Is your business prepared for the spotlight of a social media crisis?

Apr 14

Written by Joe Shannahan

“When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” – Maya Angelou

This quote from Maya Angelou has increasingly become a rally cry for consumers.

Today, social media has given voice to millions of individuals as they share their opinion on a variety of topics. These voices are now challenging companies and brands to meet community values. If United Airlines’ most recent callous “re-accommodation” of a passenger had occurred twenty years ago before the use of smartphones and social media, the situation likely would have been resolved with only a tiny fraction of the public being aware of the incident.


It is important to remember that companies and people will, on occasion, make terrible decisions. We all know stories of well-known companies and individuals whose carefully developed public perception did not match their actual behavior. When news stories reveal this contradiction, companies and individual reputations are subsequently tarnished. As information flows more freely thanks to new technology, celebrities’ lives are becoming less and less private.

When these situations occur, companies stand to lose more than just their spotless reputation; they may also lose financially. News stories of sexual harassment settlements by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly have generated a significant online effort to demand advertisers to drop their sponsorship for his primetime show. More than 50 companies have pulled their ads from the O’Reilly Factor. As public pressure from consumers grows, companies are making an economic decision to step away from the controversial.

Companies and brands must be prepared to mitigate any long-term damage with a well-planned crisis communications plan. Every organization is vulnerable to a crisis and the timing will never be convenient.

What is your plan if your company is hit with a social media backlash? How long will it take you to make critical decisions to protect your reputation and bottom line? How prepared are you for the unexpected and controversial link to your company? At what point will it be necessary for you to issue a formal and sincere apology? What lessons are you learning from the United Airlines and Bill O’Reilly episodes?

So as Maya Angelou infers, if you are embroiled in any controversy and are not prepared for removing the unwelcome spotlight, people will have no choice but to believe what you have shown them. And that won’t be good for your reputation or your bottom line.