How to keep your cool when crisis strikes your higher ed. institution on social media.

Crisis management in social media is here to stay. No industry is immune from it – not even higher ed. It seems like backlashes ensue with far greater frequency than ever before. Misinformation competes with the truth. Trolls and attacks can come out of nowhere.

It’s exhausting trying to keep up, isn’t it?

The ecosystem of social media is ever-changing, and it’s tough to wade through the amount of “do’s” and “don’ts” for handling these situations – not to mention keeping up with the various platforms used by students and how each channel functions. That’s why teachable and cringe-worthy moments are not hard to find. Just read the news. 

From Facebook to Snapchat, Twitter to TikTok, how you react to a scathing critique or a troll can either earn you champions or drag you deep into the mud pit.

Don’t get dirty. Get ready.  

Is your higher ed. public relations story newsworthy?

When you’re planning a higher ed. media relations campaign, it’s a good idea to evaluate whether you actually have a newsworthy story on your hands. ED’s PR team has put together this quick and easy quiz to help you determine whether your institution’s story is likely to earn media coverage for your college or university.
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Your higher ed. social media crisis management plan.

Higher education is held to a higher standard of professionalism, no doubt about it. After all, if your university isn’t setting the gold standard for decorum, who will? Talk about pressure. But just like every other brand, your reputation is at stake every time a potential crisis erupts on your online channels. The good news is, you get to prepare – in advance – how you will act and react when things heat up.

You’re already getting all your stakeholders on the same page when it comes to your overall communications plan. You cannot afford discrepancies. But should your plan include social media crisis communications? Absolutely. Your plan should contain every imaginable scenario you could encounter on social media, and then some – with responses to match. Nothing needs to be set in stone, but when the times comes, you already have a draft ready for adaptation.

Another major part of your social media crisis response plan is detailing who is your entire social media team, and how they can be reached at work and at home. You’ll also need to identify who has access to each account, who is monitoring and responding in real-time 24/7 (no rest for the weary, sorry), when was the last time the password was changed – and what is it, and who needs to authorize communications when and if needed. If you don’t have these stored away in a working, master document, it could seriously delay your response time.

When it comes to challenging social media conversations, the key is handling each interaction with professionalism and confidence. After all, you are acting on behalf of your university or college’s brand. So let every interaction be your brand’s touchpoint. Take a look at your school’s creed. What does it say? How can you incorporate it into your messaging strategy?

Then it’s up to you to either add fuel to the fire or put it out. And you already know what to do. Put out that fire! No matter the platform, there are always more rules you can add to your social media crisis playbook. Here are four more:

  • React quickly. You already know this one, but it’s so important it bears repeating: never leave a negative comment, question or story lingering on your channel unaddressed. It can make your institution look aloof, uncoordinated, or even guilty as charged. Many social media admins agree that even one hour is too long to respond, and this is especially true in the student-savvy social media space. You must act before others can jump on the bad-mouthing bandwagon or share the user’s post. By acting quickly, you are taking control of the conversation and cooling things down. Do so with a simple comment, such as: “Hello (username). Thank you for your comment and for bringing this to our attention. We are looking into this now and will respond to you here as soon as we have an answer. Please standby.”
  • Repeat, don’t delete. Negative comments or critiques can come from all sides. Be prepared to listen when this happens, and resist the urge to react impulsively and delete or ban the evidence. As tempting as it may be, unless it is vulgar, spam, trolling, or an unmerited attack, do not delete or ban negative comments. Why? Because it could make things much, much worse for you and your institution’s brand. Deleting could create speculation, come across as censorship, and make you seem fearful or that you have something to hide. Instead, embrace professionalism and confidence, and follow up each comment with understanding in a concise and forward-thinking statement with a call to action, if necessary (“Please call or email us at….”). And then thank them. If the commenter comes back with the same negative comment or critique, vary and repeat your mantra as long as necessary. If you’ve exhausted the number of times it is logical to respond, know that you have done all you can and leave it be.
  • Keep your own archives. While on the subject of deleting: no matter how much time has passed, keep your own original “crisis” posts about major issues on your channel(s) for good. This may include a statement from your President or a public apology. As difficult as the issue may have been, deleting your own archives is viewed negatively and can be scrutinized. People take screenshots of social media posts – you can bet your content is being documented and saved by someone, somewhere. You will be seen as more trustworthy and transparent if you don’t get rid of your receipts – and you won’t have to do any explaining or back peddling later. Remember, the internet is forever.
  • Always have the last word. This one is pretty simple, but it’s a good one. Have the last word in social media threads, even if it means going back and paraphrasing your past responses. Again. And again. Doing so establishes the fact that you are alert and listening. You should also be careful to leave no questions ‘out there’ – you have handled or are handling the situation. Period. You may have even taken the conversation offline to email, and said so online. But ideally, you will have resolved the issue right in front of everyone. (Which very likely will earn you some champions!)

What to do with negative comments on social media

There are too many social media platforms to keep up with these days, but your communications within these channels should express the same tone, personality and response times. If someone has made their negative comment on your public platform, you should comment back publicly, too. There are instances where you should then suggest an offline channel for resolving the matter. Other times it may be appropriate to use a direct message system. 

No matter what, different negative and inflammatory circumstances call for different responses. Here are some recommendations.

  • Merited attack. Look, it happens. This is when you’ve messed up on one of your social channels and a user has pointed it out. If the mistake is minor, simply update the post or repost it correctly, and thank the commenter for the head’s up. If it’s appropriate: you can do this with humour and grace, which will be appreciated. For more significant gaffes, involve necessary stakeholders, but don’t delete the comment. Instead, respond quickly and positively (but don’t be tone deaf) and reassure the original commenter that you are taking steps to fix the problem. Be prepared for other negative commenters to hop on, but stay positive and engaged for as long as it takes for the topic to cool off.
  • Unmerited attack, spam, trolling or vulgarity. This is the stuff of profanity, unfair negative feedback, vulgarity, or using your account to promote a product or service. In this case, delete. There’s no use for it. If it continues, consider banning the user. There’s no reasoning with a troll. On that note, have your social media rules of engagement posted on your channels, where possible, and on your website. If someone comes back with a complaint about deleting or banning, you can direct them to your engagement rules to show them why you acted.
  • Angry complaint/critique. If someone comes across as hostile with a complaint or critique, address them by their name. Use the ‘repeat, don’t delete’ method. Stay patient and understanding, and offer to speak to them offline to address the issue. Don’t engage with the user publicly after asking the person to get in touch with you over direct message, email, or phone unless it is to repeat that offer. A lot of times, angry people just want to know they’re being heard. A dynamic that often emerges in these cases is defence from your other followers — which can either help diffuse or can actually escalate the situation. As long as those exchanges aren’t vulgar or descend to bullying, best to leave it alone and let them play out.

The landscape of social media has changed during the time it took you to read this article. The tenets of crisis response will always remain the same: listen, attempt to understand, and fix it if you can. Tensions get high but just remember: Don’t get dirty. Be ready.

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