As more and more case studies and ‘how not to do’s’ emerge, more companies are beginning to realise the importance of social media in a crisis.
I recently spoke at a seminar on crisis communications, and every single presenter, whether from a traditional background, B2C brand, state body, ended by stating the importance of using social media when your company faces a crisis. It’s certainly encouraging that so many practitioners are advocating the use of social media beforehand, instead of waiting to figure it out when the crisis hits, but there still seems to be confusion over how you can effectively use social media tools and platforms to effectively communicate, or control a crisis. Based on first hand experience and an awareness of other case studies in this space, I wanted to provide some best practice guidelines for using social media in a crisis.
Own your front Page
What I mean here, is owning your own front Page in Google, as this is steadily going to become your single biggest asset during a crisis. While a large portion of people will go straight to a company’s Facebook Page or Twitter account to find out more information during a crisis, or level their criticism, Google will still be the main destination for people looking for more information in a crisis. You want to help ensure that when people search for your brand name, it’s your results they’re finding on the homepage, which can take them directly through to the correct source of information. This can be done in 2 ways. Firstly, you need to ensure you have built up a good social media-SEO practice beforehand, so that when you type in your brand term into Google, you’re likely to see results for your company blog, Facebook Page, Youtube videos etc.. as well as your own site. This of course is something that has to be implemented before the crisis itself, and represents a good example of pre-empting a crisis.
The second way that you can do this, is by reaching out to your network and ensuring the right information is spread. So if you have a press release, make sure you’re sending it out to online newswires, bloggers etc.. and that you have community representatives that are putting information in the right place. In the midst of a crisis, you want to make sure people get to the right information quickly, and Google is the place to do that.
Who’s managing your social media?
This might sound fairly simple, but whether you’re a small or a large organisation, you need to have a clear plan in place for who is managing your social media channels during a crisis.This is the time when you’re going to be at your most frantic and all the practices you’ve put into place up until now might be thrown out the window. So you may have put the latest update on your Facebook Page and blog, but has your Twitter account been left empty because everyone thought someone else was managing it?
It’s also incredibly important that you give the ownership of social media preferably to one person during this time, or a team of people who are in close communication (preferably in the same room). If you’re in the midst of a large crisis, you could face a large amount of content and conversations online. You want to make sure that people know the history of what’s been discussed earlier that morning or the day before, so you’re not repeating yourself or talking to people that were engaging yesterday, as if you’ve never spoken to them before. You could then find yourself with a whole other crisis on your hands if you get this wrong!
You might find that the dissemination of information during your organisation follows a good process, with a press statement and release being issued quickly and uploaded to your site, so people can access the latest information. But you may not have considered how the information within a press release can fit into different social channels, with very practical problems such as the fact that you only have 140 characters within a tweet to get the information across. The person in charge of this channel may have been sent the presss release, but have they been told the most important line, or what mustn’t be lifted on its own so as to appear out of context? Have they even been provided with a link that they include, to send people to the information online? You’d be surprised at how difficult this can be to get sometimes.
Consistency of information is absolutely paramount during a crisis and the communications team that’s responsible for getting the information into the public must also be sitting next to the person in charge of the social channels, advising on what information to include, and even how the content can be reworked to fit into a more personal, approachable tone on Facebook. People will want a little bit more than a headline lifted from a press release. The followup questions must also be considered. Have you told them what they can/can’t say and how to handle responses to the latest update shared?
Spread the information among employees
When you’re in the middle of a crisis you could discover that the most important online representative for your company might not necessarily sit where you’d expect them to in your organisation. Far too often the way that communication is spread to employees during an organisation is too slow, with many finding out the latest update at the same time as everyone else, through the news or front page headlines. What companies often don’t consider is the fact that they could have someone that sits on the bottom floor of the building, that is incredibly influential through their own social media channels, and could be facing questions of their own from their own followers, that they’re not able to answer. This can reflect incredibly poorly on a company, as it shows you haven’t kept your employees informed, so they’re forced to say nothing or give a generic answer. During a crisis, the information the organisation has is the most important currency and you should ensure you have a system in place to get everyone the information that they need. I know an example of a community manager who found out about a particular company crisis on the Facebook Page he was managing, while he was in the middle of a normal working day. How can they keep their community informed when they’re not even informed themselves?
When to say nothing
Many companies are put into a difficult position when they’re facing a crisis, in that they could find a huge amount of commments or tweets to deal with, many of which are likely to be factually incorrect, could implicate innocent people or are purely trying to stir it up a little bit more. It’s important to remember that you don’t always have to reply to every single comment. If someone has left a comment with an incorrect fact, I would always recommend that you correct them, nicely and quickly, so that it doesn’t start to spread around even more. But there are certainly cases when you don’t have to say anything at all. If you’re engaging with someone that is purely there to make trouble, with nonsensical comments, you could find yourself on an endless trail of back and forth that leads nowhere.
You’re never going to have the last say, so you should focus your attention on the comments that are genuinely related to the crisis at hand. The worst thing of course is saying nothing at all, so if you’re putting up regular updates, you will probably find that your own community will begin to answer others and engage with users they might not even know, which is a much more preferable situation than getting dragged into endless debates that detract from the original issue (a la Nestle of course).
Know the influencers
If you’re good at getting your information out quickly, you will hopefully find that the blog coverage around the crisis contains the right information. But you will also see that many bloggers are excellent at finding alternative sources and facts that could corroborate your statement. This coverage is often what people will pay attention to most, as if an influential blogger is covering it for example, they’re going to have an instant community that will begin spreading their story. While you should of course try and make contact with relevant bloggers to give them the information they deserve, you may find it’s too little too late. Regardless of whether you’re in a crisis or not, you should build up relationships with bloggers, tweeters, active community members that are influential within their area, as you could find these relationships invaluable when you’re in a crisis. You’re going to find it a lot easier to get the right information to the right people in a crisis, if you have invested time with them beforehand. This information should also be tailored. Instead of just sending them the standard press release, why not send them an introductory paragraph that tells them the key facts you’d know they want, if they have a slant towards business, lifestyle etc.. Of course you can’t control this, but you can help ensure the right information is being circulated and you’re giving the assets to people that deserve them.
This is perhaps the most important thing to remember when acting in a crisis, as well as beforehand. If you’re just endlessly issuing press statements without reacting to the conversation that’s happening online, you risk ignoring the key issues and exacerbating the issue even further, if you keep ignoring what people actually want to know. By using free or paid measurement tools (check out our handy list here) you should monitor the online conversation throughout and importantly react to this. You might assume for example that people want to know how your site was hacked (for example), when actually the online conversation could factor more around something like how they can backup their information. You can access all this information instantly online, and smart companies will be reactive to this and tailor their communications to ensure they’re getting to the issues that people actually want to know about.
Co-ordinate local channels
If you’re a large organisation, you might assume that the criticism or questions surrounding the crisis are going to happen purely on your own Facebook Page. But you will find that people will go to any source they can to discuss the issue or try and find out more information, so you need to have streamlined communication with all the Pages, accounts, blogs within your business. As well as reaching out to localised Pages, who might be in no way involved in the crisis happening locally to you, but will no doubt be implicated and will face some questions they need to answer. You need to think about all the online assets you have and have planned a communication process beforehand, to ensure the information is getting to the right people, with clear instructions on how to handle certain issues, or where to send people to find out more. Consider this for your sister brands as well. They might have nothing to do with the crisis, but if they share a brand name, they will almost definitely have their own crisis management to handle. Again, it’s about the information that you have and making this widely available.
Read next: Should user comments dictate online content?