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There are several ways to instantly send stomach bile spiraling up through the esophagus. Take the first step out of an airplane on a skydive. Walk out on a stage before giving a speech to a gathered audience of thousands. Or be at your desk, scrolling through your Twitter byline when someone says something truly nasty about your company. 

The relative freedom of the internet and lack of restraint means that an individual’s concern can move from the recesses of one’s mind to the written word in just a few seconds. 

These ‘bullets’ come in many forms – complaints about a product, a personal attack on an executive or a leak about a forthcoming piece of news. What unites them is that they are unexpected, unwelcome and typically the responsibility of the communications and social departments to defuse. 

Beware the bubble you work in

If you’ve ever chipped your tooth, you know that things that are basically unnoticeable by others can feel gigantic. The same thing can happen with an unwanted tweet. 

A single missive can be the source of dozens of conversations in the hallways, emergency meetings in conference rooms and stray instant messages. Just because everyone inside the organization is aflutter, doesn’t mean anyone else cares. 

The social media team should quickly perform an analysis of the communication in question, and send this as soon as possible to stakeholders in the marketing, legal and executive parts of the business. 

Leave the complex charts for post-mortem activities. Find a way to quickly illustrate the following: 

  • How many people saw this message?

  • Are these people important to us? Are they current or former clients or people who would be interested in?

  • How credible is the source to our audience? Have they cited this person before? 

  • What is our reach compared with what has happened to date? 

Try to ascertain if the wound has been cauterized. If the volume of the noise around the tweet continues to spread, that means something very different from an isolated incident without any next stem. 

Assemble in the war room

Armed with information about what’s gone out online and who might have seen it, it is time to gather people together. It may be tempting to deal directly with the chief executive, but it is worthwhile to bring representative together – even for a phone conversation. Layout the facts and then beginning to move towards a resolution. 

Here the truth is important. Understand what is actually going on. If something is demonstrably false, it may be possible to request a social media network to remove the offending piece of content. If this is something that’s been cited multiple times, that may not be practical but it could still be worthwhile to make a request on the original post and/or most high profile outlets. All communication with content creators can be spread – so tread lightly and triple-check all facts.

Keep in mind that not every communication that you don’t like is necessarily false – or to use that rather phrase, fake news. An opinion might not be welcome, but usually the company can’t have it taken down. “The new iPhone is ugly,” is an opinion. “An internal Apple report shows that this year’s iPhone is being returned 15% more frequently than at this time last year,” is a purported fact. 

A response may be warranted. This should be done if the situation continues to spread or there are important things to get on the record. The best rebuttals are not overly verbose and provide as much evidence as possible. More adjectives don’t equate to more sincerity. If regret is required, apologize and move on. 

At the war room, be sure to spend some time about how things may evolve. Consider a decision tree. This could be as simple as if we get three more customer complaints we’ll release our holding statement publicly or understand what metrics may trigger an additional response. You can’t predict everything but some role playing will help move the team forward into the crisis. 

Adjourn the meeting by providing some guidance about how and how often you will report back to the team about the situation. This will help people in other departments understand about how they will continue to hear about the situation – and assure them there will be another chance to modify the course of action if necessary. 

Dust in the wind

A common misperception is that nothing ever really dies on the internet. While yes, the Space Jam movie website is still active, the truth is a great deal disappears online. Try finding television lists for the primetime lineup of April 1998 or what was on the McDonald’s menu 13 springs ago. 

While a single piece of information may seem enormous at the moment, it is in actuality just a small fragment in the endless barrage of new decision points. No matter what happens, a mean comment will soon be replaced by another outrage. 

The job of a crisis communicator isn’t complete nihilism, but rather providing proper perspective. Responses may need to be made, emergency plans put into action, yet someday quite soon it will be over. 

The next time a troubling missive pops up on the twitter byline, take a deep breath or three before doing anything else. This too shall pass. 

Jon Brubaker is a vice president in the New York office.