The prickly issue of crisis PR and social media – 8 steps

We love this piece from our colleague Peter Wilkinson in Sydney. Great insights into the best approach for nailing crisis comms.


Recently the office supplies store, Officeworks, failed to deliver some paper to us, having promised a same-day service. It created a problem with a deadline we had with a client. Now, I accept mistakes are made, but I couldn’t get through by phone to complain. So I complained on Twitter… and received a tweeted response in minutes and the paper shortly after (by special delivery), and then a sincerely apologetic phone call. I was impressed and my opinion of Officeworks went up.

When we develop a social media strategy clients often ask us:

  1. how to manage the negatives; and
  2. how to minimise the risks.

It used to be that the most aggressive complainants would threaten to take their issue to tabloid TV or newspapers. What social media does is give these same people, and a whole lot more, a more accessible platform. But social media also provides a greater opportunity for us to engage with our customers and improve our reputation. That’s what a good Crisis PR strategy aims to achieve.

To achieve this takes effort. It means we have to be more conscientious about our customer engagement, and the reward is what we all crave – trust.


First make sure we have already designed a functional crisis PR plan that fits into our community engagement strategy.

1.  Ask people to complain to you first

Have a clear avenue of complaint – a customer service hotline, or similar. This gives you the chance to fix their problem, before they blast their frustrations onto the internet.

2.  Monitor all the time

If they do complain online, you will need to engage as soon as possible. This is the hard part and is resource intensive; complaints happen at all hours. But for people who enjoy Crisis PR, this is also the fun part because it is intense and you are genuinely problem solving.

3.  Respond immediately

Be personal and friendly. Remember you are online too, in full public view. First names please. Be as specific as you can: “Hi, my name is Peter, I am really sorry you have had a problem with your delivery. Please PM me or call on 0416 159 985 and I’ll try and get it fixed asap”.

4.  Fix it quickly

People accept that everyone makes mistakes, so people are watching how you behave online under the pressure of a complaint. Done properly, and empathetically, we have found your trust factor goes up, not down if you fix it sensitively and straight away. In the example above you will need to find out what went wrong (if anything, the problem may be with the customer), and report back with a solution.

You may have to go above and beyond, with, for instance, a gift. Above all, be genuine.

5.  Apologise, if you are wrong

We have found your trust factor also goes up, not down, with a genuine apology. There are three components to an apology:

  • Say sorry, and mean it.
  • Commit to investigating the complaint and giving feedback on what happened, or, investigate beforehand and now explain what you found.
  • Make sure it doesn’t happen again (this may take a retraining exercise for staff).

6.  Don’t qualify the apology

A special note on apologies: there is a tendency with some companies to blame the consumer. “We apologise for any inconvenience; however, we have found that with most complaints the consumer didn’t……”. That is not read like an apology.

7.  Define expectations, clearly

Make sure you and your customers have the same expectations. People accept there are rules: delivery times, return policies, opening hours, conditions of the warranty, keeping receipts, etc. Check that the rules on the social media site are also clear, about bad language, or offensive, malicious or defamatory comments.

A common rule is: “Our commitment to you is to respond quickly if you have an issue with an aspect of our business. So please respond to us if we ask you to call us so we can investigate a complaint. If you don’t respond in 24 hours we reserve the right to hide/delete your complaint because occasionally people who complain are mistaken.

8.  Be prepared to take a stand

This is the last resort. There are serial complainants, and you are not going to stop them. This is true of activists who have a fundamental issue with your company’s products. Sometimes you can simply ignore; sometimes you have to financially compensate; sometimes it takes a threat by you of legal action.