issue.

Listen to the mood of your audience
The real-time nature of social media allows you to listen to your audience as time goes by. As soon as you have addressed the issue immediately on social media, get started on a solution to
solve it – be it fine-tuning a public statement, answering media interview requests, or briefing your spokesperson. When developing your first public announcement on the issue, be as considerate as possible, as the first statement will set the tone and pave the way for a successful outcome. Always be sensitive, humble, and assuring to the anxious, riled up, or angry people waiting on the other side of the screen, who are ready to fire away at your franchise from their keyboards. However, not all crises warrant a sombre response. Depending on the mood of your audience, you can always try to lighten things up a little. For example, a Sainsbury’s employee in Great Britain decided that the issue of a “battered fish not having barcodes” posted by a customer deserved some fun puns, and the conversation went on hilariously for hours – nobody even remembered the real issue after that!

Give them the platform to rant – and make sure you listen
The only thing worse than acknowledging positive comments on social media is deleting legitimate negative ones. When your franchise is facing a crisis – big or small – don’t try to hide anything. In
this day and age, everyone can find out anything about you, and it will come back to haunt you if you aren’t transparent. Believe in the power of the Internet. Don’t carry out a back-and-forth exchange in public, as it could fuel mass outrage if someone else has experienced the same problem. If you have decided that this is an issue that warrants a quick response, give them an avenue through which they can rant. Share a phone number or a direct email address where they can reach you, making sure that they know they will be heard.


After the storm – debrief and continue to listen
After you’ve put out the fire, don’t just stop there. Get everyone who was involved together for a debriefing session, and go through the situation, step-by-step. Discuss what worked, and
what can be done better to help ensure you are more prepared the next time. Continue monitoring your social media channels for any possible aftermath – there will always be that one keyboard warrior hoping to stir things up again, but if you have handled your crisis well, rest assured that you will have the help and support of your fans and followers to fend off difficult people moving forward.

If you have been sending out statements (be it through email or social media) to your stakeholders during the crisis, make sure to continue to stay in touch with them. Keep them updated on what
you have done to resolve the issue, along with the outcome, to regain their trust. Make your stakeholders feel that they too play an important role when it comes to decision-making by asking
them how they feel about the way you handled the situation, and whether there is anything you can do to improve it the next time.

Practice, practice, practice
There is no point in having a crisis plan if you don’t know if it is going to work when the real issue hits. It is worth investing some time, preferably on a “sunny day,” to put your social media crisis
management plan to the test. It will help you identify any weak spots that require more attention and fine-tuning. Ensure all key executives and employees are a part of your training. You should
consider holding a quick refresher session once every six months.

In the fast-moving world of social media, it is important to remember that while it is easy to reach millions of people with friendly messages on these platforms, social media can also damage your
brand’s reputation just as easily. Always listen to your audience, and invest in a social media expert to keep your social media engaging, yet mindful. If you’re not willing to invest in a dedicated
team to manage your social media accounts, hold back your social media engagement plan until you’re truly ready.

Hwee Yee Tan is an Account Director at PUNCH Canada in Toronto. She can be reached at or 416-360-6522.