Dealing with social media at your business is a bit like handling highly volatile materials. The potential power of the medium is vast but so is the potential for disaster if things go wrong (just ask McDonalds, Home Depot and Amy's Baking Company). And what makes it even worse is the less safety precautions you take--the more human your voice and authentic-sounding your updates--the more impact your social media efforts are likely to have. No wonder small business owners want to know how to stay safe without sounding dull on social media.

There's plenty of abstract advice out there, but perhaps the best way to learn how to make sure your attempts at humor or ill-trained but enthusiastic social media intern don't blow up in your face is to look at a real-word example of how one organization defused a potential disaster. And who better to look to for disaster preparedness and response than the Red Cross?


Judging by a recent interview with Wendy Harman, the group's director of information management and situational awareness in disaster cycle (quite a mouthful, that) in the MIT Sloan Management Review (free registration required), the Red Cross isn't just good at responding to natural disasters, but is pretty savvy about handling social media screw-ups as well.

The interview covers all areas of how the organization is using social media for its mission, but the section that's most likely to be of interest to owners digs into the situation around a rogue tweet memorably hashtagged #Gettngslizzerd. When an employee accidentally confused her personal account for the official Red Cross stream, the storied humanitarian organization ended up announcing this to the world:


Cue red cheeks all around, but as it turns that under Harman the Red Cross was actually able to turn the incident from a big embarrassment into a win.

3 Lessons in Social Media Disaster Response

How? Harman's response suggests three keys to successful fight back:

  • Respond quickly. Harman explains that the Red Cross uses the power of social connections to keep tabs on the ever-changing, never-sleeping world of social media. "I was in bed asleep when it happened and I was awakened by a colleague in Chicago who saw it--since this time I've shared my real live phone number with a lot of my social media counterparts at other big nonprofit organizations, and we sort of pledged to take care of one another if something like this should ever happen," she explains.
  • Stay human. Everyone makes mistakes. There can be incredible power in acknowledging that fact and fighting the impulse to go robotically corporate in response. Admitting imperfections is endearing after all (though there is definitely a limit to this depending on the egregiousness of the error). "I deleted the tweet, and then I woke up a little more and I remembered how a week earlier I was on a Facebook group for nonprofits talking about how much I love it when there are these mis-tweets. I thought they show a sort of window into the soul of an organization. I had never seen any institution that this has happened to where they just said, 'Look, we did it, this was a mistake.' I figured we'd try that," Harman relates.
  • Add a dash of well employed humor. "I ended up writing, 'We've deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we've confiscated the keys,'" Harman reports. "I think that they were delighted that we could be in on it too, and they thought that that was really fun."

The End Result

So how the incident play out? Not only did the tweet not have a massive negative effect on the organization, but it actually ended up being a huge fundraising boon.

"Our blog got crashed, and it didn't even get crashed during Haiti or any of the other huge disasters that we've had. It was a higher-trafficked event than most anything we've ever done. People donated a good amount of money that day, too. We also coordinated with Dogfish Head and set up a donation site. And restaurants all over the country jumped on it, too. They said, 'If you come in and you prove that you've given blood today, we'll give you a pint of beer,'" Harman concludes.