Social Media Case Study: Examining the Importance of a Cohesive Communication Strategy which Considers the Use of Social Media

by Lawrence Day

Social media has changed the public’s expectations in the response to a crisis. It has also changed dramatically the way that organisations need to prepare and plan to execute a communication strategy. The public often expect an immediate response through an open and honest dialogue, whether expressed through website, Facebook or Twitter posts or other social media. Whilst satisfying a need for important information to many with a vested interest, whether it be a global audience, victims’ relatives, shareholders or the mainstream media, its primary objectives when exercised as part of a crisis management plan is invariably to mitigate brand and reputational damage.

A well planned and exercised cohesive communication strategy is necessary to mitigate many issues arising during a crisis, whether it be the speed at which the incident becomes known or to react to ill-informed or deliberately misleading or damaging press and mainstream media communications. 28% of crises spread internationally within 60 minutes and 69% internationally within 24 hours1. This therefore demands a much quicker response and prompt decision making by people closest to the crisis. This is particularly true in the case of global organisations, operating across different time zones where a more centralised structure and hierarchal culture exists, where approval has proven to cause delay and significant impact on the management of crisis, resulting unnecessary in financial loss, loss of customer confidence, plummeting share price or other reputational damage.

An example of this culture resulting in the mishandling of a crisis was evidenced when Toyota managed the global recall of 9 million vehicles with potentially lethal faults commencing in January 2010. The press started to vilify the company in 2009 when the initial recall started but there was significant delay in identifying and addressing the situation which many commentators have suggested was due to a failure to communicate through the layers of the company. An example of the criticism in response to the perception of the mismanagement is observed in the following article.

“Details usually unworthy of public attention, such as internal memos disagreeing over public relations strategy, became smoking guns that convinced the press and the public that Toyota vehicles had electronic problems causing runaway vehicles — and that the company was hiding this from the public”2

Toyota was trending (negatively) on Google and Twitter which was a unique situation faced by the car industry. Although Audi had a similar issue in the 1980’s there had never been a situation where events were being seen through the social media lens. Toyota (North America) had a social media team that had been in place for a few months and were receiving numerous communications from the public as consequence of the recall. They responded in two ways to mitigate the escalating situation. Their first action was to use the now defunct social media site DIGG in February 2010 as their platform of choice to set up a question /answer facility using DIGGDialogue for Toyota owners and within the first week they had received 1.2 million views3. They also posted a video of their North American Sales President Jim Lenz on YouTube who attempted to reassure the public and provide an apology4.

Jeffrey Liker and Tim Ogden were critical of the culture that existed at Toyota at the time and attributed this to the mismanagement of the crisis When stating “Crisis response must start by building a strong culture long before the crisis hits,”5 they were commentating on the facts subsequently acknowledged by Toyota that the managers closest to the crisis were not making the decisions and that the company grew faster than it built and developed its workforce. Critically, there was an absence of a cohesive and well-developed communication (and social media) strategy which exacerbated the situation.

Conversely, an example of how social media was used effectively within a well-planned and executed communication strategy was the tragic incident at the Alton Towers theme park in June 2015 when two young people suffered life changing injuries when a rollercoaster carriage failed to stop and crash into a stationary carriage. The park was operated by Merlin Entertainments, who as a result suffered a significant drop in visitors and revenue that resulted in 190 job losses. The company were prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive and were fined £5m at Staffordshire Crown Court in 2016 having pleaded guilty to related offences. In 2018 the victims commenced successful civil litigation against Merlin Entertainments.

Several factors were widely acknowledged within the crisis management industry and professionals that were critical in the successful management of the incident.

“Its response was exemplary and played a major role in protecting its reputation and value. The nature and speed of its actions and words indicate clearly that it was based on a well-conceived and rehearsed crisis management plan”6.

What was even more impressive was that the communication team clearly remained agile to managing hostile elements of the press and TV media to mitigate the subsequent effect it did have on the business in terms of patronage. It was reported that “some elements of the media fanned the flames of the story – misrepresenting the facts, losing perspective and acting without sensitivity”7.

The first action (after closing the park) it took was to post information on Twitter and Facebook, providing accessibility by the public through questions and answer mechanisms. Rather than just publish statements and adopt a defensive position, it fully engaged with the users. The social media was subsequently used as a medium for the messages and interviews conducted by the Executive. The next action was to replace its current imagery on the theme park’s website with a more sombre message about the incident.

Perhaps the most important element of the communication strategy was the personal appearance at the scene and on all of the subsequent interviews (providing continuity) by the CEO Nick Varney, whose manner was widely acclaimed as calm, authentic and unscripted whilst always displaying humanity and humility throughout the subsequent events and court appearances. His exceptional performance in providing a human face that expressed sorrow and regret for the incident from the outset with a visible focus on supporting the victims and their families was a recognised factor in mitigating the reputational damage to the company. An example of his professionalism was when he refused to accede to relentless questioning by Sky News Anchor-woman Kay Burley.

“The difficult questioning and Varney’s measured responses boosted the support for the CEO. In contrast, almost 2,000 people complained to Ofcom about Kay Burley’s approach to the interview and a petition asking Sky News to sack her topped 55,000 signatures”8.

To contextualise in returning to the discrete topic of the use social media this provided the opportunity for a consistent message to be used in the collateral for the company’s social media posts and reach the broader audience, not just nationally but globally. It also provided continuity in term of the non-defensive message in the face of ongoing media scrutiny and a desire to sensationalise the event.

What conclusions do we draw from this. The power of social media can both have a positive and negative impact during a crisis. Both case studies exemplify the importance of a well-rehearsed crisis management plan and communication strategy, and the necessity to exploit the use of social media when executing both. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations provides some sage advice that may benefit many organisations9.

  1. Have a crisis communication plan
  2. Listen, understand and learn
  3. Implement good social media governance
  4. Know when to respond to and when not to
  5. Run a simulation and rehearse everything


  1. Containing a Crisis – Dealing with corporate disaster in the digital age – Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringe
  2. Crisis Management Publication Article – (Jeffrey Liker, Feb 2011)
  3. eCmetrics Blog Post 2015 –
  5. Toyota Under Fire: Lessons for Turning Crisis into Opportunity 2011 – Jeffrey Liker and Tim Ogden
  6. Crisis Proof 2021 Jonathan Hemus
  9. CIPR – Five tips for social media crisis management – Stuart Bruce –