What do you do when your organization is faced with criticism from customers or stakeholders, particularly when that criticism is going viral via social media?

I’ll put aside major crises for the sake of this blog post – I could write for days about how to effectively plan for a true crisis and how to deal with it on the fly. Instead, I’d like to look at what I’ll call “the crisis-let” … the type of criticism that may spread like wildfire within a community or segment of your clients but isn’t likely to spell the end of your organization.

An unlikely example – a little 20-mile charity race in England, attracting just over 200 runners locally. A quick disclosure: As a runner, I’m particularly sympathetic to my fellow runners. The beauty of the sport is that almost anyone can pull on a pair of shoes and hit the road: You are a runner if you run one mile or 20; if you run a 5-minute mile or a 15-minute one.

In short, the organizers of this race, known as the Spen 20, pulled a woman from the March 15 race after just 1.4 miles because course marshals told her she was too slow. She turned to social media to vent, writing on Facebook: “Well this a first… 1 and a half miles in and pulled off the course for being too slow lead marshal says his team r not to stay out as long as it’s going to take me !!!!!” (sic). The event had listed no official cutoff time for runners

The response from the running community was quick and angry, and the major UK media picked up on the furor as well. At this point, a simple apology would probably have defused the controversy. Instead, officials reacted defensively, with one official’s response to her post concluding: “Thanks for all the publicity you have created for our fantastic event.” A full explanation posted a few days after the race on the organizer’s website  defended the organization’s position with a lot of detail about the race. It wasn’t until 500 words in that the organizer included what he should have started with: an apology.

The response also failed several key tenets of crisis management, including the need to:

  1. Stay calm. Don’t get defensive. Avoid your natural urge to spend the bulk of your time explaining why you made the decision that got you into the hot seat in the first place. If it takes you 500 words to explain yourself, that’s a sign that your processes could stand from improvement – a reason in and of itself for an apology of some sort.
  2. Honor your brand. Crisis communication puts leadership is in the spotlight, and it’s important to respect your customers or stakeholders and your shared values. In referring to “people who do not have a reasonable level of fitness” in the response to the criticism, the running organization acted in stark contrast to its stated goal of being a running club open to everyone.
  3. Show compassion. Demonstrate in words and deed that you have listened to your critics and that you’re human. When you provide a compassionate response, you’re showing that you can relate to your customers or stakeholders and that you’re the kind of organization they want to be involved with. Justifying your decision by telling a runner he or she is too slow? That’s hitting below the belt.


The bottom line? Don’t wait until a crisis hits to have a crisis plan in place. You shouldn’t wait until the reporter is on the phone or social media has exploded to figure out how to respond quickly and effectively, and in a manner that not only defuses criticism but allows you to strengthen your brand.