How influencers can help you manage a social media PR crisis

How influencers can help you manage a social media PR crisis

A look at some of the world's biggest social media faux pas

Influencer marketing presents one of the best ways to reach out to and engage with consumers in real time during a crisis. Influencers are trusted, and research has shown the power of influencers over vital purchase decisions. 

But influencer marketing isn’t just about going viral on social platforms. It’s about building an authentic relationship with your customers, connecting with a target audience, and telling your brand story. The PR and influencer marketing approach has also become an important part of most brands’ crisis management planning, and it's proving to be quite effective.

In this review, we discuss five ways an influencer network can help you deal with a PR crisis, and take you through a few examples of what a social media crisis might look like. 

 

Table of contents

 

What is crisis management in social media?

Crisis management in social media is the process through which a brand uses social media to address a crisis. Simple, right?

Although some crises can originate from social media, often the mess happens offline and then overflows onto social media as the public takes the story and runs with it. 

An example:

Back in 2019, a Duke University freshman basketball player got a serious injury when his Nike shoes literally fell apart. This took place during a basketball game, and it didn’t take long before the whole story was on social media, riding a wave of attention from high-profile people like Barack Obama and LeBron James.

Needless to say, the crisis outpaced any damage control the brand's PR tried to do, and in fact went so far as to affect Nike’s stocks. That shows just how crucial crisis management is and social media's role during a crisis. That brings us to the next question.

How does social media affect a crisis?

Social media is a double-edged sword when it comes to handling a crisis, capable of resolving the situation or making things much, much worse, depending on how you use it. The vast number of people on social media means that a single wrong move can harm your brand's reputation in front of literally millions of vocal users.

Consider the 2019 case of Sephora. The brand was put on the spot by musician SZA when she tweeted that she was racially profiled while in one of their stores. As you might imagine, the post caused a social media uproar, with users reposting and commenting with their own similar experiences.

This shows just how quickly things can escalate if you are not swift to handle crises on social media; while a thoughtful, genuine apology combined with a plan to investigate the incident would not have negated the crisis, it would have at least demonstrated the brand's commitment to do better.

How influencers can help you manage a social media PR crisis

A good response to a crisis can show your brand’s commitment to looking after its community. It can turn a bad situation into good PR, helping you solidify your bond with your existing fans by showing your brand's true colors. But for that to happen, you’ll need ​ to have a solid PR crisis management plan in place. And as it happens, influencers can play a critical role in that plan.

So, let’s now go through the five ways you can use influencers to help in a PR crisis on social media.

1. Move conversations away from the crisis

Negative comments or news stories about your brand can dominate the headlines during a PR crisis. This tends to happen when you take too long to respond or don’t take accountability and address the issue in good time. 

By generating positive commentary about your brand and engaging your target audience, influencers can help shift conversations. 

I was at the PR Week conference recently, and we discussed a campaign for which Adidas faced significant backlash. The campaign unveiled a new bra collection featuring a grid of 25 topless females with their heads cropped off. While some lauded the campaign as appreciative of different female body types, Adidas also received significant backlash for appropriating women’s bodies in a bid to go viral. 

Adidas owned the campaign shared in various socials under the hashtags #SupportIsEverything and #impossibleisnothing. They reiterated that the campaign was meant to celebrate different women's body types. 

It also moved past the negative sentiment and worked to improve awareness of its entire line of bras, enlisting the help of Indian influencer Mirabai Chanu to be the face of its Adidas India campaign on various social channels.

As a result, Adidas is now posting even stronger growth sales in several previously underperforming markets, including India. 

Takeaway: Influencers can help shift the attention and conversations. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t own up to your mistakes. Before recruiting influencers to change the conversation, address the issue and show your commitment to fixing it. Then, you can bring in influencers to add positive vibes.

2. Improve the search results for your brand

Even with an excellent website, good landing pages and a user-friendly app, you still need a way to drive positive traffic to your most relevant web resources in times of crisis. 

That’s because when you search for a particular term, Google will sometimes provide a “top stories” segment near the very top of their search results. If your brand has been on the news and is trending on social media for all the wrong reasons, those negative remarks are likely to appear here. You don’t want that.

A timely and well-executed influencer marketing strategy can improve positive mentions and remarks about your brand. This increases social momentum as the influencer’s audience engages with the positive content. 

It’s hard to believe that in late 2021, Britain’s #1 breakfast cereal – Weetabix – was facing a significant PR crisis that made headlines. Workers at the food giant partly downed their tools across various factories, causing a shortage of Weetabix. As a result, significant negative sentiment erupted around the Weetabix brand. 

While the strike was resolved, Weetabix anticipated that negative conversations about the brand would still pervade online search items and mentions in the days and weeks that followed. 

By partnering with content creators and micro-influencers from the food and lifestyle niches, Weetabix managed to ignite several viral moments on social platforms including Instagram and TikTok. In particular, the #WeetabixCheesecake viral challenge generated positive mentions for the brand.

Weetabix was also able to capitalize on its previously trending #BeanzonBix social campaign, which, despite the crisis, had been trending for much of the latter half of 2021. 

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The campaign cost Weetabix a little less than £5,000. The ROI was a success, and the Beanz on Bix campaign was crowned the best ad campaign for 2021 despite a tumultuous year for the cereal maker.

3. Boost your engagement

Writing better content for your brand and telling your stories organically is a key advantage of combining PR with influencer marketing. This, in turn, improves your brand engagement rate. 

An influencer campaign effectively connects you with specific audiences on social media platforms during a PR crisis. Influencers can increase your brand’s likes, shares, reposts, comments, DMs, link clicks, hashtag engagements – pretty much everything. 

