Fixing the SIC: Preventing and Managing Self-Inflicted Crises

Fixing the SIC: Preventing and Managing Self-Inflicted Crises

Andrew S. Pyle (Clemson University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8516-9.ch001


Social media platforms provide channels for both individuals and organizations to engage with global audiences. A successful social media message can reach millions and shape the way the public views a particular person, group, or cause. As organizations become more engaged with the public through social media platforms, a new area of organizational risk has also developed. It is possible for an organization to create a self-inflicted crisis through the unintentional transmission of a poorly worded or ill-conceived social media message. This type of self-induced crisis event creates organizational conflict that must be managed quickly. This chapter explores three cases of organizational conflict resulting from self-inflicted crisis events. All three events caused major conversations to erupt on social media platforms. The author examines the social media-based communication practices of three organizations and draws lessons from both successes and failures for how organizations should respond to self-inflicted crises.
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It is an unfortunate truth that the internet can be a dark, dangerous place. Some of the worst aspects of humanity thrive in the fetid currents of deviance that flow unimpeded online. Yet, at the same time, the world of the internet can be a rich, wondrous place. Over the past few years, there have developed heart-warming stories, hope-inspiring anecdotes, and memes and GIFs to make even the most cold-hearted curmudgeon crack a grin. The same internet that gave us Gamergate (Valenti, 2017), an internet movement of predominantly white men attempting to force female developers out of the world of video games, also gave us Lachlan Lever, the seven-week old baby boy with moderate-to-severe hearing loss who smiled when he heard his parents’ voices for the first time (Waxman, 2014). It is in the capacity for viral growth of a story, concept, or movement, that we see the incredible power of the internet – both for heartwarming stories and for digital disaster.

A compelling example of both the positive and the negative potential for the internet to shape a conversation is the “Accidentally social viral 4x” Ben Tobias (, public information officer for the Gainesville, Florida police department. On the negative side, Tobias’s department became known for the “Hot Cop” incident following Hurricane Irma. Gainesville police were helping residents following the storm, and a selfie of three officers went viral with messages ranging from, “Do a calendar fundraiser!” to marriage propositions, and even some salacious suggestions from Facebook users (O’Kane, 2017). What seemed like excellent publicity for the Gainesville police turned sour when Facebook users found one of the three officers posting racist, anti-Semitic content on his personal Facebook page (Twedt, 2017). Tobias had to quickly respond and manage what had become a social media crisis. The officer was suspended, and the potential benefit to the community was tarnished by the officer’s comments.

In contrast to the “Hot Cop” incident, Tobias also had a video become a viral hit following a noise complaint. In an era when viral police videos conjure images of Walter Scott in North Charleston (Blinder, 2017) and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge (Berman & Lowery, 2018), the Gainesville video came as a breath of fresh air. An officer who responded to the noise complaint found a group of children playing basketball outside of their home. Rather than shutting down the game or offering a warning or citation, the officer joined the game (Shortell, 2016). The video, posted to the Gainesville police Facebook page, rapidly went viral and became a spotlight of positive police interaction in a community at a time when such interactions seemed rare. While Tobias’s viral messages are anomalous for a single individual (who is not already a super-star celebrity), they are representative of the power and potential impact of digital content in the modern era.

Considering the potential for the viral spread of digital messages, no one who has used social media in the past few years will be surprised that individuals and organizations regularly place themselves in self-inflicted crises (SIC). Since the first piece looking at this phenomenon was published (Pyle, 2016), there have been numerous instances of the SIC phenomenon. This chapter explores some of those cases and offers practical implications for scholars and practitioners. The chapter consists of three parts. First, the author reviews relevant literature. Next, the author conducts a comparative case study of four distinct self-inflicted crises: the Dove ad featuring a color-changing woman (Slawson, 2017); the cascading crisis of Urban Outfitters’ apparent art theft (BBC News, 2018); the 2017 Pepsi commercial in the style of a Black Lives Matter march (Victor, 2017); and lastly a re-examination of the 2014 DiGiorno “#WhyIStayed” crisis (Griner, 2014). Finally, the author presents a set of lessons learned from the case studies, as well as principles to inform organizational communication for organizations facing SIC.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Crisis: A specific, unexpected, and non-routine event or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and simultaneously present an organization with both opportunities for and threats to its high priority goals.

Twitter: The largest micro-blogging site on the internet, with over 302 million active monthly users.

Micro-Blog: Social networking sites that allow users to exchange small elements of content such as short sentences, individual images, or video links.

Social media: Websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking.

Hashtag: (On social media sites such as Twitter) A word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) and used to identify messages on a specific topic.

social networking sites: Web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.

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