Key Factors of Social Media Crisis Management

Social media has had a massive impact on crisis communications in recent years – both as a source and a channel for reputationally damaging events.  No crisis communications plan today can fail to allow for, and incorporate, reference to social media.

What are the key factors and the best ways to prepare?   

What are best practices for social media in a live crisis situation? 

And what role should social media play in the aftermath of a crisis?

1. Planning

In terms of crisis communications planning, there are number of key areas to address.  Perhaps the first, and most practical consideration, is where social media can actually play a useful role. Crisis communications expert Eric Dezenhall in his book The Glass Jaw divides crises into two categories: “sniper” and “character”. As he describes it: “A sniper episode is episodic, caused by something external or accidental, and is often superficial. A character crisis has at its core an intrinsic flaw or pernicious behaviour.” A good example of the latter case in recent times would be the controversy surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. Social media lends itself better to tactics associated with sniper crises, which require simple points of information, apologies, corrections, or recommend actions associated with episodic events and customer service updates. This is worth bearing in mind when considering the limits to which social media can and should play a role in potential crisis scenarios.

2. Pace of crisis

It also cannot be stressed enough that social media has dramatically increased the speed with which crisis situations can develop.  Unless you’ve been involved in a social media driven crisis event, it is hard to comprehend the pace at which developments can occur. That’s why social media crisis simulation exercises can be extremely valuable, particularly in giving participants a visceral sense of the real-world pressure of making rapid decisions about what to do (or not do) in a live situation.

3. Monitoring

Another key factor is monitoring for information about possible crisis situations and being able to make rapid assessments about whether potentially damaging events or issues require a particular type of response.  Front line social media staff need to be properly trained to identify when social media posts might be indicative of an emerging crisis situation – and understand how to appropriately respond or act.  There are numerous social media tools that can provide near real time monitoring. From a preparation standpoint, it places a huge premium on deciding on relevant keyword terms that might be indicators of an emerging situation. Another consideration is the increasing use of image and video content on social. For example, keyword-based monitoring tools won’t detect brand images being shown in reputationally damaging photos or videos – so monitoring tools that can be trained to detect brand relevant image content may need to be added to the mix.  extremely valuable, particularly in giving participants a visceral sense of the real-world pressure of making rapid decisions about what to do (or not do) in a live situation.

4. Training and escalation

Even with relevant monitoring systems in place, it is also important to ensure that those staff who are tasked with interpreting and deciding what actions to take in response are properly briefed to take appropriate action.  A key issue with social media in crisis communications is around proportionate response. Being able to quickly determine whether an issue merits a particular type of response or whether escalation procedures should be initiated (or not) will go a long way to ensuring that reputationally damaging situations are mitigated or avoided completely.

5. Preparation, preparation, preparationKey factors of social media crisis - Innocent Example

Any robust crisis communications plan will almost certainly reference possible crisis scenarios. From a social media perspective, many organisations now have libraries of pre-prepared social media response material – everything from pre-written Tweets, infographics and hidden web pages that can be made public under the appropriate circumstances.  In short, all time spent planning and preparing is worthwhile. The often repeated saying definitely applies here: “prepare and prevent, don’t repair and repent”  Even with the most meticulous preparation, crisis situations can develop. So, what are the key considerations for social media in these circumstances?

6. Response

One of the first things to check will be any scheduled social media posts that could be construed as inappropriate in the context of developing events. For example, a planned Tweet with a humorous tone could be seen as insensitive or even unpleasant in a crisis situation.  But perhaps the key aspect of this phase of the process is the tone of response. Depending on the seriousness of the incident, then tone of reply can vary. The way in which KFC apologised for running out of chicken for its 900 UK outlets was bold, cheeky and effective. The fast-food chain took out full page ads in the Sun and Metro newspapers showing an empty bucket of chicken with crumbs spilling out. The ad itself was then copied and shared by huge numbers of social media users to an overwhelmingly positive response. Equally, matching the channel to the message is an important factor. There are numerous examples of CEOs using YouTube videos to convey sincere apologies quickly and succinctly in a tone commensurate with nature of the incident.  Fairly or unfairly, there is now an unspoken expectation that organisations must be seen to respond on social media in a very timely fashion – there is a demand that organisations are visibly seen to respond. Social media never sleeps. It will also place increased demands on staff responsible for monitoring and responding to social media comment and requests. As already mentioned, investing in advance in having pre-prepared social media response content can go a long way to reducing the impact. However, it is worth noting that effective social media crisis communication is not just about how to respond in the short-term, but also finding ways to recover reputation long after the incident has occurred.

7. Recovery

What role can social media play in the aftermath of a crisis event?   It is important to learn from the crisis to inform future strategy and implementation of social media activity. Getting feedback from all areas of the business including management, administrative, customer support staff and social media managers will be vital in adjusting the overall crisis communications plan. Did everyone feel ready to respond, and what other resources would have helped when things got hectic?  Social media can also be used to rebuild trust in your brand, if this has been lost, by adapting your message to take into account the crisis, as in the example of Innocent above.   In summary, social media is vital part of any modern-day crisis communications plan. Investment in thorough preparation and training for the social media impact of potentially damaging reputational issues is almost certainly of one of the most effective insurance policies an organisation can have.

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