Fighting the flame war: what to do when social media is up in arms against your brand

Stephan SalmannBy Stephan Salmann, Partner, Advisory, Ernst & Young GmbH Wirtschaftsprüfungsgesellschaft.

Thanks to the internet, today’s consumers are on an equal footing with every company and organization. They do not hesitate to turn to social media to voice their opinions about issues on which they feel strongly — be it positive or negative. While many companies embrace positive feedback on social media channels, others have had the painful experience of one tweet or post creating a ripple that results in a chorus of outrage. This chorus against companies, businesses, individuals — or even political parties — is called a flame war.

Anyone can be affected by flame wars — regardless of whether they’re active on social media or not. Social media crises can be instigated from the outside: for example, by parties with strategic intentions. But more worryingly, most of the time, flame wars originate from within the organization — as a result of inappropriate employee behavior, negative customer experiences, violation of ethical principles and other injustices or inappropriate reactions.

The six phases of a flame war are:

  1. Calm: crisis starting as a tweet (like 53% of all social media crises) or a Facebook post (17%)
  2. Breeze: moderate social media activity via just one channel
  3. Strong breeze: extensive activity across multiple channels
  4. Storm: extensive online media coverage
  5. Hurricane: full media coverage online and offline, including TV, radio and newspapers
  6. Post-critical phase: when the storm has receded

Since most of the detection and coping mechanisms around flame wars are technology infused, the CIO needs to work closely with marketing and customer care departments to implement measure to detect, deal with, and learn from flame wars.

Detection and early warning systems

Efficient automated analysis tools provide structure to the otherwise unstructured data obtained while monitoring social media activities and allow the organization to process that data. Modern tools help to achieve effective detection through advanced linguistic analysis, such as part-of-speech tagging (POST). Creating alerts on the basis of previously defined growth rates and a predefined blacklist of words — as opposed to performing individual assessments on ever-growing content — saves time. But it is important not to limit ourselves to the blacklists and keep track of the growth rates of different word combinations, as it is not possible to predict which word combinations will cause problems. CIOs should contain their instincts to automate response to flame wars. Every flame war — big or small — is critical and has to be dealt with by people, rather than by bots.

Dealing with a flame war

The speed with which companies identify and react to a potential crisis influences its overall impact and magnitude. In an optimal situation, potentially critical social media posts are recognized early and stemmed by specific countermeasures. Once a flame war is detected, defined processes need to kick in. They will be supported by a knowledge base listing all possible countermeasures that help employees in making balanced decisions on how to react. All social media channels used by the organization should be prepared with potential content to use in the event of an emergency. And, externally, influencers such as bloggers and social media editors need to be briefed in advance and activated on demand to help in a crisis situation. Although training employees to respond to flame wars doesn’t fall under the purview of CIOs, they can still do their part by running mock drills and keeping everyone on their toes and ready to react — quickly and in the correct way.

The post-war phase

Once the war is over, the CIO should ensure that valuable lessons are learnt from it and that the generated data is analyzed. The overall loss of reputation is easily observed but difficult to measure. However, loss of revenue, business and contracts, and fall in share prices, are quantifiable indicators. CIOs can help organizations by putting tools in place to measure reputational damage, identify root causes and prevent recurrence. Data on how employees dealt with the situation is also a valuable source of information that will help the company to improve its reaction mechanisms going forward.

Only extensive analyses will help organizations to react better to future crises. If handled carefully, flame wars can be turned around in favor of the company to create more fans and followers. Ultimately, it’s important to look on the positive side of things, as every problem is also an opportunity and a learning experience.


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