Social Media & Crisis Communications

PanicIt seems like every week, another major corporate brand suffers a communications #fail – and it’s usually in the digital realm, where “instant” and irrevocable communications are the norm.

Between pure-digital disasters such as rogue tweets and offline PR scenarios that might not become water cooler conversation if not for Facebook, it’s easy to see why communicators hit the panic button when it comes to devising a plan for addressing a digital crisis.

A new study – released by Burson Marsteller – found that 49 percent of business decision-makers across the globe believe digital communications has made their company more vulnerable to a crisis and 79 percent expect to experience a crisis within the next year. You would think 100 percent of these folks have an existing crisis communications plan in place, yeah? Uhh, no, in fact only HALF of them said their companies have a crisis communications plan.

If you’re a major (or aspiring) brand, and you have skin in the digital game, then the likely next step would be to develop an overarching crisis communications strategy that includes specific responses for Twitter, Facebook and any other digital platform affiliated with your brand. If there’s anything to be learned from past mistakes it’s that having a plan of attack in a digital crisis is as crucial as having a digital presence.

Your basic crisis communications plan will (and should) change based on scale, industry, social output, and internal resources, but following are some basic “must haves” for every brand:

· Have a social media policy in place for every employee and contractor (and rogue Tweeter) in your organization. Sounds easy enough, yet many companies still don’t have one to call their own. By establishing a baseline upfront, all those representing your brand online are aware of the dos and don’ts.

· Gather your A-Team of social-savvy ambassadors, and give them an email alias and the power to make decisions about responses on the spot. Crises can happen after work hours, on the weekend and (the horror!) while your Marketing Lead is away. Make sure that in a crisis, you have a system for flagging it internally and crafting a response within 1-2 hours.

· Know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em. A Company tweet can’t be deleted unless there’s a tweet explaining the deletion. Similarly, a Facebook fan post should more often than not be left as is, otherwise fan backlash ensues. Be able to identify when is appropriate to let something blow over, and when to publically identify it and respond.

· Don’t get angry. It seems like simple advice but too often people take to the Internet to air their frustrations, or respond to a crisis the most public way possible and fueled by emotion. Breathe, rest, reassess. Then devise a smart response plan that is honest, transparent and in keeping with the true nature of digital communications.

Does your company or client(s) have a digital crisis communications plan in place? What are some “best practices” for a digital communications crisis that you recommend?

Guest post by SHIFT’s own Amanda Guisbond, @agbond

Posted on: July 11, 2011 at 9:25 am By Todd Defren
7 Responses to “Social Media & Crisis Communications”


  • @agbond, good post and good comment from Lauren. Two things to add:

    Planning is the cornerstone of effective crisis management and communication. That doesn’t mean everything’s going to go exactly to plan, far from it. Your planning gives you the chance to rehearse — the disaster recovery/business continuity folks who are really good at their work rehearse frequently. It reveals holes in your plan, tests out paths of communication and keeps your saw sharp.

    Social Media’s scale and reach really tests executive management, particularly of traditional companies. The tradition of keeping silent always unless you can “win” is increasingly dated strategy — it’s engagement that makes the difference, but we’ll be fighting the lawyers constantly on that account. Crises typically wind up causing leadership to defer to lawyers — and by their nature, they will be more willing to do/say nothing than the alternative. Fight on — in your plans, in your rehearsals, in your regular meetings, be sure everyone understands how different the game is now.

    That can be a tall order — which is why staying up on the latest research is so important. Facts and data win the day. Most of the time.

    Good stuff!

    • Amanda Guisbond says:

      @Sean: Completely agree with your points that crisis sometimes leads to, well, let’s bring in the legal team, and how import it is to stay on top of the latest research, facts to support your plan of attack in a crisis. Also love your suggestion that a plan is a “rehearsal” for a crisis, not a set-in-stone list of to do’s. Thanks for chiming in!

  • Lauren Fernandez says:

    There are a few things I’d add to this:

    Know the difference between your digital and traditional crisis communications plan. Make sure that it’s consistent and flows together.

    Acknowledge the situation within 15 minutes of the incident occurring. Something simple such as “We are aware of X and are looking into it” allows the consumer/media to know you are looking into the situation. This also provides enough time to provide a factual, timely response without having to correct later.

    Have a designated spokesperson, which isn’t always the CEO. CEOs sometimes have a hard time removing emotion from facts when a crisis hits. Make sure that the spokesperson is media trained and understands their role.

    Review your crisis communications plan every 6 months to see if any changes should be made.

    Crisis communications is keeping your cool in an adrenaline-fueled situation. I find that you only really know this when you have actually experienced a large-scale crisis – and that is few and far between for many PR professionals.

    • Amanda Guisbond says:

      All great suggestions – thanks, Lauren.

      • Joey says:

        Your article is spot on. I especially agree with your second point. In today’s digital world you need to empower your team to make decisions and act fast. I think we sometimes overthink things too much and wonder did we get in our “corporate messages.” Chances are the audience could care less about your corporate messages. They just want simple, authentic and honest answers.

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