Caught in a PR Twitter Storm? Here’s how to respond without getting burned

On Sunday night a furore broke on Social Media about an airline and a child in leggings. The thrust of the argument was the airline had refused to allow two girls board a flight because they were wearing leggings, made worse by allowing a male passenger to board who wore shorts. The girls were asked to put dresses on to cover up their leggings and the Internet exploded in it’s usual way with passengers cancelling flights, retweets galore and onlookers piling into the debate about the policing of women’s clothing. Quickly it was even mainstream news.

Behind all of this were a few facts that had been lost in the 140 character expressions of displeasure. The passengers were traveling on free passes that United provided to staff and others. Attached to these was the understanding that the passenger would be representing the airline and a set of conditions, including a dress code, that set out how the passenger was expected to behave. This included a specific reference to tight clothing such as leggings and to shorts that had to be no more than 3 inches above the knee.

The outrage started not from the child or her parents but someone who witnessed the events from afar. Apparently without understanding context or being in possession of the full facts someone took to Twitter to offer their opinion – after which the world and their dog piled in.

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen similar action that day. Sainsbury’s had a mini-spat going on over tokens being given out because customers were buying baby milk. In spite of several statements from both Sainsbury’s and other customers that it was illegal to include promotions with formula milk the spat was drifting on, finally fizzling out when the supermarket seemed to disengage and let other customers take over the mantle.

So what’s a business to do when it acts correctly and in accordance with terms and conditions set down by law or contract and the world explodes around it? Is there anyway a business can stick to it’s intended obligations without being drawn into a storm caused by someone feeling slighted?

Don’t panic.

Absolutely essential is not to panic and rush out something ill conceived and potentially more damaging. Rash pronouncements on Social Media or buying off dissent can quickly backfire. It can also open the floodgates for others to ride the coattails and force a change of policy that might be badly thought out and cause more problems than it solves.

Respond with facts.

An emotional response is the wrong response. Stay level headed and focus on the facts behind what happened. It’s particularly important to tackle any misconceptions behind the attacks. With Sainsbury’s they focused on the legal restrictions in place. United’s messaging this was an issue involving free staff passes eventually reached enough ears for a counter to start.

That said, being completely unempathetic can make the business feel uncaring and inhuman. Some acknowledgement of the emotional state of those directly involved (not the baying onlookers) will usually be beneficial.

Ignore the haters.

There is a temptation to respond to the more extreme views and try to defend against them.

Don’t.

The haters will hate, no matter what messages are put out. So too will those who don’t want to backtrack, regardless of whether they realise they’ve made a mistake or not. Putting effort into trying to placate this audience can quickly give rise to confusing messages for customers and to-be customers.

Instead focus on reassurance for the “reasonable” majority, particularly those who are customers or soon-to-be customers. They may have legitimate concerns about what’s going on and could need assistance. Even as the storm blew up United continued to monitor the reaction to its initial explanatory tweet and provide assistance to customers who asked for it in the thread.

Be willing to change.

We are reviewing our policy” is a useful phrase, albeit one that has become a little stale. The message is clear though: we recognise there’s a perceived issue and we’re going to look at it. This doesn’t mean a change has to be made, only that feedback is going to be taken onboard.

It may be that changes are best made elsewhere. For example, United might consider how their free passes are signposted, how staff are trained to enforce the policy or any one of a number of other areas.

Remember attitudes are changing.

Not every storm on social media storm needs an aggressive response. Attitudes towards these storms are changing, with increasing numbers of people just rolling their eyes or passing on by the endless Tweets, shares and echoes. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respond, only that the damage it causes might not be as great as it once was.

Bottom Line: respond sensibly

Events that stoke the ire of social media users happen all the time. The vast majority of the time they barely register as a smouldering cinder, but occasionally they explode into full forest fires. If you’re caught in one it’s important to respond without panicking, keep focus on the facts, avoid being drawn into arguments and be willing to review policies and procedures.

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Who is Ross A Hall?

I'm a freelance researcher, designer and writer. My clients have included Fintech startups, publishers and digital agencies. You can read more about my work here.

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