Preparing for a Social Media Crisis

ocial media has radically altered the PR function but no more so than when it comes to crisis communications. Where a company once possibly had hours, or even days to respond to a crisis depending on the news cycle, they now may have only minutes to respond.  Where information may have once been conveyed by a well-worded press release to inform the public, the citizen journalist is the one breaking the story.

Which is why when it comes to social, you can’t afford not to have a crisis communications plan in place.

One of the most classic examples of crisis communications is the Tylenol tampering crisis in 1982. At the time, Tylenol was 19% of Johnson and Johnson’s total sales, and it was the leader in the painkiller market. The company learned of an issue with their products after receiving a call from a news reporter who shared that the medical examiner was saying people had died due to poisoned Tylenol. A total of seven people ended up being killed by the poison capsules.

The company went from a place of trust to having telling consumers not to consume the product, and in the middle of a media circus.  The company’s swift action led to a nationwide recall to protect consumers is generally considered a PR success. The company went from being villainized to being seen as the victim of a crime.  A key component of their strategy was to hold a series of press conferences that were nationally broadcast. The CEO appeared on 60 Minutes and Donahue to communicate the company’s strategy.

To this day, the Tylenol crisis is studied as an example of outstanding crisis communications. But with social media, a press release and media appearances simply wouldn’t be anywhere close to sufficient. Instead of the reporter calling the company, they likely would have rushed to break the story via Twitter and then called the company.

One of the key things Johnson and Johnson did was to take control the agenda and flip their storyline from one of villain to victim. In an age of social media, consumers are much more savvy and rush to judgement. If you compare this crisis to high profile incidents over the course of 2014, there’s a massive difference.

Take, for example, the Twitter overthrow of Mozilla’s CEO, Brandon Elch by the company’s own employees. After the appointment of Elch as CEO, employees took to Twitter to express their dislike for the fact that he’d donated money to support California’s prop 8 ballot banning gay marriage in 2008. Elch was forced to resign.

What may have been an internal communications issue, quickly became very public. There are countless examples of how something that could have been contained turns into a full blown crisis thanks to social media.

In short, as a business of any size, you cannot afford not to have a crisis communication plan, especially when it comes to social media. Whether you are starting an online store or managing an established business, crisis management is something to take seriously. In a crisis, reaction time is key, so having a plan in place saves precious seconds and can help you limit the impact on your reputation. 

Creating a Crisis Communications Response

Having a process in place for responding to issues quickly is the cornerstone of any crisis communications plan. Every minute you delay leads to more speculation and conjecture, and it spreads further and further on social media.

One thing to note is if your crisis is reported or taking place on social media, you should deal with that platform first. That should be the channel where you share your response. If things are heating up on Twitter, you respond first on Twitter. Going to a different platform or channel can be perceived as trying to skirt the issue, and you want to avoid inviting any further criticism.

A solid response acknowledges the situation, and it’s impact while identifying the next steps you’ll take. You want to answer questions such as:

  • Are you going to investigate?
  • How will you share information moving ahead?
  • Who will be involved? Do you need to collaborate with key partners?
  • What further actions will you be taking?

Following your response, you want to take immediate action, to reassure all of your key stakeholders. Which is why creating a master crisis communications plan is a must – that way you have a clear idea of exactly who needs what information and when. It’s too easy to overlook a key group in a crisis and complicate the matter further.

Be Prepared With a Crisis Communications Toolkit

Your crisis communications plan is unlikely to be able to address all possible scenarios, but in creating the plan, figure out the key crises that your organization could possibly face. For example, if you are a food manufacturer, you could have issues with quality or unwanted items included in a box. If run PR for a travel company, you could have individuals that get trapped in a country due to a political situation.

With those scenarios in mind, you can start to create a “toolkit” that can you use in the event that a crisis arises. Specific things you want to include:

  • Communication Templates – Statements, press release template, letter, social media updates, FAQ
  • Cybersecurity tools – Lots of reputation crises have happened over a hack or a data leak. You need to be proactive about that, as Hari Ravichandran put it, and know how to handle the crisis when it happens.
  • Channels – A clear list of all of your communications channels, social, email, phone and other so everything is covered.
  • External Stakeholders – A full accounting of everyone a crisis impacts, what they need to know and how to best communicate with them.
  • Internal Stakeholders – Have a clear crisis response team that is in charge should a crisis arise. Understand which employees need to be educated about protocols in event of a crisis including social media, PR, sales and any customer-facing personnel and train them on their roles in advance. Awareness is key to helping prevent missteps or off color commentary from employees when a crisis happens.

Having a solid web presence is going to be a huge help here as your community will be readily chime in to protect your reputation. As Michael Jenkins, CEO of Australian digital marketing agency put it, the best way to protect your company’s reputation is to control your branded search results and consistently build your community.

No matter how big or small your company is, you need a basic social media crisis communications plan so if something occurs from an unhappy client to the unthinkable you have your bases covered. A little bit of preparation can save your reputation and integrity in the long run.

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