Social Media Firestorms: Don’t be Scared by the Hype!

It’s firestorm-time again. A few days ago, Adidas launched a campaign glorifying the source of each top athlete’s success: passion. Of course, passion has to come straight from the heart. And indeed, one of the campaign’s key visuals shows football internationals like Dani Alves, Arjen Robben or German forward Lukas Podolski holding a bloody heart in their hands. The caption reads: “I give my heart for the World Cup!” Well, being German I really hope Podolski will do so. However, this picture upset many people. Probably, Podolski wouldn’t have sparked such an outrage, if it would have been his own heart he is holding.


Patrick Meschenmoser (Frankfurt am Main)

Storm or just a mild wind? (c) Patrick Meschenmoser
Storm or just a mild wind? (c) Patrick Meschenmoser

As the pros obviously have been unwilling to have their own power plants removed, the producers went to a butcher’s shop and bought a cow’s heart. It would have most likely ended up as a Bratwurst or in a stew otherwise. But as a result, a picture-perfect firestorm unfolded on Adidas’ Facebook page. Animal-rights activists and their supporters find Adidas’ campaign the most disgusting thing ever. Guess, how I learned from that latest “social media disaster”? Right, from traditional media. And as usual they cover as much the actual issue as the fascination they obviously all share for these kind of “crowd funded” outrage mechanisms. The conclusion many journalists draw: Adidas has maneuvered itself in a reputation crisis. And here they go again supporting that firestorm hype.


In 2011 NBA All-Star Dirk Nowitzki, experienced a quite similar phenomenon. In a commercial for ING-Diba bank he seems to be visiting his parents’ preferred butcher’s shop. Treated like the little boy he used to be, the lady behind the counter hands him a slice of sausage with the words: “So you get tall and strong!” Mission accomplished I would say given Nowitzki’s 7 ft. (2.13 meters). But of course, some vegetarians went ballistic on Facebook. Many experts refer to this firestorm as a showcase how to unleash a social media crisis.


A study conducted by the Macromedia University for Media and Communication in Hamburg, presented just a few weeks ago, sheds some light on this and several other firestorms of the same kind. Its emprics aren't flawless as they are relying too much on information provided by the respective companies. But the outcomes match the experience of many corporate communicators I know: Companies don’t have to fear substantial financial loss resulting only from such kind of social media “crisis”. None had to face a major decline in sales or share price. None had suffered a substantial reputation damage. Taking into account, that firestorms are usually driven actively by some few users with others just reposting or liking their statements, this isn’t too astonishing. These firestorms only get some momentum once tradistional media pick them up.


In the contrary: My impression is that the social media crowd as such gets more and more fed up with that kind of instant moralizing and outraging. It simply happens too often, on a daily basis. When Vapiano, an internationally operating restaurant chain, was confronted with some special video clip recently, they did a great job in proving that. The video had been posted on Vapiano’s Facebook site. It showed a vivid green little caterpillar a guest claimed he had found in a salad. Vapiano reacted cool-headed and issued a single post. Basically they said that they are sorry, trying to contact the customer, looking into the incident and argued with a wink that this would be proof for the freshness of its salads. Everything else was discussed among the fans and soon a majority agreed, that Vapiano really serves fresh salad…with a twist sometimes. Nothing is more credible then to be defended by a third party. Anything else would just have fueled the fire.


These examples show two things: You can successfully handle a firestorm following simple rules but you should always be on the watch, nevertheless. Some have realized that traditional media still feel a kind of fascination for the social media and that firestorms can provide food for stories. Greenpeace showcased that when launching a campaign against Nestlé, blaming the company for the use of palm oil in chocolate bars. Palm oil production in Indonesia is contributing to the eradication of the orangutan, Greenpeace claims. Nestlé reacted by shutting down fan sites and trying to suffocate online discussions Greenpeace had sparked with some explicit Youtube videos. This kind of censorship for sure is the best way to fan a firestorm and make classic media aware of a story. Nestlé made Greenpeace’s job and the campaigners earned kudos for their clever strategy.


Don’t let yourself be scared by those who made firestorm management their business. It’s often a hype and not all that horrifying. But this doesn't mean that you can afford not to take critics on your social media channels seriously. Social media are no rocket science, but they are another channel you have to manage. A firestorm ignored might be a crisis ignited. You have to be prepared to properly respond to a crisis on all your communication channels and you have to understand their specifics. A social media crisis often is nothing more than a short-term outrage with no effect on your reputation. But Facebook & Co. might be the catalyzer for a full-scale crisis. However, these situations can be handled. The good old dos and don’ts of crisis communication still apply.


In Germany, we call these kind of firestorms "shitstorms", for whatever reason. So next time s…omething hits the social media fan, don’t panic or try to dodge it. Relax and switch the fan off. Here is how:


1. Monitoring is key. Always be aware of what is said about your brand, your products or your decision makers in social media. Establish an early warning system to detect unusual patterns.


2. Once you see a firestorm rising, keep calm. Don’t rush into a battle you might not even have to fight it.


3. Analyze the scale of the firestorm. As studies show, firestorms are usually actively driven by only a handful of users. The vast majority might not even notice it. But beware of well-planned campaigns.


4. Show quickly that you are aware of the topic. This might already cool down tempers.


5. But don’t provide the firestorm drivers with a stage for big drama. If you have the feeling that the firestormers’ accusations aren’t substantial, that there is no obvious misconduct and that it is just a matter of different points of view, trust the self-regulation mechanisms within the community. A single post, saying you are aware of the issue and you are looking into it, might be enough.


6. If there is an obvious misconduct on your behalf, communicate what you are doing to fix it.


7. In short: Don’t fuel the fire yourself. That includes never to fall back to censorship. Censored content is like water, it will always find its way into the public.


8. React only via social media as long as the topic hasn’t spilt over to traditional media.


9. Once the firestorm made its way in the traditional media, carefully analyze if the reports only cover the firestorm as such or if they are really focusing on the discussed issue.


10. Be aware that some organizations very well know about the fascination traditional media still have for the mechanics of social media. These organizations might deliberately set off a firestorm to bring the issue in the papers and on TV.


11. If you realize that you are facing a well-planned campaign, Macromedia’s study shows that the best way to react is to get in contact with the campaigners as soon as possible. They have an agenda and it might be helpful to find out what it is.