Guest Post by: Monica Shaw

Everybody’s a critic, especially when it comes to brands. So when someone says something scathing about your brand, how do you know when the problem is really a problem? In this post, we discuss the difference between a social media crisis and a problem. Are you ready to put out any fires?

Bottled water brands like Coca-Cola’s Dasani and Pepsi’s Aquafina are constantly under scrutiny for their contribution to environmental pollution. In fact, both of these brands recently scored a “D” by the Environmental Working Group in their recent evaluation of 173 bottled water brands. Since then, the brands have been lambasted in numerous blog posts and news articles such as and, just to name a few.

But is this sort of publicity really a crisis for Dasani, Aquafina and any other brand which scored poorly in the list?

The thing about bottled water is that brands know that the environment is an issue, and no amount of repackaging or re-labeling is going to change the bad press. For these brands, environmental issues are a problem, but they aren’t a crisis. So what’s the difference?

When we think about crises, be it an financial crisis (banks collapse), a family crisis (sudden death) or an environmental crisis (oil spill), all of these events have three things in common: they’re sudden, unstable and dangerous. The same applies to a social media crisis.


The real-time nature of the internet makes it possible for information (and misinformation) to spread like wildfire, making it extraordinarily difficult for brands to control a problem. A true crisis is marked by a sudden, prominent spike above the usual baseline banter around a brand.

Case in point: Toyota. Last year, when Toyota announced it would recall millions of cars due to an “unintended acceleration” pedal fault, social media helped turn an already messy situation into an all out frenzy. No doubt Toyota is once again feeling the burn with this month’s recall of Avensis and Lexus IS models over concerns about their fuel system.


The flurry of online conversation that accompanies a crisis is coloured with a myriad of opinions. The dominant theme and sentiment of these comments can change rapidly, and often result in the spread of misinformation.

Case in point: Amazon. When a cataloguing “glitch” caused gay and lesbian themed books to disappear from’s rankings, hundreds of blog posts decried Amazon’s homophobia, while Twitter went ablaze with posts tagged #amazonfail and #glitchmyass. Meanwhile, a hacker named “Weev” claimed he caused the error simply “to cause moral outrage from the entire Internet in ten lines of code” ( Although Amazon publicly took responsibility for the “embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error”, the spread of misinformation by the so-called hacker made the crisis extremely difficult to control.


It goes without saying, but a true crisis poses a bonafide threat to a brand’s reputation.

Case in point: Tiger Woods. When Tiger Woods fell from grace after his 2009 car accident led to an eruption of stories about Woods’ infidelities. Woods took a pummelling in social media, and he’s still trying to repair his reputation to this day. Tiger Woods, once an athlete who exuded consistent class and excellency, took a huge blow to his reputation, one that could have threatened his relationships with sponsors and robbed him of his place as richest sportsman in the world.

Fight fire with fire

As much as social media can create a crisis, it can also be used to prevent one.

Social media crisis management is all about discovering problems as soon as they occur and putting out the fires before they explode into a Backdraft-like inferno. The real-time nature of social media makes it possible to listen to the constant flow of conversations as they happen and pick up on problems as soon as they occur. When you learn how to listen to conversations online, you’re in a position to respond directly to people and stories that threaten your brand. So the question remains:

  • Are you listening to conversations online in real-time?
  • Who is responsible for responding to problems when they occur?

If you can answer these two questions, then you’re well on your way to preventing problems from becoming crises.

Image credits: neilt, danielctw, emiline220, keithallison

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