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In the summer of 2003, I was standing in my sunroom, holding my six-month-old little boy in my arms, and watching the willow tree in my backyard bend over until it was almost parallel with the ground. In the aftermath of the straight-line wind storm that came to be known as Hurricane Elvis, winds with gusts that topped 100 mph knocked out power to much of the Memphis metropolitan area. Some people were without power for three weeks.

Fast-forward to Memorial Day weekend of 2017, and the as-yet-to-be-named storm (contenders are Return of Elvis and Memphis in Mayhem) followed in Hurricane Elvis’s footsteps. Fortunately, not as many people were impacted, because Elvis had already taken out most of the older, weaker trees. Still, at one point, almost 50% of the local utility company’s customers were without power.

However, while the storms and their impacts were similar, there was one big difference: Social media wasn’t a thing in 2003. In 2017, Memphis Light, Gas, and Water (MLGW) had to work almost as hard on social outreach via Facebook and Twitter as they did on line repair.

And that’s where things went bad. Somebody (not an MLGW employee) tried to explain the difference between “number of customers” and “number of people affected,” and things got ugly fast:

social media

Somebody clearly had too little sleep and too much coffee. What the poster was trying to say was that an account is associated with an address, and there are often multiple people living at any single address.

First, let me say that I get it. When it’s summer in Memphis (contrary to popular belief, it’s both the heat AND the humidity) and people are without power for days on end, nobody likes the utility company unless the trucks are on their own street. Still, as much as social media gives you a great PR opportunity, it also gives you the opportunity to shoot yourself in the foot. So let’s look at some rules for how NOT to do that:

  1. Don’t get defensive. Whether you’re taking too long to restore power to thousands of hot, sweaty people who are sitting there watching their food spoil, or hauling passengers off of planes for random infractions, just don’t. When your business — even if it’s due to something that’s out of your control — makes your customers’ lives harder, you’re going to get some snark. Don’t snark back. That projects what politicians refer to as being out of touch. Don’t sit there in your office — which clearly has power — and chastise people for being cranky that their grocery bill for the month is going to double. Take your lumps, whether you think you deserve them or not.
  2. Stop, breathe, and think. I am grateful every day that the internet wasn’t around when I was a teenager with insufficient impulse control. Not too long ago, people like this unfortunate employee would have encountered barriers that allowed time for common sense to kick in. Those barriers are gone now. But just because you can respond to a comment or Tweet in seconds doesn’t mean you should. In fact, it most likely means you shouldn’t. If your fingers are flying across the keyboard before you’ve even finished reading…step away from the keyboard, pull yourself together, and decide whether you really want to publish whatever it is you were typing.
  3. Don’t attack your allies. When it seems like everybody is throwing punches, be aware that you’re more vulnerable to friendly fire. The person who posted this particular Tweet was actually trying to help rather than suggesting that the utility company didn’t see customers as people.
  4. Don’t make excuses. Reasons and explanations are one thing. Excuses, on the other hand, make the implicit claim that everyone is expecting too much from you and that you’re the victim. Sure, go ahead and educate people on the crisis, how you’re resolving it, and how long it’s going to take. But don’t imply that, once you’ve given your explanation, people should just shut up and be happy.
  5. Realize that the internet is eternally unforgiving. Because screenshots happen. Even if you delete a message, if it was bad enough, somebody will have taken a screenshot already. It’s not like retrieving a hand-written note off of someone’s desk. Once it’s out there, it takes on a life of its own and can make an already unpleasant situation that much worse.
  6. Know when you’ve had enough. Crisis management is no fun. Dedication is great, but not when you get to the point that you’re actually doing your company harm. Know when you’re at your limit, and have the courage to say so.

The bottom line about social media in crisis management is that it ain’t about you. If your main goal is to get people to have a better opinion of you, you’re going to mess up. Instead, focus on the people who are affected by whatever crisis you’re managing. A successful social media crisis campaign focuses on your customers. If it doesn’t help them weather the crisis, step away from the keyboard and just keep quiet.