How should Page Admins deal with Flame Wars?

The chart above illustrates the emergence and resolution of a flame war[1] on Waitrose’s Facebook Page last November.

The horizontal axis represents sequential Posts on Waitrose’s Wall while the vertical axis represents the individual contributors to the "conversation" (really it was more of a barney than a conversation.) Each blue dot plotted on the chart represents at least one comment posted by a specific contributor on a specific post.)

So the more blue dots in a column mean the more unique users have commented on that post; the more blue dots in a row, the longer that unique user has continued engaging with the overall conversation (or to put it another way, the greater their appetite for the fight.)

The flame war in question more or less dominated Waitrose’s Facebook Page for more than a day and a half; accounting for 70% of all Posts and 72% of all Comments until it finally ran out of steam.

Much as I’d enjoy going into them, the ins and outs of the matter have little bearing. For the sake of this post, I’m only interested in what the numbers tell us about how Page Admins should deal with these emerging crises when they appear on their Facebook Walls.

Because, as it turns out, the accepted wisdom may be misleading.

Accepted Wisdom

Both Crisis Management and Social Media experts will tell you that it’s essential that a brand under attack does all it can to take control of a crisis situation as soon as possible. As one commentator on the Waitrose incident wrote:

The key to successfully managing an issue and ensuring that it doesn’t become a crisis is to keep communicating.

(Sarah Williams, Senior Lecturer in Public Relations, MMUBS)

This is relatively easy to say, but in practice, it’s often hard to identify emerging crisis situations in Social Media platforms.

What did Waitrose do?

As it happens, Waitrose Admins did comment on one of the early posts in the sequence.

For most of the sequence, though, they were more notable by their absence. After apparently ignoring the situation Waitrose admins finally weighed in at the end of the day with three identical posts in rapid succession:

Why did Waitrose post the same message three times?

Here’s an apposite quote from Stuart Bruce speaking in Communicate Magazine:

The volume of comments on the page makes it extremely hard to follow. One sensible thing Waitrose is doing is to repost its response, as if they did it just once and left it then it could be easily missed.

Stuart is one of the smartest chaps in this space; but he’s wrong here. I’m not trying to show him up, instead I’m using his quote to illustrate how easy it is to get Facebook Community Management wrong. It should make us all feel better to know that we’re in good company.

Why is Stuart right?

Let’s look at how he’s correct first. There was a lot of activity on the Page. The Facebook Wall is strictly chronological, and each time Waitrose posted the message it was pushed down and off the screen by subsequent user posts. By re-posting the message, they maintained a dominant role on the Page[2].

Why is Stuart wrong?

Here’s that chart again.

This time I’ve highlighted four areas. You’ll recall that the the vertical axis represents the individual contributors — the gradient represents new contributors joining the conversation. Together, the four highlighted areas represent 95 new contributors adding their voices to the mix.

The impact of the admin Posts outweighs the impact of the user Posts by an order of magnitude, as illustrated by the following chart:

In this particular instance, there were a mere 4 admin posts compared to the 65 posts from users. But those admin posts had a disproportionate impact on drawing new people into the conversation (more than 12 times as great: an average user post attracted 1.88 new contributors, an average admin post attracted 23.75 new contributors.)

New contributors have more "energy" for the fight (and will revive and rehearse old arguments and conflicts) so I think we can say that on the whole new contributors to a flame war are bad no matter how good their intentions.

You’ll recall that the rows represent the continued presence of a given contributor in the ongoing debate — so we can highlight the legacy of those initial three admin posts:

Why does this happen?

Facebook Pages are inherently asymmetric.

  1. People interact with content in their News Feed and rarely visit Pages (for many of our clients, the figure is as low as 0.5% of Active Users.)
  2. Posts made by an admin will be sent out to appear in a proportion of the Page’s Fans’s News Feeds[3]; reaching (in Waitrose’s case) tens of thousands of users.
  3. Posts made by Fans will only be seen by visitors to that Page, and a (vanishingly tiny) proportion of their Facebook friends’ News Feeds.

Taking this into account, let’s retell the Waitrose Flame War story as follows:

A small number of people had a fight on Waitrose’s Facebook Page. None of Waitrose’s customers was really aware until the end of the day, when Waitrose admins broadcast three identical messages to as many of their Fans as possible.

What should they have done? What should I do if a Flame War breaks out on my Page?

What’s the lesson here? I’d say that — when managing Facebook Pages, concentrate on the News Feed, not the Wall.

Here’s what I’d suggest:

  • Do not post Status Updates unless you want to reach a wider audience than is already aware of the issue.[4]

  • Instead, comment on every new thread — even if it’s only a holding statement. These comments will be seen only by those who are already involved. Bear in mind that – as threads expand beyond 50 comments, Facebook pages the output and that as a result earlier comments may not be seen by later viewers.

