"Be prepared" is not just the motto of the Boy Scouts, but a credo that every company should adhere to if it wants to be successful. And that includes having a sound strategy for social media interactions, including handling crises.

As Altimeter Group's Jermiah Owyang explains in a blog post, a social media crisis "arises in or is amplified by social media, and results in negative mainstream media coverage, a change in business process, or financial loss." According to Altimeter research, 50 such social media crises took place between January 2001 and last August, 76 percent of which could have been averted with the necessary preparation and properly trained staff to respond to the situation.

Just like emergency services plan ahead for disasters, companies need to play out theoretical scenarios to make sure they are prepared to handle a real situation, should one arise. Brian Solis, principal at Altimeter Group, says companies need a crisis plan. And being transparent should be at the top on their agenda. "They need to have a culture of transparency and authenticity," Solis says. Additionally, companies' responses should show they've been listening to customers.


Although companies can't control social content, by properly handling situations they can remedy problems. The Scotts Company, Dominos, and Intel talk about how they equip themselves to handle social media crises.

Preparedness pays off

At a minimum, social media keeps companies on their toes, having shrunk the time they have to react to unexpected situations. Beth Dockins, Scotts' director of customer service, says when a problem arose in the pre-social era, the company would call a press conference, sit down with its lawyers, and prepare a statement. "You don't get that opportunity anymore with social media," Dockins says. "You have less than five minutes to respond to a major catastrophe, so you have to be prepared."

Social media success depends heavily on a company's ability to monitor chatter. "At a minimum, you need Google Alerts or another software program that will give you an instant feed of what's going on around you," Dockins says.

As a highly regulated organization, Scotts cannot risk being caught off guard. Instead, the lawn and garden company has very stringent criteria for all its PR outreaches, including communications over social media. Dockins says the Scotts' strategy includes identifying who will speak on behalf of the company and ensure that they are prepared with talking points. "What's important in social media is owning up to the problem immediately, giving as much information as you legally can about what happened, and wrapping it up with the next steps you're going to take," says Dockins. Additionally, to make its social interactions more credible, Scotts provides the names and titles of the employees who are commenting and answering posts. 

Dockins is a firm believer of being proactive. For example, weed treatment success often depends on weather. Aware that extensive rain in the Boston area last summer was likely going to interfere with its weed treatment, the company sent a proactive message to its customers, asking them to report problems so that Scotts could re-treat the lawn. "Now they're not mad," she says, "because we've told them what to expect."

Dominos apologizes to regain trust

When a video surfaced on YouTube showing a Dominos employee tainting food with nasal mucus, the company went into overdrive to try and contain the disaster, which threatened to ruin the pizza maker's reputation. Even as it searched for those responsible, and before having determined the authenticity of the video, which turned out to be a prank, Dominos prepared a response.

Initially unsuccessful to have the video removed, Dominos reacted with its own video. As outlined in a Wall Street Journal blog, Dominos' then-president Patrick Doyle joined a number of executives who have used YouTube to apologize. "There is nothing more important or sacred to us than our customers' trust," a somber-looking Doyle said. He also outlined the way forward, saying that the company was reexamining its hiring practices.

The apology was important to reassure customers that Dominos was taking the situation seriously, even though, as Tim McIntyre, Dominos' vice president of communications, puts it, the company had been the victim of a prank. "Dominos owns all of its trademarks, but we don't own the brand. Our customers do," McIntyre says.

Phil Lozen, Dominos' primary social media monitor, says the incident prompted the company to lock down its social media strategy. The first step was outlining social media guidelines that are shared with Dominos employees and franchise owners. Lozen says the social media team works closely with the digital marketing and customer care teams, actively listening to social media channels daily. The company also started interacting more with its customers.

McIntyre says Dominos' social media crises strategy is driven by speed. " Whenever we see something that doesn't feel right, that we believe might negatively impact the brand, the first thing is to figure out how real the threat is, and have protocols in place to alert the organization's most senior people," he says.

Intel creates center of excellence

Aware of the important role that social media plays in company-customer interactions, about three years ago Intel set up a social media center of excellence. The COE establishes rules of engagement over social channels, guiding employees in the social interactions on behalf of the company.

Through a hub-and-spoke model, Intel involves employees across the whole organization in its social media strategy, says Rebecca Brown, the company's director of social media strategy. Brown's team sets the strategy on how Intel uses social media for all aspects of the business, ranging from customer support to product launches and events. While the team controls the brand's main social media pages, these are connected to country-specific pages that are managed by employees in the regions who understand both the language and culture. This extensive infrastructure allows Intel to react to crises in specific countries much faster.

Brown says success in social media hinges greatly on connectivity between different departments, who alert each other at the hint of a problem. Moreover, the company has a set chain of command to ensure that the right person can be reached immediately. Intel also has a crisis management team with members specifically focused on social media.

A learning process happened in 2010 when activists protesting minerals mining in the Congo took to Intel's Facebook page to post dozens of critical comments. The company faced additional criticism when it shut down the discussion, telling fans it was in the process of setting up an alternate "place for this type of discussion." Brown says the moderation guidelines weren't very clear at the time. Since then the company has set clear guidelines and made it mandatory for all its country teams to have a copy in their native language.

"The [most important] thing with crises is that you have to be prepared to react," Brown says.