How to Survive a Social Media Crisis?

How to Survive a Social Media Crisis?

The internet has considerably changed the rules of public discourse. Whereas previously, unhappy customers still had to write complaint letters in order to unleash their dissatisfaction about a brand, the age of social media has given them tools to vent their anger with simply one mouse-click. In fact, publicly tearing down brands via Twitter or Facebook has become a very popular phenomenon in recent years. Some of the big players like Dell, Nestlé or McDonald’s have already been affected and the list is getting bigger and bigger. A wrong word, a wrong gesture or an unconsidered response and millions of people share their resentment and frustration with other users in real-time. Under the guise of anonymity, the criticism of the users frequently drifts into exorbitant insults, verbal abuses and collective outrage. It goes without mentioning that such storms of protests naturally come along with undesirable, unpleasant and image-damaging consequences for the companies, accompanied by massive costs to recover from the resulting PR disaster. Thus, the most important question that pops up in the minds of many companies is: How to actually survive a social media crisis?

In the following, best-practice examples of companies that have previously been in the center of a social media firestorm are introduced and thoroughly analyzed. Based on the case studies, we will try to derive appropriate guidelines and recommendations for companies to prepare for the worst case scenario.

To start with, we would like to introduce a typology of different groups of people that are commonly involved in a social media backlash. According to, people can be categorized into different groups, corresponding to their intentions, motifs, views and whether they are more rationally or emotionally driven.

  • Activists: The activists care about the questions of principle. The way a company treats its customers, for example. They are not happy with a simple solution to the problem – they want to make sure that processes are changed.
  • Stormers: Stormers mainly want attention. Because of this, it is in their interest to prolong the problem.
  • Freeloaders: These users take everything – as long as it is for free. Every problem is blown up as big as possible to get back a free sample or coupon.
  • Trolls: Trolls are not just tiny plastic figures with funny hair – online, they like to have fun by discussing all sorts of topics. They want to make their listeners (or readers) laugh.
“Nowitzki’s Wurst” – A Positive Reaction to Social Media Firestorms

Dealing with social media firestorms, there are both positive and negative examples. Our first case is an advertisement of the European bank Ing-DiBa.

Description of the Story

The German basketball superstar Dirk Nowitzki appeared in a commercial for Ing-DiBa and caused quite a stir for eating some sausages. The plot: Nowitzki returns after years to the butcher shop he always went to as a child. When the elderly woman behind the counter asks him “What did we always use to say?”, Nowitzki responds “So you grow big and strong”, before eating a slice of sausage.

What Happened?

In allusion to the woman behind the counter which gives Dirk Nowitzki an extra slice of sausage, Ing-DiBa wanted to promote their special “extra account” for their customers. But instead of recognition, a huge public outcry arose. The reason for that was the NBA champion’s alleged misstep – eating a slice of sausage by claiming it will make him “big and strong”.


Particularly vegetarians took offense at this action and started to attack the bank’s Facebook page in order to express their outrage about Nowitzki eating “dead animals” on TV. Under their slogan “How dare you?”, numerous vegetarians started to complain and discuss about meat consumption. In the end, Ing-DiBa’s Facebook page turned into a platform where different pressure groups like vegetarians, vegans as well as convinced meat eaters discussed about ethical behaviors.

How Did the Ing-DiBa Deal With It?

The bank decided to keep themselves out of the endless debate. After a few days, they responded by appealing to their followers to deal with the issue with the “greatest possible respect.” They invoiced all parties to accept different opinions and to be open-minded.

Why Was the Reaction Positive?

In contrast to other cases where companies have been publicly attacked, the bank’s reaction was overall positive. In fact, they never started to delete comments or to shut down their Facebook page. Rather, they provided their followers a platform to discuss and left them the freedom to share their opinions. In the end, they called on their followers to be more respectful and tolerant.

“Give the Orang-Utan a Break” – A Negative Reaction to Social Media Firestorms

Description of the Story

In March 2010, Greenpeace put the blame on Nestlé for doing business with an Indonesian palm oil supplier for their Kit Kat products. In fact, this palm oil came under criticism because of the deforestation it causes. Moreover, its exploitation process threatens the habitat of endangered species, particularly those of Orang-Utans.

What Happened?

