Social Media – Crisis Management
“Crisis management” refers to the art, technique or practice of averting or dealing
with crisis situations that threaten to harm an organization, its stakeholders, or
the general public. It is also the attempt to limit the damage of a known or an
unforeseen problem. According to Seeger, Sellnow & Ulmer (1998), there are
three elements that are common to most definitions of crisis: (a) a threat to the
organization, (b) the element of surprise, and (c) a short decision time.
In his paper A Typology of Social Media Crisis, Ashwin Malshe argues that
one of the key benefits of using social media marketing is the two-way interaction
it gives to both businesses and their consumers. “Consumers like it because they
can engage in conversations with the brands they buy” (Malshe), while
businesses recognize the value of keeping their customers interested and
informed. However, this can be a double-edged sword: a customer can as easily
complain about his bad experiences as she can trumpet a good one (Malshe).
Malshe argues that, “The increased efficiency of communication and intimacy
with consumers come at the cost of higher riskiness of the business. At the click
of a button, users can share an article, video, or photograph with their social
network, thus spreading a firm’s content “virally”, generating wide visibility
instantaneously. In exactly the same way, users can harm firms by sharing bad
experiences, rumors, or events that were pure accidents.” Malshe adds that
because there is little accountability on the Internet, firms are put in a tricky spot.
The fact that there are no moderators on social networks monitoring the flow of
information over this super highway only exacerbates the problem (Malshe).
Because of this, social media crisis can flare up quickly and spread at the speed
of light (Malshe), turning the very viral nature of the Internet—a nature that
normally makes it so appealing to marketers—into a very serious threat against
“There are several ways in which one can group social media crises,” argues
Malshe, adding, “An intuitive criterion for categorization can be the type of social
medium.” Whether the crisis erupts on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube will call for
different strategies to be used to address and contain the crisis (Malshe). For
example, since human beings are, first-and-foremost visual creatures, a video on
YouTube will probably elicit more negative reaction than a Tweet on Twitter
(Malshe). However, Malshe argues that crises should not be viewed in a vacuum
as they can quickly spread from one network to another (Malshe). Something
initiated on Facebook can easily be shared with others on Google+, Twitter or the
hundreds of other social networks available today (Malshe). As Malshe notes,
since a YouTube video may generate more attention on Facebook than on
YouTube, it is not that important to identify which social media site the crisis first
blew up on. What is important is countering the crisis on as many social media
sites as it is affecting.
Using the comprehensive typology of crises proposed model by Gundel
(2005) as a starting point, Malshe proposes the typology of social media crises.
Gundel (2005) categorizes crises into “four types based on their predictability
(high vs. low) and controllability (high vs. low)” (Malshe). Grundel “puts an
emphasis on predictability because, in general, organizations can design
measures to proactively eliminate a crisis or at least prepare the response to a
crisis based on its predictability” (Malshe). However, for crises flaring up across
multiple social media networking sites, the consideration of predictability
becomes less important (Malshe). Malshe argues that, “due to its open and viral
nature, social media make crises almost unpredictable. Therefore, although
organizations can put in place measures to avoid crisis-like situations, the
predictability of the time, place, or the nature of [the] crisis is almost zero.” The
global nature of social media also makes it exceptionally difficult to predict these
exacerbating not only the complexity of the problems, but also the responses
necessary to deal with them (Malshe).
Another possible reason for low predictability of social media crises is that
companies currently lack an in-depth understanding of the social media world
(Malshe). Social media marketing still isn’t very well understood and often is not
considered worthy of large IT investments (Malshe). “This underinvestment leads
to two related problems. First, the employees delegated to handle social media
have little resources or incentives to systematically analyze crises that have
already been taking place. Second, a lack of resources leads to relatively small
social media teams, which in some cases handle momentous amounts of data,”
“Controllability is a critical factor for general crisis management as well as
specifically for social media,” states Malshe, adding “Crises with low
controllability are dangerous and can scar the credibility of the firms [involved] for
a long time.” Because content can be easily captured through screen-grabs,
even small mistakes can have huge effects on a company’s brand identity.
“Controversial articles that were yanked from the original websites remain alive
on several blogs which display all or part of the original content,” Malshe notes.
Even though rogue Tweets can be deleted in seconds, they can still jeopardize
multi-million dollar ad campaigns because screenshots of the offending Tweets
can encircle the globe as enthusiastic Twitter users share them with friends and
followers (Malshe). Like a virus replicating itself, the damage can be quick and
Although it seems that all social media crises have low controllability, this is
not necessarily the case (Malshe). By tackling a problem head-on (oftentimes
with disarming humor and/or clever irreverence), a few companies have avoided
their crisis-like situations from turning into full-blown disasters (Malshe). An
example of this is the case of the Red Cross beer Tweeting fiasco: when a Red
Cross social media strategist mistakenly posted a Tweet about alcohol on the
Red Cross’s official Twitter account. The Red Cross not only removed the
offending Tweet quickly but also offered a witty retort on the fiasco, thereby
making light of the situation (Malshe). Such incidences as these are not outliers
and, in a few situations, social media crises can be highly controllable (Malshe).
