Crisis Management Essentials for Social Media (Part 2)

by Chris Kenton on December 18, 2008

In Part 1 of this primer we talked about laying the groundwork for a strong social media foundation, and understanding the basic social media tools that can help you manage a crisis effectively. In this second part, we’ll talk about some basic crisis management techniques for social media, some essential standard practices for crisis management, and some dos and don’ts to remember in the heat of a crisis.

These recommendations should dovetail with an established crisis management program. If you don’t have established crisis protocols, there’s a section on planning in Part 2 that will lay out the basics.

Management Techniques

A crisis can unfold in many different ways. Sometimes, you are aware of the crisis internally before anyone in the public knows, and you have the luxury of controlling the initial flow of information. In other cases–the nightmare scenario–you open your email to find your world has gone up in flames and it’s all over the blogosphere. If you’re actively engaged and tracking social media, you may see the seeds of crisis taking root, and have an opportunity to uproot controversy at the start. In any case, being prepared and learning some techniques for identifying and managing crises is essential.

  1. If you’re monitoring social media, and you suspect a crisis is emerging that you don’t already know about, take a deep breath and gather information before launching your rapid response team. Start by gathering information about the source and content of the crisis. Is it a customer complaint on a blog? Is it a post by an influential analyst getting picked up on Twitter? Is it one person shouting out to the universe, a percolating dialog, or a raging fire? Is it an opinion: someone hates your company, or a fact: your product blew up and hurt someone? You don’t want to go into crisis mode on every customer complaint that can be managed by engagement.
  2. If the emerging story is unclear, and you have the authority and opportunity to engage, take an approach of discovery. “Hey, I saw your post and wanted to find out what you can tell me.” Don’t offer any speculation or opinion, just gather information until you can find the original source of the problem.
  3. Customer complaints on blogs can often be defused by engaging early. If it’s a problem you can solve, say, by expediting a connection with customer service, than you can often stop the dialog from spreading. I once had the VP of Web Marketing at Lenovo post his phone number on my blog after I complained about an order problem. If it’s a problem you can’t solve–an opinion, or a bad experience that can’t be resolved–a note of regret can often have a defusing impact. But unless you’re specifically cleared to do so, don’t admit wrong-doing or discuss internal problems on a public forum in the heat of an emerging crisis. You may unleash unintended consequences you’ll regret. “I’m sorry you had that experience, I’ll do what I can to help,” is as far as you should go until the situation is fully vetted, even though an apology may indeed be warranted in the end.
  4. In some cases, telling the company’s side of the story can defuse a crisis, but this needs to be very carefully considered, and shouldn’t be done on the fly. Sprint handled a crisis like this very well, when a classic customer service debacle turned into a social media nightmare. Telling the full story mitigated some of the outrage, and Sprint handled it well. Boil your side of the story down to its essence, and tell it factually. Never cast blame on the customer, express regret for what went wrong, and explain how you’re addressing the situation to prevent it from happening again.
  5. Bashing in a forum is often more touchy, because the interaction of voices often includes people who want to incite conflict. The same approach can be taken as on a blog, but you should carefully craft your response as much possible to be a single post, ideally offering a link to resources of resolution if more than one customer might be affected. Do not get dragged into an argument, or a back-and-forth debate about who is right. In most cases, you won’t win an argument with a customer in terms of public perception.
  6. If the crisis is emerging on a fast moving network like Twitter or Facebook, your best option is to create a fact page that you can post either on your blog, or as a web page. Engage your employees who are on Twitter or Facebook to post a link to your fact page. Make sure the fact page is accurate and transparent, and follow standard crisis management procedures. If the crisis is emerging, don’t speculate on what you don’t know, simply communicate that you are aware of the problem and working to resolve it. If there are relevant resources and information you can provide to customers, list them on your fact page.
  7. If the crisis is spreading across multiple blogs and social media sites, you’ll need to manage your response more carefully. We worked last year with a consumer electronics company that experienced a market revolt over issues related to a new product. There were literally hundreds of blog posts and discussions going on. In this type of situation, social media and PR tactics need to merge, because you can’t put out every fire. Leverage your public relations team to define your position and your message, and carry it through traditional media channels. Then pick up the baton in social media circles by identifying a handful of influential blogs where you can put a human face on your response. Assign one executive who can engage directly with the authors of selected sites and answer questions openly–do not send press releases or canned statements to these blogs.
  8. If you have an internal crisis that has not yet become public, work with your PR team to craft a traditional pre-emptive disclosure. Then consider how social media can best be integrated into the approach. Social media channels may work best by proliferating a link to an announcement and resolution page, and providing a place for direct engagement with your team on a forum or message board.

