The Best Way to Respond to Social Fury Is Still up for Debate

Hal Conick
Key Takeaways

What? A brand doesn’t need millions of followers to deal with angry customers online.

So what? Social fury can have sever impacts on brands. Uber and United Airlines are two that suffered after their crises went viral.

Now what? Scholars who study social fury suggest marketers monitor keywords that indicate customers taking action, stay calm at the moment of confrontation and stay on-brand with responses.​​​​​​

​We’re in the era of online outrage, and it’s affecting brands small and large. How can marketers deal with the outrage while staying sane? ​

Kimberly Legocki got her first taste of online fury in the era of the blogosphere. It was the mid-2000s, and she was handling marketing and communications for JohnsonDiversey (now Diversey Inc.). Suddenly, blog and forum posts popped up asking for people to boycott Jo​hnsonDiversey and sign petitions against its wage and environmental practices. Legocki thought the angry activist posts were a small, yet curious, blip on her marketing dashboard.

A few years later, as director of social media relations at California State University East Bay, she saw more anger—a lot more. “That’s where Twitter really became involved,” she says. “There were more technologies that allowed us to monitor our brand name and keywords, and that’s when we started to see a lot of that anger and venting.”

Businesses of all sizes—from ma-and-pa sandwich shops to Fortune 500 companies—have felt social fury. A brand doesn’t need millions of followers to deal with angry, sometimes vindictive, customers online. 

“My experience as a practitioner drove me to want to know how to deal with it,” Legocki says. “This is not going away. In fact, it’s increasing.”

As Legocki transitioned from working as a practitioner to studying for her doctorate in business administration, the anger on social media held her attention. Research on social anger against brands is thin, so she decided to do her own. Legocki spends her days monitoring “outrage events,” which she says have grown exponentially, giving her plenty of ammunition for her studies. 

In one such study, still under review, Legocki and Kristen L. Walker, also of California State University, wanted to find the patterns of angry posters during outrage events. Legocki and Walker ranked 14,000 English words on an emotional scale and studied reactions to three different social media crises—in all, they examined 9,500 tweets. The researchers separated tweets by behavioral intention, emotional intensity and number of characters. 

The study found something surprising: Most social media anger is composed of retweets. People usually tweet something angry once and exit the conversation. But a small group of less vitriolic—but more persistent—posters may be cause for concern.

According to the study, 80.9% of those who speak out against brands on social media are “hotheads,” people who vent and post emotionally charged content toward brands, mostly through retweets. The other 19.1% are “rational activists,” people who write original content with low emotional intensity focused on harming and seeking remedy from brands. The rational activists may seem less explosive—they usually aren’t cursing or telling you to die—but Legocki says that they may deserve brands’ attention.

“Nearly 84% of all consumers participating in one of three social media crises we examined posted fewer than two times, an average of 1.19 times,” Legocki and Walker wrote in the research paper. “With only 16% of consumer activists writing original content, the quality of a post may be worth more of a brand’s time than simply the quantity of posts.”

On most occasions, Legocki says that angry social media posters will retweet another angry post, adding their own brief commentary—perhaps a “WTF” or an angry emoji. But marketers should pay attention when calmer online posters call for action.

“They’re not going to let it go,” Legocki says. “Their language is not inflammatory. It’s very well-thought out, it’s low emotion and very rational. As a practitioner, I know that I tend to overlook them because it’s not high-arousal, it’s not inflammatory.”


 Crisis Management: Kimberly Legocki Disrupting Business Presentation in 2014


Some Fury Strengthens Brands 

Outrage events often have negative outcomes. Travis Kalanick, former CEO of Uber, stepped down after a series of public gaffes. United Airlines lost the trust of many customers—and took a momentary-but-gigantic stock hit—when a video of police and United employees forcibly dragging a passenger off a flight was posted to social media. 

But are all online outrage events equally bad for brands? Not necessarily, says Joachim Scholz.

Scholz, assistant professor of marketing at California Polytechnic State University, says that some brands can use outrage events to their advantage. While brands should respond to and apologize for mistakes, harmful products and mistreatment of customers, Scholz believes some outrage events— “firestorms,” he calls them—can strengthen a brand’s position and bond with its customers. 