  • To avoid copy-and-paste fatigue, you should to maintain and link to a single page with the latest details. A blog would be a good place for this sort of content[5]; it really doesn’t need to be on Facebook. Whatever you do, keep it away from the Wall (publishing a Note, for example, would be an error.)

  • Consider switching the default view to ‘Only Posts by Page'; but monitor carefully: it is possible that users may begin to add their complaints as off-topic comments on existing brand Posts.

  1. See Wikipedia’s definition of ‘Flame War’. Note the conflicting advice for resolution: in particular the "don’t feed the trolls" maxim.  ↩

  2. Waitrose admins could conceivably have switched to the Only Posts by Page view, but I imagine that they felt that doing this would have prevented the Page from performing one of its key roles as a Customer Service platform.  ↩

  3. For more on this, see comScore’s ‘Power of Like’ White Paper (or read Inside Facebook’s short coverage of the research). The paper cites Facebook analysis that indicates, "… on average, 16 percent of Fans are reached by branded content by a brand that posts five out of seven days" (p. 9) In my experience, this would be a low estimate for a well-run Page like Waitrose’s.  ↩

  4. There are rare cases where this might be a good idea. If you have knowledge that a negative story will run in tomorrow’s national press, for example, you might wish to send a preemptive message to your Fans.  ↩

  5. Corporate blogs can be an excellent platform from which both to manage blogger and media relations, and to provide updates on issues and crises. However, if your corporate blog has a large regular readership (and/or RSS subscriber list) you might want to avoid amplifying the story unnecessarily. Depending on your blogging platform, you might post the Content as a Page, or consider other stealth publishing options.  ↩


  1. says

    Great post Mat. And I actually agree with you that your suggestion is better than what I said at the time, which was very much an off-the-cuff quote.

    The full context of my quote was: “I’ve been out all day and have only had chance for a quick look at the page and you do need to practice your Sherlock Holmes skills to figure out what is going on as the volume of comments makes it hard to follow. My immediate thought is it appears that one sensible thing Waitrose is doing is to repost its response as if they just did it once and left it then it would easily be missed and look like it was ignoring it. Waitrose doing that was the only way I could figure out what was actually happening.”

    What my quote and your analysis does highlight is the absolute importance of having a proper crisis communications and issues management plan in place. And this needs to be kept up to date and refreshed constantly with proper training and scenario rehearsals.

    I especially agree with your advice about linking to a single page and like the idea of doing so by commenting on individual threads. Every issues management situation requires a different crisis comms response, but I frequently counsel that it is a good idea to move the debate off Facebook. Putting a link to a specific issues management blog or news hub means that you can continue to respond to the issue, but without ‘polluting’ the existing Facebook page, corporate blog or online newsroom where you run the risk of making the issue bigger than it really is and turning an issue into a crisis.

    • says

      Thanks Stuart; and apologies for using your off-the-cuff note as a straw man.

      It’s taken me several months to get to the point where I could do the analysis outlined here; and I’ve had to create new methods and tools along the way. I find these kinds of crisis particularly worrying: more so than (say) “traditional crises” where roles and rules of engagement may be better understood by all parties. This is the dark side of social behaviour; the kind of mob mentality that leads to lynchings…

  2. says

    Many thanks Matt. This proves something that we instinctively know – that sometimes it’s better to let the conversation die out, rather than creating a firestorm and dragging more people into the conversation than need to know about it. But here you’ve taken the time to underpin this instinct with data – something we’ve not seen before. And agreed with all Stuart’s points above about the need to rehearse scenarios and have crisis plans in place: essential. This information will be used to feed into our workshops: thanks again Matt.

  3. says

    Yes, excellent post. I believe the “accepted wisdom” is wrong for many brands when it comes to social media. Communication from the brand “as soon as possible” is important when safety, security and related issues are involved, but on many occasions — probably the vast majority — this isn’t the case. In our experience the vast majority of ‘flames’ fizzle out relatively quickly, within 24 hours or so, and as your post demonstrates beautifully the brand can make matters far worse by saying anything, especially when posting on FB, which as you point out is going to reach more people via newsfeeds.

    Another fundamental point, which we’ve discovered from our client work, is that Facebook tends to be much more parochial than other social media. In other words an issue that crops-up in Facebook tends to stay within Facebook. Of course, this isn’t always the case and this might even be one of those examples when it wasn’t. But, again, this highlights the danger of applying “accepted wisdom” to every circumstance. Far better for the brand to track the issue in real-time and only step-in if and when necessary. To be fair this appears to be what Waitrose did, but as you say Mat it would have been much better to have done it in the way you suggest.


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