Managing a crisis in social media is a spectator sport

Posted on: April 27th, 2017 by Laura Currie Ryder

Reputation loss is seen by CEOs as today’s single largest business risk, and nothing can destroy a long-established reputation like the mismanagement of a crisis. Crisis management can also negatively affect the bottom line, or put you in line for Communicator of the Year Awards. And yes, everyone is watching.

When crisis hits, many organizations have detailed processes in place to stop the leak or recall the product – to operationally “fix” the crisis. Equally important is an organization’s ability to manage the message within the broader communications landscape.

Plus, there’s the social media component. How you manage your message in the fast-moving era of social media can significantly add to whether you get a pass or fail grade in the public’s eye.

Social media brings its own set of unique challenges: posts on social media can come from anywhere and anyone, not necessarily a bona fide news source; comments don’t need to be verified or filtered; and information is likely to spread on social media way before any company can confirm those same details.

The key to successful social media management in a crisis is good old fashioned planning and preparation. Here are a five tips for staying ahead of the curve:  

5 tips for managing a business crisis on social media [Click to tweet]

1. Is it an issue or a crisis? Be clear on when you need to act:

A company can be best prepared for crisis by knowing how to distinguish between a crisis and an issue, and having a protocol for responding. An issue can be a trend or a tide of opinion, bubbling under the surface for weeks or more, not posing any immediate threat to a company’s reputation, allowing time for a strategic approach to messaging and managing. For example, consider Canada’s resource-rich provinces and the ongoing discourse between business interests and the NGO/environmentalist community, as seen in this article about the Oil Sands.

On the other hand, a crisis just happens – a fire, a train derailment, a recall of a tainted product – it’s horrible, but it occurs and you must react. The need to communicate starts now, and how it is handled can impact the business significantly – either positively or negatively. The mismanagement of the train derailment in Lac Megantic, Quebec did irreparable harm to the company.

A crisis managed well, such as the 2008 listeria breakout at Maple Leaf Foods that killed 20+ people, earned Michael McCain CEO of the Year Awards and the company rebounded

Companies can protect their brands by following the Three R’s of crisis management:

  1. Recognize what has happened (even if you have no information at this point)
  2. Show Regret for the situation; and
  3. Illustrate how you will Resolve it.

Get the 3 R’s of crisis management via @Felicity_PR [Click to tweet]

2. Yes, this is happening!

Understanding when to assemble your crisis team means not losing any critical time. Know that a crisis in social media can be defined in two key ways. One is when the company doesn’t know more than the public does about what’s going on. When your brightly-branded delivery van drives through the window of a coffee shop and you start seeing Twitpics of it, that is the first sign of a social media crisis.

Secondly, a social media crisis is also defined by the potential for negative impact to a company’s reputation. Somebody tweeting they don’t like the new flavours in an assorted box of chocolates is not a crisis. Someone tweeting they became violently ill after eating them is. Scope and scale is the benchmark for a social media crisis.

3. Launch your communications from whence they’ve come

You will want to respond in the medium where the crisis first broke. If the crisis initiated on Twitter, then respond there first. Focusing on a corporate website or YouTube channel when the action is on Twitter can mean your response goes unnoticed or gets little traction. Pick the right medium and then circle back and respond on other platforms – Facebook, maybe even Instagram, depending on the company.

To be ready to take action, you’ll want to have a presence in all social media platforms, even if you are not participating regularly. You never know where a crisis may break and you want people to engage in a medium that you can control. Focusing conversations on your platforms will help you limit the spread of the discussion and have some ability to set the rules of engagement.

4. Know when to take it offline

Social media crisis is all about damage control. You won’t win over everyone, and that’s okay. Engaging in a lot of back and forth online is not in your best interest; this is not a battle you can win. Sometimes the best course with individuals who are angry and want to continue to vent, is to offer an opportunity to speak offline. Providing an email address and/or a phone number will encourage further discussion off social media. This also has the benefit of showing other followers that you are genuine in trying to find a resolution.

5. Inform and keep updating your best Brand Ambassadors (Employees)

People trust people like themselves. They go to their peers for advice or information about a company more than they read the CEO’s letter to shareholders. If a company had a crisis and you knew someone who worked there, chances are that’s where you’d go to find out what happened. So every employee is a potential spokesperson. For this reason, it’s imperative that companies keep employees informed of the situation, at least as informed as the public. Arm them with the ability to provide your messages to external parties.

Crises are part of the normal cycle of doing business. The degree to which you can prepare will allow you to protect–and even bolster–the high-value asset that is your reputation.