After having released a report on the deforestation of the Rain Forest, Greenpeace launched a video campaign against Kit Kat on Youtube. Inexorably, the video went viral in a few days and resulted in 78,000 views and many negative comments on Facebook and Twitter. Progressively, the anger of the online users escalated to a major social media crisis. In the light of Nestlé’s hostile reactions and their implemented censorship, people started not only to boycott the Facebook page of the brand but also its fan page with the tagline “NOT A FAN!” and accused the company of having caused the biggest ‘social media fail’ of all times.


How did Nestlé React?

As the video went viral, the company shut down the video on Youtube. Moreover, they did not respond properly to the criticism and, in some cases, even deleted negative user comments. After this defensive, authoritative action, the community manager started to answer to complaints in an increasingly rude manner. As the social media meltdown got uncontrollable, Nestlé kept silent for several days. Finally, the company apologized, announced some concrete solutions, and eventually agreed on cutting the partnership with the shady supplier.

Why was the Reaction Negative?

The way Nestlé dealt with the attack was very unprofessional and very damaging for the brand’s reputation. One of the main problems was that Nestlé was not prepared to handle such a crisis and that they did not have a proper crisis management. Moreover, the company left no room for discussion and did not listen to their community. Until then, Nestlé was not aware of the consequences censoring comments on social media, ignoring the fact that social media is a place dedicated to consumer’s speech, as it is the users to set the rules.

Overall, their decision to censor comments was not appropriate and probably their biggest mistake. Furthermore, you really have to be careful about the tone you choose when talking to your audience.


Are there specific advices for dealing with a Social Media Crisis?

The case of Ing-DiBa made clear that a prudent behaviour can take the wind out of critic’s sails. By contrast, as seen in the last example, the damages for a company’s image and success caused by social media backlash can be immense and made worse, if the reaction to people’s opinions and reproaches are not appropriate. To help you find the right way for a reasonable handling, we will present you 10 Golden Rules:

  1. Define processes for official statements and approvals or introduce a crisis manual for reconfirming them!
  2. Promptly author a clear, factual statement with regards to content for the online community and thereby do not get emotional!
  3. Provide an official statement, centrally available for journalists, media and official institutions!
  4. Implement an Issue Management and collect, categorise, classify and verify allegations. Not every reproach is meaningful and has to be answered immediately. Hence stick to a differentiated communication!
  5. Inform employees and create awareness: They are image-holders too and should only communicate official statement – ideally, they keep out of the discussions!
  6. Moderate the discussion by pulling it into a distinct discussion board, in which the community can argue the issue!
  7. Put together clear rules for the duration of the firestorm (internally and externally) and comply with them transparently for everyone. Take out postings that break these rules, law or morality and give a warning as well as a reference to the rules!
  8. Only use standardised postings during the crisis communication, in order to not offer any new points of attack!
  9. Involve law experts to know the state of affairs about the issue itself, but also about the legal violations on e. g. social media platforms!
  10. Fully document the discussion, as it is necessary for possible review with regards to content or law!
“After a Social Media Crisis is Before a Social Media Crisis”

As said before, in today’s social media environment, every action, every email and every business decision has the potential to be questioned and bashed. The risk of clashing with the values of stakeholders is higher than ever and the avalanche of negative social media attacks comes faster and faster. Therefore, it is essential to be aware of social media backlashes and not to lean back if you just successfully managed an attack. The next avalanche of negative social media attacks could already be triggered. So, be prepared for the case of emergency. Encourage yourself and use the social media platforms not only to inspire the community but also for crisis communication – give your audience the chance to interact with you and to get to know and understand you better. The more sovereign you act, the better for the reputation of your business. Even though a social media backlash can not always be avoided, sovereign, fast, thorough and proper response can prevent worse.

Share your experiences and best-practices with us!

Have you already been affected by a social media crisis? How did you manage to tackle the problem? What are your thoughts on how companies could better prevent and react to social media backlashes?

With our tips at hand, you are always one step ahead.

So stay tuned, and don’t forget:


by Marine Legouet, Julia Lutz, Lisa-Marie Mayer, Eva Maria Miller, Corinna Wolff


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Dohms, H. & Kirchner, C. (2012). Wer den Sport hat, hat den Shitstorm. Retrieved from:–hat-den-shitstorm-3524144.html

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