No brand wants to be on the receiving end of bad PR and no brand wants to handle bad PR on social media, yet we know that every year some of the biggest players on the planet will hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Why you need to handle bad PR on social media when it happens

Bad PR could range from a poorly executed advert, a rogue executive caught doing something they shouldn’t, right through to more serious incidents such as those which endanger public safety.  Public perception is everything during a PR disaster and social media can and will allow the public to speculate, therefore spreading the PR oil slick fast.

With 3.2 billion people online and 2.01 billion of them using Facebook plus 330 million using Twitter, it’s easy to see how it can happen. How you handle bad PR on social media is key, so let’s take a look at the best and worst practices.

Before bad PR happens

It’s a good idea to nail down your PR procedures BEFORE anything bad happens. That’s because bad PR can spread so quickly that there won’t be time for planning or lengthy discussions. Here are some of the things you should be doing right now:

1. Develop a strong brand culture

Many PR disasters are caused by employees. Remember when a McDonalds employee decided to have a little “fun” on their corporate Twitter account? Whilst the company denied the incident, it’s not the first time a disgruntled employee has tried to sabotage a brand. This is where it is important to develop a strong brand culture in which you treat your employees fairly. Of course, you want to do this because you’re a nice brand but you also don’t want any terrible stories popping up online.

An organization that treats its employees poorly is asking for trouble so be sure to foster positive working relationships, teamwork and brand loyalty.

How to handle bad PR on social media

2. Be prepared

Before anything bad happens, you need to establish your internal protocol for dealing with bad PR and who will handle bad PR on social media. Who should (and definitely shouldn’t) speak on behalf of the company, who will post to your social media channels, who will gather the team together to explain the situation.

One of the biggest problems for bigger organisations is miscommunication during a PR crisis. Your shareholders are saying one thing, your CEO is saying another and your employees don’t know what’s going on.

You should also know in advance where all your social media passes are located, how to log onto your site quickly and how to contact your social media or PR agency in an emergency. Remember to include your social media and PR teams in your plans because they will be the ones executing them should the worst happen!

3. Hire the right social media team

Handling social media accounts during a bad PR incident is an incredibly difficult job and one which requires an expert person or team. Depending on the severity of your faux pas, your channels will erupt with bad reviews, negative comments on every thread, tons of private messages, forum threads, tweets and images.

This can be incredibly stressful and an inexperienced social media manager could be left floundering or worse still, retaliating. You need a calm, confident social media manager who is able to liaise with senior management to handle the crisis effectively.


A teenage girl named Casey decided to visit Carolina Girls in South Carolina to purchase a new wallet. According to Casey, as she entered the shop, a saleswoman looked up and allegedly said “shoplifter” to one of her colleagues. For context, Casey is black. Following a complaint from the girl’s mother which was posted to Facebook and over 1,100 social media shares, Carolina Girls publicly responded:

Failed attempt at fixing

The above statement seemed to be a reasonable response to the incident, however, the additional actions of the brand put them in the firing line again. Carolina Girls censored and deleted all negative comments and then when the heat got too much, they deleted their page entirely.

No Facebook page


Never delete valid complaints or comments during a PR crisis as you will only enflame the situation. Provide a well thought out response and allow people to vent. Closing your Facebook page is pretty much business suicide so unless you’re closing your company, you shouldn’t do it.

During a bad PR crisis

Fasten your seatbelts because it’s about to get bumpy. Operating at ground zero during a PR disaster is hard work and you’re going to need to support your social media team with great communication, coffee and donuts! Here are some of the things you should be doing when you need to handle bad PR on social media.

1. Take responsibility

First off, don’t try to cover up the bad PR, it will only worsen the damage. It’s happened and you need to call on the key members of your organisation to assess the damage and formulate a response.

By taking responsibility quickly, you will lessen the spread and endear the public to your brand. You need to issue a swift press release and post it to your channels to control the situation and get the message visible.

Be honest and accountable as opposed to spinning a web of lies which will entangle you later on. If your brand did something terrible then you need to apologise and begin to look into the incident to show that meaningful action will be taken.

