The human-driven social media crisis


When people talk about social media crisis, what do they mean?

The most serious crises are those that happen in the real world, and play out online. In this post, however, we’re going to look at pure social media crises – those that are caused by the rapid pace of communication

Every crisis is different

No two crises are the same, as they each involve different brands, issues, and members of the public who are passionate about the incident. Yet the people who have been through Polpeo simulations know, methods of managing a social media crisis remain consistent enough to apply certain principles to most situations.

This is why marketers can analyse crisis case studies and learn from them. What mistakes did the brand make? How successful was its response? Does the example reveal any risks that your own brand may face?

April: a bumper month for crisis case studies

I’ll admit, as a member of Polpeo’s angry public team, and a crisis scenario writer, I’m a tad obsessed with examples of social media crises. April has been a busy month.

Crises come in many forms, but the most unpredictable ones are those caused by the random acts of people.



A Starbucks barista drew what one customer believed were satanic symbols in the coffee foam of a schoolteacher’s order. She then snapped a picture and posted it to the brand’s Facebook page, where it received more than 2000 shares. The brand responded well by apologising in a statement while protecting the privacy of its employee.

Transport for London

Someone on Transport for London’s Twitter team responded to a commuter complaint with an impolite tweet.

TFL tweeted an apology and officially apologised to Dan. Once the gaffe started getting media coverage it issued a statement of apology and said it was investigating what happened.

US Airways

The US Airways social media team had a really bad day on the 14th. One of the team tweeted a customer a very NSFW photo (and definitely not suitable to show on this blog), which was, of course, retweeted many, many times. It was on the brand’s Twitter feed for an hour before deletion. US Airways issued a statement apologising for the error, saying that the photo had been sent to them and flagged, but inadvertently pasted into the reply to the customer.

Columbia University

Students have accused the university of mishandling sexual assault and rape allegations. It’s an ongoing issue for Columbia, and several other prestigious American colleges. So when this cake appeared in the cafeteria, it was seen as insensitive to say the least.

The university removed the cake and issued a statement claiming that it was a “well-meant but inappropriate gesture by an employee”, but for those already angry with the university this was just another sign that their concerns weren’t being recognised.

Air Canada

A passenger managed to film baggage handlers dropping passengers luggage from a high platform, rather than walking down the stairs with them. The video is approaching 3 million views on YouTube.

When the video was brought to the airline’s attention (via Twitter) it responded:

But it’s not just regular employees that mess up – sometimes it’s the CEO (we’ll take a look at these in my next post).

It’s easy for people to make mistakes…

People are supposed to make mistakes, it’s how we learn. I suppose you could argue that the same principle applies to companies.

The internet can be a very unforgiving place. Mistakes can live on for months or years. Reputations take a battering, with trust taking a long time to earn back.

You can’t completely eliminate human error. But you can reduce it, by creating strong social media policies and procedures, and by having the right tools in place, and giving your teams the best training possible.

We give our simulation participants a hard time at Polpeo, but they leave the experience knowing that if the real thing happens, they have the tools and ability to manage the crisis.

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