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Crisis Communication in Social Media

January 31, 2013

Published here on January 28, 2013

Social media, like any sector of communication, is not immune to crisis. Below are three examples of such crises and how the various organizations responded. It’s always a good idea to look at the PR efforts of other organizations, as they can often provide valuable tips for you—both as an individual and as the face of a company.

If you want to learn more about how to identify an online social media crisis and ways to deal with it, check out our Social Media Boot Camp

Kenneth Cole:

  • What happened: During the 2011 uprising in Egypt, Kenneth Cole tweeted the following from the company account:

Millions are in an uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at ——- – KC

This insensitive tweet amassed negative attention alarmingly quick, prompting Cole to issue an apology just two hours later. A variety of fake Twitter accounts were created tweeting parodies such as “Our new slingback pumps would make Anne Frank come out of hiding! #KennethColeTweets.”

  • The result: Cole apologized on Facebook, and a few hours later, after reading hundreds of comments and tweets, reiterated his apology again:

I have spent a considerable amount of time reading your comments, and value your insights and feedback. I want to reiterate that my use of levity with regard to this momentous event was extremely inappropriate. My thoughts are with the courageous people of Egypt. –KC

According to the AP, the @KennethCole account gained 3,000 followers that day. There were also reportedly 15,000 clicks on the link to Kenneth Cole’s online store.

  • Bottom line: Social media is slightly more volatile than traditional media because word travels instantly. However, things also die down pretty quickly. A few people debated the sincerity of Cole’s apology, but the retail executive learned his lesson. The scandal was over within about a day.


  • What happened: In 2010, the environmental group Greenpeace turned their focus to Nestlé, claiming that the palm oil used in Kit Kat bars was harmful to orangutans because harvesting this substance contributed to the depletion of rain forests. Greenpeace launched a social media attack, trolling the Facebook page of Nestlé with a “Kit Kat Killer” logo which was a knock-off of the real “Kit Kat” design. Nestlé refused to play fair and tried to control the discussion by screening comments.

To repeat: we welcome your comments, but please don’t post using an altered version of any of our logos as your profile pic – they will be deleted – Nestlé warned.

  • The result: Whoever was in charge of Nestlé’s social media accounts failed to realize the two-way communication aspect of Web 2.0. Attempting to delete Facebook posts did not instill any kind of feelings of organizational transparency—one of the most important things to convey amidst a crisis. Also, most of the negative buzz came from blogs, over which Nestlé had absolutely no control. In the corporate world, Nestlé soon signed an agreement with Greenpeace to stop using palm oil, Greenpeace got its way and the crisis ended. However, Nestlé’s reputation was tainted because it’s response to the online outcry was so elementary.
  • Bottom line: Just like in the realm of conventional media, an organization has very little control over what gets dispersed to the public through social media. Instead of attempting to cover up the crisis, Nestlé should have taken steps to create discussion through accepting the critiques and responding to them in a mature manner.

The Red Cross: 

  • What happened: In 2011, an employee mixed up her personal Twitter account with that of the Red Cross. People were surprised to see the following coming from the giant non-profit’s account:

Ryan found two more 4 bottle backs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer… when we drink we do it right #gettingslizzerd.

Quick to respond, the Red Cross deleted the tweet and responded with:

We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.

  • The result: The Red Cross received entirely positive media attention for their humorous response to this blunder. But the more interesting story here came from Dogfish brewery. The Delaware-based company, which has 110,000 followers on Twitter, launched a blood donation drive for the Red Cross as an unofficial thank you for the marketing boost. Their hashtag was appropriately #gettingslizzerd. Both organizations enjoyed the rise in positive publicity.
  • Bottom line: When the mistake is less than jaw-dropping, humor can be used to correct it. It’s also important to note that some crises can be used as opportunities. Both the Red Cross and Dogfish benefitted from being able to show their human side through the unexpected social media blunder.

As you can see, a social media crisis is not the end of the world. Oftentimes, it can be fixed and ended in the same amount of time it took to begin. In the roiling environment of Web 2.0, you cannot control what ends up on social media, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s the truest form of online engagement to which an organization has access.

About the author:  Joseph Havey is an account manager for the Triangle-based Shelten Media, LLC, a start-up company specializing in social media marketing. He is a junior at N.C. State, majoring in Communication with a focus in PR and a member of N.C. State’s PRSSA chapter. He also writes for their newspaper, Technician. In his free time, he trains for triathlons.


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