Dealing with a Social Media Backlash

Dec 12, 2020

Think before you speak. It is a piece of advice that has been given to everyone, everywhere at least once in his or her life. Years ago, saying something offensive (intended or otherwise) to someone was generally kept within a private circle even if there was a backlash. Perhaps it was heard through the grapevine, but the whole world didn’t know about it.

Now the whole world can know about it. Taking a screenshot of a text message or filming a moment is simple; sharing with the world is just easy. In May, a text message conversation between a comedian and a woman who rejected him for a date was released on Twitter, and social media took it and ran, flooding Twitter and Facebook with requests that venues ban him and, of course, frenzied insults. Similarly, earlier in the year, a young doctor was filmed berating a driver; the resulting backlash was so severe that she eventually made national television appearances to apologize.

For these types of indiscretions, in which a person is obviously in the wrong, having said or done something reprehensible, it seems that there is no apology that satisfies the online masses. For others, such as those who have posted or done something offensive unintentionally, the outcome is the same. Google searches for these and other publicly-shamed individuals, names still result in news reports about the incident, and it seems that they are there to stay.

Steps to Survival

The connectedness of the Internet has brought about great things. People rally together to raise funds for those down on their luck; a good deed is recognized and rewarded. When the opposite happens, it turns into a social media witch hunt, a relentless crusade to ensure the offender suffers for what he or she has done.

This type of behavior is not limited to individuals. Businesses can be the target of social media witch hunts as well, and it can be just as damaging. While all stories are different, there are a few things that can be done to avoid creating a bigger media storm.

1. Avoid the knee-jerk reaction.

Once the tweets, posts and messages start flooding in, you may want to reply to each and every message to explain or apologize and delete any trace of the crisis. However, it’s best to take a moment before you start typing up replies or deleting messages. The line between “too soon” and “too late” is very fine, however. Sometimes a late reply is just as bad, and so it’s imperative to keep a close eye on social chatter and have a plan in place.

The Internet has made it virtually impossible to delete anything for good. It can be a waste of time to track down every copy of a photo or video.

2. Offer a sincere public apology.

It’s important to acknowledge the mistake or wrongdoing. Don’t try to excuse away the behavior (I was tired!), as that is often seen as justification instead. Writing a public apology is an art form, with various studies and books published about the subject. In the Harvard Business Review (, for example, public leadership professor Barbara Kellerman says that an apology should serve a purpose. A full apology, she says, features a few key points: acknowledgment of the offense, acceptance of responsibility, expression of regret, and a promise not to repeat the offense.

This one, carefully constructed apology can be shared across all your social media platforms, with the hop that it gets shared just as much as the offending content that necessitated it.

3. Right the wrongs.

You may not be able to take back what was said or done, but it is clear that steps should be made to ensure it never happens again. This can take a number of forms, depending on your business or the issue: an offhand comment made by an employee at a retail shop, for example, could result in a company-wide training program.

4. And then keep quiet.

If the comments seem to be rushing in faster than you can read them, it’s often better to just be patient and remove yourself from social media for a while after you’ve issued your apology. Although comments may always crop up about the incident, time truly does help. Eventually, the vitriol dies down and you can get back to business.

5. Set up a plan.

For businesses, a fully trained social media team should have a plan in place in case of a crisis. A team will know what to do when a rogue tweet is posted or an executive is caught on camera saying something inappropriate. For individuals, it’s important to follow that aforementioned age-old advice. Think before you speak…and post.

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