One firestorm has held Scholz’s attention for years. Protein World, a U.K.-based supplement brand, created a gigantic advertisement featuring a photo of a lean, bikini-clad woman with a caption asking, “Are you beach body ready?” Many critics accused the company of fat-shaming and creating unrealistic body standards; the company disagreed, saying that it was empowering people to be healthy. But the company didn’t just leave it there—it stirred the pot on social media, tweeting that “We are a nation of sympathizers for fatties” and calling its critics “lazy and weak.”​

Usually, this kind of vitriol from a brand would mean a fast apology, but Scholz says that it was part of the company reframing the criticism in its favor. Protein World’s brand voice has been bombastic, but it has also been supportive of healthy eating habits, motivational for those who exercise and empowering for followers trying to get healthy. The controversy fit Protein World’s brand. 

“It provided an opportunity for Protein World to say that we are strong in this crisis, and that resonated with the customer,” Scholz says. Although online outrage events may feel routine, they’re still a new phenomenon. Nobody has figured out a perfect way to respond to them or stop them, nor have researchers figured out what effect they can have on brands. But Legocki and Scholz agree that most marketers are not prepared for the moment when these events happen to them. They offer this advice based on their studies.

Monitor Your Keywords

Brands should monitor keyword notifications for words like “boycott” and “greed” plus the brand name, Legocki says. These words are calling cards of the more-effective, longer-lasting rational activists.

Not every mention will lead to action, she says, but if petitions start popping up, that’s a sign for brands to address their critics. At this point, rational activists are looking for brands to make changes, and they likely won’t let it go until those changes are made. 

Stay Calm

The first thing marketers should do during an outrage event is step away from the screen and stay calm, Legocki says. Don’t get caught up in the arousal and colorful language of the hotheads. Staying calm may be hard. It’s not every day that most marketers look at their social dashboard and see 500 people furiously tweeting at them, but Legocki says that calmness will help marketers figure out their next steps without falling into the hotheads’ trap. 

“If it’s just a lot of retweets, chances are that it’s the kind of people who are looking to vent, the hotheads,” she says. “They’re going to retweet 1.2 times, and that’s it. They’re out of there.”

In the heat of an outrage event, marketers spend much of their time responding to these hotheads, Legocki says, but she believes these high-arousal users are simply looking for the comradery of fellow hotheads. 

“They’re not looking for much from the company beyond maybe the obligatory apology,” she says. “The best thing for the practitioner is just to apologize and move on.”

Use Outrage to Grow

Brands should always avoid being nasty, Scholz says, but brands that want to use outrage to their advantage should find a balance between infuriating their critics and keeping their brand voice. Wendy’s has seemingly perfected this balance on Twitter. The company, with nearly 3 million followers, regularly makes fun of followers and competitors. It once responded to an error-filled tweet from McDonald’s with “When the tweets are as broken as the ice cream machine.”

For outrage to benefit a brand, Scholz says that companies must understand their customers, their critics and the potential firestorm they’re facing. 

“I think there are a couple of steps you want to follow: First you want to ask yourself how right your critics are. Do they have a point?” he says. If they do, it may be better to acknowledge their point, apologize and move on. “The next question you have to ask is to what extent the crisis or controversy fits your brand.”

If the crisis or controversy doesn’t fit the brand, he says that it’s best to leave it alone.

Reassess Your Approach

No matter how marketers respond to social outrage, they should always be willing to change their tactics. 

Protein World went too deep into the firestorm, Scholz says. At one point, the company’s CEO sent tweets—now deleted—challenging the mental health of critics and comparing some to beached whales. Scholz says that the company lost its moral high ground in a flash. “The very thing they were criticized for, they were then guilty of,” Scholz says. The company has since taken a lighter tone with critics on social media, he says. 

Companies should also be willing to change because there’s simply no right way to respond to outraged social media users. Legocki has spoken with peers and practitioners and read advice from experts; every answer they give seems to suggest something different. Do nothing? Issue a press release? Stir the pot to make people angrier? Apologize? No one knows the right way to deal with social outrage. For now, it’s situational.

“That’s one of the reasons I chose to study this,” Legocki says. “We’re all dealing with it in small ways, and it catches us by surprise.”
Hal Conick
Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @HalConick.