2. Remember to be human

The words you use during a PR crisis are key to the way you will be perceived. Saying “our team is so sad to hear about what just happened” is certainly preferable to “a regrettable incident has occurred”.

Declining to comment, refusing to put a human face to your organisation and shunning public comments will make your PR crisis so much worse than it already is. If you need to handle bad PR on social media then this is the time when your spokesperson needs to make a statement or a video expressing how sorry you really are.

3. Avoid knee-jerk reactions

Companies, brand representatives or influencers often react quickly and regret it later. Social media is fast moving so the temptation to quickly get a statement out there can be overwhelming. However, you need to be sure that the first external communication following the crisis is a well-thought-out response and not something that isn’t really reflective of your brand. Similarly, angry retorts to customers on social media are never ok.

Remember Amy’s Baking Company? Don’t even go there.

Amy's fail

4. Pause RSS feeds and scheduled posts

If, like many companies, you schedule your social media in advance or use an RSS feed from other sources, you need to pause them immediately. There is nothing worse than a chirpy or seemingly insensitive scheduled post popping up in the middle of a PR crisis. Saying it was scheduled won’t mean anything to your social media audience who will just see it as your brand being crass and failing to care about your responsibilities.

CASE STUDY – United Airlines

It was a bad year for United Airlines whose stock plummeted after videos of a passenger being violently dragged off an overbooked plane circulated on the internet. United Airlines however, made the PR disaster so much worse due to their poor handling on social media. At first, United agreed with the forceful removal of the passenger amid furious backlash on their social media channels. Company CEO Oscar Munoz then issued a cold apology:

United Airlines

This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.

Yes, he actually said “re-accommodate”!

After intense backlash and boycott threats, United eventually said

We have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.

By this point, it was too late and United’s consumer perception dropped to a 10-year low. The company became the subject of numerous internet memes and of course other airlines cashing in on their monumental failures!



This was a classic example of how not to handle bad PR on social media. Within an hour of the horrific incident occurring, the world had seen a confused and bloodied passenger dragged from an aircraft simply because of an overbooking. Unquestionably a sincere apology should have been made immediately after the incident. In fact, the CEO should have been horrified and immediately tweeted it. The mixed messages, lukewarm response and lack of internal resolve was a disaster for United.

After the bad PR crisis

The worst may be over but if you have had to handle bad PR on social media then this isn’t the end. Following a PR disaster, you need to tread a fine line to rebuild customer confidence and avoid creating an aftershock on your channels. Here are some of the things you should be doing after the bad PR on social media.

1. Emphasize your business’s positive track record

A bad PR incident can leave your customers and social media followers believing you are the worst thing in the world but that wasn’t always true. If you have apologised and vowed to remedy your mistake, then it’s time for some positive reinforcement. You need to put the bad PR in context to remind the public that this was a one off.

A good example of this was the Virgin Trains crash in Cumbria in 2007. In response to the incident, Sir Richard Branson said:

I’ve been in the transportation business for nearly 25 years. We have transported half a million passengers and fortunately have never had to be in this situation before. One can only imagine what it was like for the passengers.

2. Don’t delete comments

Following a bad PR incident, it is natural for some negative comments to continue. The general public is not too forgiving and depending on what your brand did, perhaps you shouldn’t expect them to be. Perhaps you posted an update about your brand’s latest charity contribution and your post was hijacked with comments reminding you of your PR incident. Decide internally if you wish to respond to the comments or draw their attention to your previous apology. Either way, don’t delete them and certainly don’t get into a slanging match. This will reignite the whole incident.

3. Provide an update

During the bad PR, you told the public that you were sorry, had learnt lessons and were investigating the incident. Did you investigate it? If you did then it may be a good idea to update your fans on the outcome to show that you really did take action. Perhaps you implemented a new procedure, fired a member of staff or created a new safety rule. If you took steps to prevent it happening again then be sure to communicate this.

Learning to handle bad PR on social media can be stressful and certainly requires a cool hand. We hope these tips will be useful. Do you have a strategy in place for handling bad PR? Tweet us and let us know.