Crisis Management

In his paper A Typology of Social Media Crisis[i], Ashwin Malshe argues that one of the key benefits of using social media marketing is the two-way interaction it gives to both businesses and their consumers. “Consumers like it because they can engage in conversations with the brands they buy,”185 while businesses recognize the value of keeping their customers interested and informed. However, this can be a double-edged sword as a customer can as easily complain about his or her bad experiences as he or she can trumpet a good one.185

Malshe argues that185:

“The increased efficiency of communication and intimacy with consumers come at the cost of higher riskiness of the business. Users can share an article, video, or photograph with their social network at the click of a button, thus spreading a firm’s content “virally,” generating wide visibility instantaneously. In exactly the same way, users can harm firms by sharing bad experiences, rumors, or events that were pure accidents.”

Malshe adds that because there is little accountability on the Internet, firms are put in a tight spot. The fact that there are no moderators on social networks monitoring the flow of information over this super highway only exacerbates the problem.185 Because of this, social media crisis can flare up quickly and spread at the speed of light185, turning the very viral nature of the Internet—a nature that normally makes it so appealing to marketers—into a very serious threat against them.

“There are several ways in which one can group social media crises,” argues Malshe, adding that “An intuitive criterion for categorization can be the type of social medium.”185Whether the crisis erupted on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube will call for different strategies to be used to address and contain the crisis.185 For example, since human beings are, first-and-foremost visual creatures, a video on YouTube will probably elicit more negative reaction than a Tweet on Twitter.185 However, Malshe argues that crises should not be viewed in a vacuum as they can quickly spread from one network to the next.185 Something initiated on Facebook can easily be shared with others on Google+, Twitter, or the hundreds of other social networks available today.185 As Malshe notes, since a YouTube video may generate more attention on Facebook than on YouTube, it is not that important to identify which social media site the crisis first blew up on.185 What is important is countering the crisis on as many social media sites as it is affecting.185

Using the Comprehensive Typology of Crises Model[ii] proposed by Gundel as a starting point, Malshe proposes the Typology of Social Media Crises. Gundel categorizes crises into “four types based on their predictability (high vs. low) and controllability (high vs. low).”186 Grundel “puts an emphasis on predictability because, in general, organizations can design measures to proactively eliminate a crisis or at least prepare the response to a crisis based on its predictability.”186 However, for crises flaring up across multiple social media networking sites, the consideration of predictability becomes less important.186 Malshe argues that, “due to its open and viral nature, social media makes crises almost unpredictable. Therefore, although organizations can put in place measures to avoid crisis-like situations, the predictability of the time, place, or the nature of crisis [sic] is almost zero.”185 The global nature of social media also makes it exceptionally difficult to predict these types of crises, with language, geographical and cultural differences exacerbating not only the complexity of the problems, but also the responses necessary to deal with them.185

Another possible reason for low predictability of social media crises is that companies currently lack an in-depth understanding of the social media world.185 Social media marketing still isn’t very well understood and often is not considered worthy of large IT investments.185 Although this is starting to change “this underinvestment leads to two related problems. First, the employees delegated to handle social media have little resources or incentives to systematically analyze crises that have already been taking place. Second, a lack of resources leads to relatively small social media teams, which in some cases handle momentous amounts of data,” warns Malshe.185

“Controllability is a critical factor for general crisis management as well as specifically for social media,” states Malshe, adding “Crises with low controllability are dangerous and can scar the credibility of the firms for a long time.”185 Because content can be easily captured through screen-grabs, even small mistakes can have huge effects on a company’s brand identity. “Controversial articles that were yanked from the original websites remain alive on several blogs which display all or part of the original content,” Malshe notes. Even though rogue Tweets can be deleted in seconds, they can still jeopardize multi-million dollar ad campaigns because screenshots of the offending Tweets can encircle the globe as enthusiastic Twitter users share them with friends and followers.185 Like a virus replicating itself, the damage can be quick and sometimes fatal.

Although it seems that all social media crises have low controllability, that is not necessarily the case.185 By tackling a problem head-on (oftentimes with disarming humor and/or clever irreverence), a few companies have been able to avoid their own crisis-like situations turning into full-blown disasters.185 An example of this is the case of the Red Cross beer Tweeting fiasco: when a Red Cross social media strategist mistakenly posted a Tweet about alcohol on the Red Cross’s official Twitter account. The Red Cross not only removed the offending Tweet quickly but also offered a witty retort on the fiasco, thereby making light of the situation.185 Such incidences as these are not outliers and, in a few situations, social media crises can be highly controllable.185 People are, by nature, forgiving creatures and as long as they believe one is being sincere they will give companies the benefit of the doubt.

