On Social Media, Nobody Can Hear You Joking

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Out in Colorado, a clerk at a liquor store war-whooped at a Native American customer. When she complained, she was told she should have a different last name. In Massachusetts, a female employee at a comic book store was fired after sharing her concerns that other staffers referred to a storage area as a “rape room.”

We learned about these stories the way the rest of the world (and the news media!) did: through social media. There are lots of conversations about how social media empowers the individual to address situations where they feel they’ve been treated badly. A well-presented narrative that taps into people’s natural sense of outrage will be shared frequently. As a result, these businesses have had their name and image dragged all over the internet, in the most unfavorable way possible.

This is the type of situation that gives business owners sleepless nights. Even if a company does everything possible to promote a workplace culture where everyone is treated with respect and dignity, it only takes one front line employee with very poor social awareness and judgment (sometimes referred to as a terrible sense of humor) to create a public relations nightmare. You have no control over this happening; neither the timing nor the incident is up to you.

What is up to you, however, is your response. Unfortunately, the business owner has chosen to engage in some less than ideal crisis management practices, erasing critical comments from their social media platforms and issuing statements to the media that they will have statements to make on the issue…later.


Here’s how you do it right:

When a member of your team does something that is egregiously out of alignment with your company’s values (and your customer’s expectations!) the first thing to do is address the issue with your employee and take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Social norms have changed. You cannot run a viable business with people who do not know how to treat other people with the respect they deserve; it may be that you have some staffing changes to make.

Then, even though it is hard, don’t erase the commentary on social media. You’re not going to gain anything by that, and you may even add fuel to the fire. Instead, reach out, preferably through a private message, first to the person affected by the incident, and see what would need to happen to make things right.

Then, through your own social media platforms and on your website, issue a statement that acknowledges the situation, lets the public know that you’ve reached out to the impacted individuals, and what corrective steps have been taken to prevent this from happening again. Ideally, this all needs to happen within hours of the original incident; however, it’s never too late to start making things right.

If you’re too close to the situation to proceed dispassionately, or you’re struggling to understand why so many people are upset over what to you just seems like a joke gone wrong, these are the signs that you need to delegate responding to your critics to a third party: either a trusted employee with crisis management skills or a professional firm who can step into the messaging role for you on a short term basis.

Mistakes will be made. However, if you hold people accountable, demand improved performance going forward, and communicate this clearly to the parties involved and the larger communities who are watching what you do, it doesn’t have to wreck your business.

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On Social Media, Nobody Can Hear You Joking
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On Social Media, Nobody Can Hear You Joking
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Social Media can turn one employee's actions into a viral vendetta against your company. Here's how to use it to turn things around.
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