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Key Weapons for Fighting Social Media Wildfires: Crisis Experts Weigh-In

Chances are, sooner or later you will find yourself caught in a social media wildfire, or at least see smoke in the distance. Are you prepared to fight the fire? I asked seven of the leading social media crisis experts, “what is the most important weapon you need to fight a social media crisis?” With their answers, you can build a full arsenal to manage any negative event you face.

 A strong frontline that has been trained in effective issues management is extremely important today. The frontline members of your team are those who have spent the time to develop relationships with your audiences. They are the face of your brand and, therefore, are a key component in an organization's issues management, which can go a long way in preventing crises from ever developing or spiraling out of control. 

Your frontline should be trained to:

-Understand what an issue looks like and can potentially mean for your brand

-Spot red flags that can quickly escalate into crises

-Respond to developing issues in real-time, the right way

-Understand escalation protocol for issues that can potentially begin to develop into heavier risks

 Bonus tip: Melissa threw in her “10 new rules of crisis communications.” Because social media is constantly changing the landscape of crisis communications, you’ll need to get up to speed.  

Melissa Agnes is President of Agnes + Day, the Crisis Intelligence Firm. Melissa has developed an international reputation for crisis management, planning and training. Her client list includes Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, as well as public, private and not-for-profit organizations.

To me, one of the most valuable social media crisis management tools one can have in their arsenal is a heaping helping of good old common sense. So many of the crises we see are a result of ignoring common sense - going ahead with offensive marketing campaigns, walking right into hashtag hijackings, giving interns sole control of company social media accounts - which to me says this is a tool that's been sorely overlooked. Common sense will help you prepare for, prevent, spot and manage crises, making it not only one of the most valuable, but perhaps the most versatile, social media crisis management tool there is.

Bonus tip: Have a simple web publishing platform prepared to redirect people to for expanded or multimedia messaging (we like WordPress). It functions like a real-time news feed, so to speak. It’s much easier to manage and can easily be linked to all your other communication channels.

Erik Bernstein is a seasoned social media manager and prolific freelance blog writer for Bernstein Crisis Management, a crisis firm based in southern California.

  • "Three things that can keep the fire from spreading" from Gini Dietrich, CEO, Arment Dietrich, Inc.

1. Always say you’re sorry… and mean it.

2. Take conversations offline and do what you can to help the person who has an issue or challenge.

3. Keep your cool and don’t get defensive or take things personally.

When you do those three things, the crisis rarely develops into something you can’t manage.

Gini Dietrich is CEO of Arment Dietrich and co-author of Marketing in the Round. She also writes a Cison Top 50 PR blog, Spin Sucks


  • “Identify who your key influencers are” from Jane Jordan-Meier, Strategic Advisor at Sefiani Communications.

Understanding exactly who the key influencers are for your brand/industry/product will help you track sentiment and important conversations in a crisis. It will also help your keep a handle on how quickly your event is spreading and what its current reach is. Be familiar with influencers’ social graph and know who their second and third degree connections are. The bigger their social reach, the quicker your wildfire can jump the fire line. Sometimes their following may be small but the influence is huge and their one tweet may trigger your “hot” issue into a full-blown crisis. Don’t just follow the incident, follow the people that are following the incident.

Bonus tip: Have a “cheat-sheet” with a list of brand social media accounts: who is administrating them, what passwords are used, and who is responsible for what information during an event. Make sure that response time requirements are spelled out.

A former journalist with Australian Consolidated Press in Sydney, Jane Jordan-Meier has been at the forefront of media training and crisis management for over two decades and is the author of The Four Highly Effective Stages of Crisis Management. 

  • “Set up a listening and monitoring strategy in advance” from Jeff Domansky,  APR, Founder of The PR Coach.

One of the keys in an online crisis is monitoring. Key to setting up a listening and monitoring strategy in advance are:

-Knowing what you want to measure

-Choosing your key social media channels

-Determining the reach you need and the ability to get real-time alerts and information

-Picking an appropriate budget.

 Bonus tip: There are many free or inexpensive social media monitoring tools available to help you keep an eye on your name, key executives, brand or company mentions. Recent favorite tools of mine include Hootsuite to get real-time alerts from your social media channels; Tweetreach for Twitter alerts and analytics; Social Mention and IceRocket for blogs; to monitor your own, competitor or critics' websites; to get real-time alerts from your social media channels; Talkwalker for in-depth, real time social media alerts, and the old standby Google Alerts at least until its rumored demise.