For Malshe: “It is critical to understand the difference between the two constructs: ease of control and the degree of controllability. In some cases, the overall controllability of the crisis can be low. Within that set of cases, a few crises can be managed, to whatever limited extent, with less effort while the rest may require more effort.”185

Malshe uses several examples to illustrate his point; including the crisis faced by United Airlines when one of its disgruntled passengers, Dave Carroll, uploaded his parody song “United Breaks Guitars” to YouTube.185 In the song, Carroll and his band mates narrate an experience about how United broke Carroll’s pricey Taylor guitar and refused to reimburse him for the damages.

The song went viral and has now garnered more than 16.2 million views.[iii] United was very slow to react to the situation, which exacerbated it even more. The story was picked up by the traditional media and quickly went viral. Overall, for United, this was a situation with very low controllability, but their inaction made the problem considerably worse, turning it into a full-blown PR disaster.

Considering the triviality of the amount involved in this crisis (about US $1,500), it was a relatively “low cost solution for United to offer the money to Carroll and control the crisis,” Malshe notes.185 However, even though United may have reimbursed Carroll, there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t still have uploaded the song to YouTube185, but, at the very least, United wouldn’t have looked so tin-eared.

In one television interview (more bad press for United), Carroll explained that he was emotionally attached to the guitar and, even after it had been fixed, it didn’t sound as good as it had before it was broken.185 Therefore, in this situation, there was little United could have done to control the events from getting out of hand and becoming a full-blown crisis. However, “they could have easily averted additional negative publicity by reimbursing Carroll for his troubles,” argues Malshe185, thereby mitigating the crisis to a certain extent.

After all of the social media attention the video received, United did actually offer to reimburse Carroll, but, even then, Carroll took the high road, refusing the money and asking United to offer it to charity, which, once again, did little to help United’s negative public perception.185 It was a lose-lose situation for them all around; a deserved, self-inflicted lose-lose situation, admittedly, and it’s an important lesson for every business; the consumer now has a megaphone that is just as loud as any company’s marketing and PR department and the consumer will always be seen as the underdog in these stories.

Malshe proposes that, to some extent, the shock value of the trigger that starts the crisis can explain the ease with which the crisis can be controlled.185 Simply put, the higher the shock value of the trigger, the more difficult the crisis is to control, although Malshe does admit that, since there has been no large scale study of this issue, it is difficult to say to what extent shock value explains the correlation.185

Malshe uses two dimensions to categorize social media crises. The first, “Controllability,” is based on Gundel’s definition and is described as something that is “controllable if responses to limit or eliminate the crisis by influencing its causes are known as well as executable.”185 “Controllability” can either be high or low as can the effort required to control it.185 This effort, Malshe argues, is a function of the shock value of the trigger, which refers to the extent to which a crisis-triggering incidence offends the social media community.185The amount to which the masses can be shocked by a single event is completely dependent on the context.185

The shock value of the trigger “refers to the degree to which an incident that is embedded in the context and time offends members of the social media community.”185 This shock value can’t be isolated from the context and time, making the predictability of social media crises even more difficult to gauge.185

Malshe divides crises into four categories and they are based on whether a crisis has high or low levels of controllability and the shock value of the trigger is either high or low. For example185:

  • Soft Crises: Like the Red Cross Tweet previously mentioned, soft crises have high levels of controllability and low levels of shock value. Left unattended, a soft crisis is likely to turn into a full-blown crisis so it is important to recognize the crisis, isolate the classification and immediately issue a response.
  • Firefighting: This type of crises is highly controllable, but it also has a high trigger of shock value. Even though controllability is high, the high shock value of the crisis has the potential to overwhelm a company’s social media department, which could mean the situation unravels very quickly.
  • Wait and watch: These require patience and a thick skin. These crises are caused by less shocking triggers, but they have very low controllability. The crisis can go viral very quickly and the more an organization responds to the crisis, the more disastrous it could become.
  • Disaster: These are highly uncontrollable and shocking crisis situations and they can break organizations. The Resorts World Manila attack[iv] on June 2nd, 2017 would have been a disaster event.

The Red Cross Tweet was a soft crisis because the original Tweet was offensive, but its shock value was relatively low and a clarification on the origin of the Tweet was enough to dissipate the tension in the social media world.185 It is really not surprising that the Red Cross’s employees think about drinking beer after work, but the Tweet made it sound as if the employees were drinking while at work.185 Once the facts were presented, the crisis was averted.185

Ashton Kutcher’s November 2011 Tweet stream about the firing of Penn State Football team coach Joe Paterno is one of the most celebrated examples of a firefighting crisis.185Kutcher, who had more than eight million Twitter followers at the time, expressed his disappointment in the firing and thought that the whole incident lacked class.185 However, Kutcher was ignorant of the fact that Paterno had been let go because of his reluctance to fire a coach who had been accused of raping a child in the Penn State men’s locker room.185 Understandably, there was a huge backlash against Kutcher’s Tweet and his image was badly bruised.185 Kutcher “immediately decided to stop engaging directly with his Twitter fans and followers”185 and has since outsourced his social media responses.

