Audience: Community Managers, Social Media Managers

One day you are going to fail.

That’s not a possibility, it’s an inevitability. At some point you’re going to spell something wrong, blow a release date, anger a customer, or otherwise screw up. No matter how much you plan and double-check your work, it will happen.

How you respond to failure will shape the future of your community. Try to hide it, lash out, or double down and take it out on your fans and you’ve damaged relationships, often irreparably. You only need to search for “social media fail” to see the impact a misplaced campaign or response can incite. So how do you deal with the inevitable?

Embracing Failure

#1: Own It

black and white photo of man pointing finger at reader

You, yes you, need to take ownership

You screwed up, and outside of very few circumstances, that’s okay. The quickest way to get past it is to just own it, and move forward on finding a solution to any ire you may have caused. If you try to point fingers, pass the blame, or otherwise dodge responsibility you’re only going to increase the frustration and vitriol directed your way.

To put it into a real world context: Your friend says something that really hurts you. You call them out on it. Instead of apologizing, they say ‘I didn’t say that’ and ignore your frustration. Any attempts to have a conversation about it are ignored and met with silence. How would that make you feel? If they never acknowledge it, are you likely to stay friends with them?

Post something that made someone angry? Deleting it and pretending it never happened is rarely the right response. Unless it’s so far over the PR line that leaving it up is going to create collateral damage, the best response is to leave it up and genuinely apologize in follow-up communications. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if the offensive blurb you got came from another team,. product, etc. If you posted it on your channels, you are responsible for its impact. Embracing the failure and owning it will let you move on to remedying the situation.

#2: Fix It

sewing needle and thread

Stitch that community back together, yo

Once you’ve taken ownership of the fail, you can move on to fixing it. People are pretty forgiving, and making an effort to fix the situation goes a long way to repairing the relationship. How you approach this depends on the severity of the situation.

Screw up a tweet and include the wrong link to a long-awaited piece of content? Apologize and throw a little humor in there. ex. “Doh! Looks like I need a bit more coffee… Sorry for the fake out! Here’s the real link:’

Easily fixed, and shows the human side of the person behind the account. I’ve had some really fun interactions this way, and while I wouldn’t recommend doing it on purpose, it’s resulted in some laughs on both sides.

Deeply offend a group of people through your content or product… That’s going to take a bit more work. As a community manager, even if you were not the one to create the original content (i.e. something was added in-game, etc), it’s on you to fix the public conversation. Genuinely apologize for the frustration, sort out what happened, and work on a plan for addressing the problem. Include other people in the process if you can, and make sure you’re looking at things from multiple perspectives.

At the end of the day, you may not be able to repair all of the damage. You may lose people from your community as a result. You can only make a best effort to fix the problem. What happens beyond that is up to the individuals impacted.

#3: Learn From It

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Failure is the quickest way to learn something new! Forgot to double-check that bit.ly link worked before you wrote that tweet? Create a quick process in which you check every link before you hit the Tweet button, and check again once it’s posted. By learning from past mistakes, you can create habits that will ensure you mitigate future instances.

Have a social media meltdown because someone on development team added an inadvertently offensive team name into the game? Talk to the team directly and escalate if needed. Being able to show the fall-out is a stark reminder that once your product is out into the public, it ceases to be the team’s pet project. There are a variety of personalities and perspectives that will interact with your product. Be prepared to learn something new along the way, and adapt your strategy based on its reception.

#4: Remember You Are Not Alone

Community Managers as duckies. Because.

Anyone who has been doing this for a while has at least one story of when they screwed up. Whether it was a simple link fumble or a ‘I didn’t realize that was going to down like that’ content decision, we’ve all been there.

For example, I completely blew the release date for 1 vs 100 for Xbox Live. I’d been told by someone on the team that we were clear to talk about it on the forums and social media. That… wasn’t the case. Within minutes of my mistake, I had a call from Xbox PR. I was terrified that I was about to be fired. Thankfully they were understanding (because hey, we ALL screw up), and incredibly helpful in remedying the situation. They taught me the fine art of falling on my sword and apologizing with a bit of self-deprecating humor. I’d jumped the gun,  and when the release date was moved a few weeks later, people were generally okay with it.

I learned some valuable communication tactics in the process. Also, that it’s a wise idea to double-check any critical communications with PR & Marketing BEFORE posting. Even if someone high up on the team assures that it’s totally okay to talk about.

If you’re able to, find a community of community managers (yo dawg…) and/or build a support network of other CMs. We all have different experiences to share, and having someone there to help you with critical messaging, or just spot check a ‘hey, does this sound right?’ moment is bloody wonderful.

#5: Forgive Yourself

pile of heart shaped waffles

Why waffles? Because waffles are freakin’ delicious. Treat yoself!

You screw up, you learn from it, and you move forward.

It’s easy to dwell on your failures and diminish your successes. Remember that you’re human, and try to treat yourself the way you would treat a friend in a similar situation. This job is hard sometimes, don’t make it harder on yourself by overly criticizing yourself any time you screw up. Learn to laugh at yourself when it’s not a big deal, and put the processes in place that will prevent those situations that ARE a big deal.

At the end of the day, you’re only human. Forgive yourself, move on, and enjoy a little consolation treat when needed. In my case, this is almost always dark chocolate chip waffles. Because waffles are great. #TeamWaffle

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  1. I treat failure as comfort zone. If I haven’t failed a lot then I’m not doing stuff that challenges me. At a new training gym, looking like an idiot sometimes, but I know I’m getting stronger and more skilled. With marketing I’ve got screamed at and called names. It takes you from hopeful to real deal player faster. Failure confronts fear and you get to move on to bigger and better things faster.

    My treat is some pizza, tacos or ice cream 😉

    • Tara J. Brannigan says:

      That’s a good way to look at it! Just gotta learn from it and move forward as best as you can! What’s life without learning something new, eh?

      “tacos or ice cream” – Why not both?

  2. Excellent post. I’m very critical of myself, so it is good to be reminded of these things, especially that critical stage of forgiving yourself!

    • Tara J. Brannigan says:

      Thanks Jared! And I hear ya. I’m my own worst critic. Learning to move on and stop beating myself up over every little fumble has been a process!

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