High audience engagement rates generally mean that folks are interested in and interacting with your content. This is precisely what you want during a PR crisis; an engaged audience that's open to getting clarification on what's going on and provide feedback.

Walkers Crisps is an example of a brand that aimed to connect better with audiences on social media after a minor PR crisis. The brand’s 2017 #WalkersWave ad campaign was intended in good humor, and it did amuse me quite a bit. However, the campaign, fronted by football legend Gary Lineker, backfired after it failed to consider how people on the internet might try and have fun with it, and it ended up showing the star holding portraits of questionable characters such as Joseph Stalin and Fred West doing the Mexican wave. All a tad embarrassing.

To quickly overcome the public relations backlash, Walkers’ strategy was to rejuvenate customer perceptions and engagements with the brand through influencer partnerships. 

Walkers employed a multi-faceted approach. First, the brand, a darling of soccer fans in the UK, enlisted influencers from this circle. The most visible was influencer and journalist Reggie Yates, who fronted its #WalkersUnited and #SnapandShare campaigns across socials such as Snapchat. 

The next strategy was for Walkers to enlist celebrity influencers, the Spice Girls, as the new face of the brand with the social media campaign #BestEverFan. 

This campaign had a massive return on investment. A single live stream on Facebook generated an average engagement of 50%, with 36,000 comments, likes and shares, and hundreds of thousands of views. 

4. Improve brand awareness

When a public relations crisis hits, naturally, more people will look up your brand. And some of these people might not know anything about you. It’s therefore possible that they’ll view your brand negatively due to the PR crisis you’re facing. Any misinformation or negative press coming from the crisis will affect their attitude towards your brand.

Influencers can help you counteract that. A good influencer marketing campaign will help shed some light on what your brand is all about. Besides showing the good work of your brand, influencers may also help people who have never heard about you discover what your company does.

Snapchat faced mounting criticism in 2018 when the company announced sweeping redesign changes. Among many things, they wanted to condense their Stories and Discover features on a single page. Snapchat users were less than impressed, with some describing the new design as cumbersome and hard to get used to.

Initially, Snapchat’s CEO Evan Spiegel was bullish about the design changes and assured users that “they were here to stay”. However, after increased backlash, competition from a revamped Instagram, and a single tweet from Kylie Jenner that sent Snapchat’s shares tumbling, Snapchat backtracked.

Besides resolving some of the UX issues on the app, Snapchat also conducted promos with some of the most famous influencers on the app. That included Cyrene Quiamco (CyreneQ), a digital artist, creative and influencer with over 200k followers. The influencers promoted the new design and increased awareness about the new product rollouts. 

5. Build brand trust

Influencers will not make a bad product good. However, influencer relationships can help rebuild trust with people amid a bad PR outlay.

Chipotle has been in the news since 2015, when the first cases of E. coli outbreak were reported at the giant Mexican-themed food retailer. Negative sentiment about Chipotle rippled across the company’s customer base of health-conscious food lovers. Lawsuits and sales slumps dogged the company through a rough couple of years.

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A $50million advertising campaign on TV and sites like YouTube did little to salvage Chipotle’s image. Free coupons and giveaways didn’t help either.

But then Chipotle released a video ad (the Behind the Foil campaign) that took cameras inside its elusive kitchens, showcasing its “safety first” approaches. Besides the video-ad campaign, Chipotle further engaged digital influencers in a move that saw the company target Gen-Z and millennials, who had fast become its main target segment. 

Under the #chipotlecreator program, various influencers from Facebook and TikTok produced content for Chipotle that would resonate with the younger generations, aiming to rebuild lost trust and create relationships that would drive up market share and help shape the brand's future.

3 examples of what a social media crisis might look like

From what can spark a crisis to how you can handle one once it's caught fire, there’s a lot to learn from the past experiences of other brands. So, here are three relatable examples of social media crises.

1. Burger King

On the 8th March 2021, the Burger King UK account tweeted something intended to raise awareness, but which backfired pretty terribly.

The tweet received so much backlash that even just a few seconds after going live, it was clear that the brand had got it all wrong. Luckily they didn’t hesitate to own up to the mess.

This is a great example of a brand digging itself into a hole with an out-of-touch comment. 

2. Sephora

The Sephora crisis is all too familiar for most brands. It came about when a customer complained about an experience they'd had in their store. The worst part? The customer was the American singer SZA who had millions of followers and fans.

Sephora's PR team had some explaining to do. They replied to the artist, apologizing for what she went through. It’s also interesting to note that the beauty company started conducting inclusion workshops across its stores and distribution centers about a month after the incident.

3. Gucci

Gucci came under fire when they released a product with a striking resemblance to blackface. Images of the Balaclava knit top found their way to social media, and the story spread like wildfire.

In their response, the brand was forced to apologize, and they immediately pulled the apparel from their stores.

TL;DR

As PR crises are an almost inevitable part of business operations, staying one step ahead of the curve is crucial. Influencer strategies can turn the tide for your business or brand when facing a public relations crisis. 

Social influencers are favorable due to their instant access and connection to audiences. The trust afforded to them and their ability to speak in a voice that resonates with both customers and brands make them extremely valuable comms assets. 

Influencers can help you rebuild trust and brand sentiment, generate positive search traffic and social signals, earn potential customers, and improve engagement. This is achieved through sharing positive content and directing conversations.

Hopefully, my article has opened your eyes to the vast benefits of strengthening your influencer marketing efforts during a PR crisis.

This is a guest post written by Chris Norton, Founder of insight-led PR agency Prohibition, former University lecturer, author of “Share This Too”, and listed in the UK's top 10 PR and social media bloggers.

Published July 2022

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