Damage Control in Time of Crisis: Factoring Social Media Into Your Crisis Communications Strategy

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Social Media Crisis Image Two days following the Boston Marathon explosions, newspaper headlines, TV segments and Twitter continue to be full of stories, commentary and tweets capturing the aftermath and speculation around the tragedy. What’s arguably the largest catastrophe on American soil this year was broken on Twitter before the first validated news report hit, as traditional media outlets prepared for deeper reporting.  Marathon runners and spectators took to Vine to post six-second clips capturing the explosions. Leveraging Twitter’s video platform for citizen journalism enabled people to quickly post and share their videos, photos and commentary even before the news stations could get their footage up and running.  The Boston Marathon looked to its Facebook page to first communicate that the two bombs exploded near the finish line, and the Boston Police Department tweeted injury updates.  Even “traditional” media outlets such as the Boston Globe tweeted, “BREAKING NEWS: Two powerful explosions detonated in quick succession right next to the Boston Marathon finish line this afternoon,” which was immediately shared.

The first step of Crisis Communications 101 is about preparation.  Being prepared before a crisis actually happens – across all faucets of communication, including social media. Whatever type of crisis you may have, national security, brand crisis, business or product complications (such as insider trading or product recall),  a social media situation that unfolds on Facebook such as the Malaysian bakery incident my colleague wrote about, you don’t want to scramble to create a plan after the disaster has already transpired. Disaster response is evolving with the increased usage of social media platforms to share information and break news.  If your brand isn’t communicating on social platforms, other people will be on your behalf, which presents a huge risk. Regardless of ones intentions, positive or not – anyone can post and disseminate information, often not being credible sources and distributing the wrong information.

Naturally you need to ensure you’re not violating any legal or regulatory issues, but whether you’re handling the communication on a social channel or linking back to a statement or FAQ on your corporate website, it’s essential that your brand take control over the messaging around the crisis. If you go the statement or FAQ route, you can respond to questions or comments with a link instead of a response. You want people to comment on a platform you control.  For example, Penn State University utilized Facebook [at the height of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, allowing hundreds of enraged commentators to post. This way the University was in control.  They could monitor, search, respond and moderate as needed they made it clear repeated posts or attacks on posters would be removed).

Influencers can also be beneficial for social crisis communications. Leverage your relationships and their insights (assuming they’re in line with your brand). This enables you to tap into them and their audiences to help distribute the correct information.  However, remember people can leverage social media platforms to contact anyone within your organization. Just because you’re on the communications or social media team doesn’t mean reporters and others may not try to contact someone at your company via alternate social channels such as LinkedIn. So ensure they know not to comment and route correspondence back to the communications department.

Lastly, be authentic and honest. This is traditional crisis communications counsel, whether you’re talking to media, issuing a public statement, or communicating on Twitter or Facebook. If your corporation makes a mistake – whether it’s a product recall or insider trading – the best bet is to acknowledge wrongdoing, admit fault and be honest about your remedy to the situation. The latter remains true even when the crisis is out of your hands – just as with the Boston Marathon events and use of their Facebook page to address and confirm the issue.  Above all, crisis communications is about damage control.

Photo credit: SpinSucks