For Malshe: “It is critical to understand the difference between the two
constructs: ease of control and the degree of controllability. In some cases, the
overall controllability of the crisis can be low. Within that set of cases, a few
crises can be managed, to whatever limited extent, with less effort while the rest
may require more effort.”
Malshe uses several examples to illustrate his point; including the crisis faced
by United Airlines when one of its disgruntled passengers, Dave Carroll,
uploaded his parody song “United Breaks Guitars” to YouTube (Malshe). In the
song, Carroll and his band mates narrate an experience about how United broke
Carroll’s pricey Taylor guitar and refused to reimburse him for the damages.
The song went viral and has now garnered more than 12.8 million views1.
United was very slow to react to the situation, which exacerbated it even more.
The story was picked up by the traditional media and quickly went viral (Malshe).
Overall, for United, this was a situation with very low controllability, but their
inaction exacerbated the problem (Malshe), turning it into a full-blown public
relations disaster. Considering the triviality of the amount involved in this crisis
(about $1,500), it was a relatively “low cost solution for United to offer the money
to Carroll and control the crisis,” Malshe notes. However, even though United
may have reimbursed Carroll, there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t still have
uploaded the song to YouTube (Malshe), but, at the very least, United wouldn’t
have looked so tin-eared.
In one television interview (more bad press for United), Carroll explained that
he was emotionally attached to the guitar and, even after it had been fixed, it
didn’t sound as good as it had before it was broken (Malshe). Therefore, in this
situation, there was little United could have done to control the events from
getting out of hand and becoming a full-blown crisis. However, “they could have
easily averted additional negative publicity by reimbursing Carroll for his
troubles,” argues Malshe, thereby diffusing the crisis to a certain extent. After all
of the social media attention the video received, United did actually offer to
reimburse Carroll, but even then, Carroll took the high road, refusing the money
and asking United to offer it to charity, which, once again, did little to help
United’s public perception (Malshe). It was a lose-lose situation for them that
didn’t necessarily have to be.
Malshe proposes that, to some extent, the shock value of the trigger that
starts the crisis can explain the ease with which the crisis can be controlled
(Malshe). Simply put, the higher the shock value of the trigger, the more difficult
the crisis is to control, although Malshe does admit that, since there has been no
large scale study of this issue, it is difficult to say to what extent shock value
explains the correlation (Malshe).
Malshe uses two dimensions to categorize social media crises. The first,
“Controllability”, is based on Gundel’s definition (2005) and is described as
something that is “controllable if responses to limit or eliminate the crisis by
influencing its causes are known as well as executable” (Malshe). “Controllability”
can either be high or low as can the effort required to control it (Malshe). This
effort, Malshe argues, is a function of the shock value of the trigger, which refers
to the extent to which a crisis-triggering incidence offends the social media
community (Malshe). The amount to which the masses can be shocked by a
single event is completely dependent upon the context (Malshe).
The shock value of the trigger “refers to the degree to which an incident that
is embedded in the context and time offends members of the social media
community” (Malshe). This shock value can’t be isolated from the context and
time, making the predictability of social media crises even more difficult to gauge
Malshe divides crises into four categories and they are based on whether a
crisis has high or low levels of controllability and the shock value of the trigger is
either high or low, for example:
Soft Crises: Like the Red Cross Tweet previously mentioned, soft crises
have high levels of controllability and low levels of shock value. Left
unattended, a soft crisis is likely to turn into a full-blown crisis so it is
important to recognize the crisis, isolate the classification and immediately
issue a response.
Firefighting: This type of crises is highly controllable but it also has a high
trigger of shock value. Even though controllability is high, the high shock
value of the crisis has the potential to overwhelm a company’s social
media department, which could mean the situation unravels rapidly.
Wait and watch: These require patience and a thick skin. These crises are
caused by less shocking triggers, but they have very low controllability.
The crisis can go viral very quickly and the more an organization responds
to the crisis, the more disastrous it could become.
Disaster: These are highly uncontrollable and shocking crisis situations
and they can break organizations.
The Red Cross Tweet was a soft crisis because the original Tweet was
offensive, but its shock value was relatively low and a clarification on the origin of
the Tweet was enough to dissipate the tension in the social media world
(Malshe). It is really not surprising that the Red Cross has employees who think
about drinking beer after work, but the Tweet made it sound as if the employees
were drinking on the job (Malshe). Once the facts were presented, the crisis was
Ashton Kutcher’s November 2011 Tweet stream about the firing of Penn
State Football team coach Joe Paterno is one of the most celebrated examples
of a firefighting crisis (Malshe). Kutcher, who had more than eight million Twitter
followers at the time, expressed his disappointed in the firing and thought that the
whole incident lacked class (Malshe). However, Kutcher was ignorant of the fact
that Paterno had been let go because of his reluctance to fire a coach who had
been accessed of raping a child in the Penn State men’s locker room (Malshe).
Understandably, there was a huge backlash against Kutcher’s Tweet and his
image was badly bruised (Malshe). Kutcher “immediately decided to stop
engaging directly with his Twitter fans and followers” (Malshe) and has since
outsourced his social media responses.