Jeff Domansky is a social media and PR consultant in Vancouver, BC. He blogs at The PR Coach and can be reached on Twitter @theprcoach.

  • “Have a plan for failure” from Kim Stephens, Lead blogger of iDisaster 2.0, Senior Associate at Abt Associates.

Social media managers should brief their leadership in advance of any crisis about the culture of social networking and gain their support to be as open and honest as possible. Without a plan in place, in the heat of an event, leadership’s gut reaction could be to retreat inside the organizational walls and hope it passes quickly.  However, social media conversations will occur with or without you, leaving lots of room for speculation and opening the door for criticism. Of course, in our highly litigious society, it is probably not wise to admit fault right away—or ever. Nonetheless, having support to at least acknowledge the problem in the first hour, for example, is a good start.

Bonus tip: Plan for back-up. Even the most skilled social media manager will need to have “force multipliers” in place: canned or automatic responses to an irate customer or concerned family member, for instance, can make matters much worse. These force multipliers are probably easier to find than you think. Sprint, for instance, has turned to its own employees. Any Sprint employee can volunteer to become a Social Media Ninja and act as an “ambassador, promoting products and services and assisting customers”. In a crisis, these individuals could serve to amplify the brand’s message and report back any rumors or misinformation they are encountering. This feedback loop is an important way to understand when your broader messaging needs adjustment.

Kim has over a decade of experience in the field of emergency management, both as a researcher and a practitioner. Her experience has spanned federal, local and non-governmental organizations: from the US Environmental Protection Agency, to the Tennessee Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management, and the American Red Cross.

  • “Establish a strong, loyal presence on social media channels now” from Rich Klein, founder of The Crisis Show.

Brands must have Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts set up BEFORE a social media wildfire starts. This is where people go in crisis situations to learn about a company's words and actions when a crisis hits. And if it's spreading like wildfire on social media, that's where brands need to engage critical audiences, including the media. Waiting for a crisis to jump on social media is a set-up for failure. The audience will see you as intrusive and negligent. It is also likely you will have little influence there anyway as your follower numbers will be small and non-influential. The public will more likely turn to influencers such as media members, your competition, and your enemies.

Bonus tip: Brands should also have the capability to broadcast video using tools like Skype, Spreecast, Livestream,  and Google Hangouts On Air. 

Rich is head of Rich Klein Crisis Management and founder of the weekly online program, The Crisis Show. 

  • “Control the message quickly by identifying associated hashtags people are using,” from Karen Freberg, Associate Professor in Strategic Communications at the University of Louisville.

Quickly identify hashtags people are using in a moment of crisis. Crisis communication professionals want to make sure to not only track the ones that the brand or audience members are using, but also be aware of those that are being used by others such as the traditional media or watchdog media. Rite Tag ( allows people to do this and scan to see what other hashtags are being used in conjunction to the one being monitored. In addition, Rebel Mouse and Tagboard are also good platforms to share with others what people are sharing on your social media platforms based on the associated social media accounts linked and hashtags you are tracking. Both of these tools can showcase a level of transparency to your audiences online.

Bonus tip: Be aware of emerging tools to monitor other forms of content in a crisis: While Twitter and Facebook are key platforms to use in a crisis, there are other platforms that can be used to evaluate what people are sharing visually as well like on platforms like Instagram. Nitrogram ( is a great resource to monitor and analyze what people are sharing visually. Instagram played a huge role in the Hurricane Sandy crisis and has established itself as a prominent visual storytelling platform for individuals, brands, and news (BBC has used it to communicate news in 15 seconds).

Freberg’s research has been published in several book chapters and in academic journals such as Public Relations Review, Teaching Public Relations, Journal of Contingency & Crisis Management, Journal of Strategic Security, Media Psychology Review, and Health Communication.  She also serves on the editorial board for Psychology for Popular Media Culture and Case Studies in Strategic Communication (CSSC). She is a former NCAA Division I student-athlete


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  • May 14 Posted 3 years ago Shannon Byrne

    Hey Chris! Thanks so much for mentioning mention (! We actually just released a new version of the app that's 2x faster with an offline mode. Can I send you more info? 

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