This incident is a perfect example of a firefighting crisis. The trigger—the offending Tweet—was highly shocking to the social media community.185 Had he acted to counter his offensive Tweet, Kutcher could have controlled the crisis before it had spread so wide, Malshe argues. Looking back, it is surprising to see that one person—a busy celebrity at that—insisted on communicating with his followers on a one-to-one basis, thereby so easily exposing himself to a crisis.185 “The crisis was controllable because Kutcher could have put in place a system to tackle such situations,” Malshe concludes.185

The United Airlines crisis is a perfect example of a wait and watch crisis. The song was hardly shocking, but it had huge amusement value, which helped it go viral. Once the video was available on YouTube, there was little United could have done to defuse the crisis.

In April 2009, the video of two Domino’s Pizza employees tainting food at a Domino’s franchisee hit YouTube and, unsurprisingly, it went viral instantly.185 Domino’s Pizza immediately found itself in a classic disaster situation.185 “The enormous shock value of the YouTube video coupled with extremely low controllability of the crisis made it the worst possible situation for Domino’s,” states Malshe.185

Domino’s responded with a YouTube video of its own: Patrick Doyle, the President of Domino’s USA, acknowledged that the two people in the video were, indeed, employees of a Domino’s franchisee, but he explained that warrants for their arrests had been issued and that the store where they had worked had been completely sanitized since the incident.185This crisis became a disaster because the trigger—the YouTube video—had a very high shock value—but the crisis was highly uncontrollable.185 The employees’ actions were suicidal and completely unpredictable.185 Domino’s couldn’t really be faulted for not having a plan for such an extreme scenario as the sheer bizarreness of the act of sabotage made it uncontrollable and completely unavoidable.185

Going forward, Domino’s promised to toughen its employment hiring practices, while also hammering home the message that this was an isolated incident that didn’t represent normal Domino’s employee behavior.185 Once Domino’s responded, however, it could do little but hope for the situation to blow over, which, after a short while, it did. “In contrast to United Airlines, Domino’s Pizza faced a highly shocking social media crisis and experienced a major damage to their brand name,” states Malshe, however, neither company was in a position to do much about it.

As with normal crisis management, the response to a social media crisis should involve the three steps of crisis management—prevention, response, and recovery—and Malshe suggests companies use the Hale, Dulek, and Hale model[v] to mitigate crises. In this model, Hale, Dulek, and Hale propose that the response can be divided into four sub-processes: observation, interpretation, choice, and dissemination. Malshe breaks these processes down in the following way185:

“Observation entails collecting all the relevant information at the onset of the crisis. Interpretation involves assessing information within the context of the current crisis to determine both its accuracy and its relevance. Choice involves assessing viability of different alternative actions and choosing the most appropriate among them. Finally, dissemination leads to information exchange with the public.”

According to Malshe, the four-step response to a social media crises is185:

  • Soft crises and firefighting: For soft crisis and firefighting, Malshe suggests implementing Hale, Dulek, and Hale’s spiral crisis response communication model. In this model, the four steps of the crisis communication—observation, interpretation, choice, and dissemination—are repeated one after another in a kind of circle.185 “Such a model is most appropriate for the crises with high controllability,” Malshe argues, adding that, “By actively engaging in the four steps, crisis can be managed more effectively and prevented from growing into a disaster.”185
  • Wait and watch disaster: For the two crises situations where controllability is low, Malshe contends the spiral communication model is redundant.185 By constantly changing the response based on developments within various social media avenues, an organization is very likely to make a bad situation worse. Therefore, it is more appropriate to select a linear model that follows Hale, Dulek, and Hale’s four steps—observation, interpretation, choice, and dissemination. After the information is disseminated to the public, there may not be a need to actively keep on responding to the crisis as the organization doesn’t have any control over the crisis.


[i] Malshe, A. (n.d.). A Typology of Social Media Crises. Retrieved from

[ii] Gundel, S. (2005). Towards a New Typology of Crises. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, Volume 13 (3), pages 106 – 115.

[iii] (Retrieved: February 15, 2017).

[iv] On 2 June 2017, dozens of people at the Resorts World Manila entertainment complex in Pasay, Metro Manila, Philippines were killed or injured when a gunman caused a stampede and set fire to casino tables and slot machine chairs around midnight. (accessed 25 August 2017).

[v] Hale, J. E., Dulek, R. E., & Hale, D. P. „Crisis Response Communication Challenges - Building Theory From Qualitative Data”. Journal of Business Communication, 2005, 42 (2), 112-134

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