This incident is a perfect example of a firefighting crisis. The trigger—the
offending Tweet—was highly shocking to the social media community (Malshe).
Had he acted to counter his offensive Tweet, Kutcher could have controlled the
crisis before it had spread so wide, Malshe argues. Looking back, it is surprising
to see that one person—a busy celebrity at that—insisted on communicating with
his followers on a one-to-one basis, thereby so easily exposing himself to a crisis
(Malshe). “The crisis was controllable because Kutcher could have put in place a
system to tackle such situations,” Malshe concludes.
The United Airlines crisis is a perfect example of a wait and watch crisis. The
song was hardly shocking, but it had huge amusement value, which made it go
viral. Once the video was available on YouTube, there was little United could do
to defuse the crisis.
In April 2009, the video of two Domino’s Pizza employees tainting food at a
Domino’s franchisee hit YouTube and, unsurprisingly, it instantly went viral
(Malshe). Domino’s Pizza immediately found itself in a classic disaster situation
(Malshe). “The enormous shock value of the YouTube video coupled with
extremely low controllability of the crisis made it the worst possible situation for
Domino’s,” states Malshe.
Domino’s responded with a YouTube video of its own: Patrick Doyle, the
President of Domino’s USA acknowledged that the two people in the video were,
indeed, employees of a Domino’s franchisee, but he explained that warrants for
their arrests had been issued and that the store where they had worked had
been completely sanitized since the incident (Malshe). This crisis became a
disaster because the trigger—the YouTube video—had a very high shock
value—and the crisis was highly uncontrollable (Malshe). The employees’ actions
were suicidal and completely unpredictable (Malshe). Domino’s couldn’t really be
faulted for not having a plan for such an extreme scenario as the sheer
bizarreness of the act of sabotage made it uncontrollable and really unavoidable
Going forward, Domino’s promised to toughen its employment hiring
practices, while also hammering home the message that this was an isolated
incident that didn’t represent normal Domino’s employees behavior (Malshe).
Once Domino’s responded, however, it could do little but hope for the situation to
blow over, which, after a short while, it did. “In contrast to United Airlines,
Domino’s Pizza faced a highly shocking social media crisis and experienced a
major damage to their brand name,” states Malshe, however, neither company
was in a position to do much about it.
As with normal crisis management, the response to a social media crisis
should involve the three steps of crisis management—prevention, response, and
recovery—and Malshe suggests the Hale, Dulek, and Hale (2005) model be
used. In this model, Hale, Dulek, and Hale (2005) propose that the response can
be divided into four sub-processes: observation, interpretation, choice, and
dissemination. Malshe breaks these processes down in the following way:
Observation entails collecting all the relevant information at the
onset of the crisis. Interpretation involves assessing information
within the context of the current crisis to determine both its accuracy
and its relevance. Choice involves assessing viability of different
alternative actions and choosing the most appropriate among them.
Finally, dissemination leads to information exchange with the public.
According to Malshe, the four-step response to a social media crisis is:
Soft crises and firefighting: For soft crisis and firefighting, Malshe suggests
implementing the Hale, Dulek, and Hale’s (2005) spiral crisis response
communication model. In this model, the four steps of the crisis
communication—observation, interpretation, choice, and dissemination—
are repeated one after another in a kind of circle. “Such a model is most
appropriate for the crises with high controllability,” Malshe argues, adding
that, “By actively engaging in the four steps, crisis can be managed more
effectively and prevented from growing into a disaster.”
Wait and watch disaster: For the two crises situations where controllability
is low, Malshe contends the spiral communication model is redundant. By
constantly changing the response based on developments within various
social media avenues, an organization is very likely to make a bad
situation worse. Therefore, it is more appropriate to select a linear model
that follows Hale, Dulek, and Hale’s (2005) four steps—observation,
interpretation, choice, and dissemination. After the information is
disseminated to the public, there may not be a need to actively keep on
responding to the crisis as the organization doesn’t have any control over
Add a bookmark with the latest social media crisis management.
Gundel, Stephen. (2005). Towards a New Typology of Crises, Journal of
Contingencies and Crisis Management, 13 (3), 106 – 115.
Hale, J. E., Dulek, R. E., & Hale, D. P. (2005). Crisis Response Communication
Challenges Building Theory From Qualitative Data. Journal of Business
Communication, 42 (2), 112-134.
Malshe, Ashwin. A Typology of Social Media Crises. ESSEC Business School,
Seeger, M. W., Sellnow, T.L., & Ulmer, R.R. (1998). “Communication,
organization and crisis”. Communication Yearbook 21: 231-275.
Controllability, brand identity, rogue Tweets, Red Cross beer Tweeting fiasco,
United Breaks Guitars, shock value of the trigger, Gundel, Social Media Soft
Crises, Social Media Firefighting crisis, Social Media Wait and watch crisis, social
media disaster crisis, Ashton Kutcher Joe Paterno Tweet, Domino’s Pizza food
tainting, three steps of crisis management—prevention, response, and recovery