Basic Crisis Management Planning

You might notice that in both parts of this piece, we put a notice at the top of the page that these recommendations should dovetail with an established crisis management plan. Good public relations firms offer crisis management training, and you should get up to speed on the basics and consider training for your core crisis team if they don’t already have it. Here are some of the very basics of effective crisis management, including some issues specific to social media.

  1. Assign a response team. The most important first step in a crisis is to have a team that can manage response and make decisions. At bare minimum you need a communications expert to gather, frame and distribute information, and a senior executive who is able to make and be accountable for decisions in real-time, but you should also have representatives from legal, HR and marketing on the core team. Don’t overload the team, or decisions will be difficult to make. Five or six people is enough.
  2. Assign a second-string. If a crisis unfolds and your CEO is on a 17-hour flight to Asia, who can stand in with the authority to make decisions? What if your communications expert is on vacation? Assign your second string so they’re ready to step in when needed.
  3. Designate representatives from each major line of business, ready to provide information and sit on the response team if their domain is affected.
  4. Assign a coordinator, responsible for establishing and maintaining response resources and protocols, and calling and managing the response team. It needs to be someone senior, but ideally not the CEO, who will have enough to manage in a crisis, and won’t have the bandwidth to maintain the resources and protocols outside of a crisis.
  5. Establish communications protocols for calling your rapid response team into action. Write a document that everyone on the team can access with permissions, containing every piece of contact information you can gather. It may sound cheesy, but have a code phrase, even it’s just “we have a crisis”. Time is everything in a crisis, and you don’t want to waste time explaining things before you have the team together. A code phrase is a powerful tool to snap your team into response mode.
  6. Create a resources list. Who’s your outside legal counsel, and what’s their number? Who’s your outside communications advisor? Who in your company is best connected with your customer community by Twitter? What Twitter handles does your business have? All of the resources you can imagine that might be useful to manage a crisis should be documented beforehand. You don’t want to waste time tracking down a contact or a resource in the middle of a crisis. If you need to get a video up on YouTube of your CEO making a statement, do you know where a camera is? Who manages your CMS system? Who can set up a Facebook group under fire?
  7. Get crisis communications training for your core team. Good PR firms can provide the essentials, including basic management protocols and media training for effectively controlling the flow of information in a crisis. Dealing with the media can be a minefield in a crisis, so it’s important to know the basics.
  8. War Games! As you’re getting your team geared up and ready to respond, run a few drills, and do so at least quarterly to ensure you still have the right protocols and resources put together. Your coordinator should own this process, and also make sure that response team contact details are all up to date. When you’re doing your war game, try to find a real scenario and run through the process as if it were happening to you. A customer was injured in a major product failure. An employee lost a laptop with all your customer financial data. A major software product has failed and no one yet knows why. A senior executive was caught impersonating someone else to bash your competition and pump your stock price. Use your imagination. Use the scenario to rehearse, as realistically as possible, all the steps you need to go through to get the situation under control.

Basic Dos and Donts

  • Do get engaged in social media early, and encourage engagement across all areas of your business. Having a strong social media presence will give you more resources and channels of communication in a crisis.
  • Do stick to the facts in a crisis. Always. Never speculate on the causes or resolution of a crisis when you don’t have the facts. Stick to what is known, and assure the public that you’re doing everything you can to understand the scope of the crisis and resolve it.
  • Do create a central news and resources page if the crisis is serious. Direct all traffic through various social networks, blogs and news sites back to your resource page, instead of trying to provide detailed information in many different places.
  • Do not get into an argument or a debate on a forum or a blog. Try to keep your response to an issue limited to a single post when you can, fully stating your position and providing a link to resources.
  • Do not get engaged in social media conversations if the crisis is unfolding on a public forum where investment and legal issues are discussed. Make sure any employees engaged in social media are aware of financial disclosure regulations.
  • Do express regret authentically when a crisis is unfolding, but do not admit wrong-doing before the full facts of a crisis are known. Sometimes employees will try to build rapport with angry customers by admitting fault, which can cause substantial unwarranted liabilities.
  • Do offer an apology if it’s warranted after the full facts of a crisis are known, and the immediate crisis is resolved.

There are obviously many, many more dos and don’ts, tips and techniques. This is just a start. But it should give you a sense of serious and complex crisis management can be. You don’t want to be thumbing through a manual when everything is melting down. It’s far more effective and expedient to be as prepared as you can be.

If you have additional ideas or criticisms, if you think there’s something I’ve missed, please don’t hesitate to comment.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Carri Bugbee January 2, 2009 at 2:46 am

Chris, you’ve assembled an excellent list of tips for crisis management via social media in your two posts. I’m always surprised at how little this is discussed within the PR industry (the typical domain of crisis management). Also surprised that nobody has yet commented on your posts!

I can only assume this is because many folks underestimate what can happen and overestimate how prepared they are to deal with it.

I do think that dealing with a real crisis (i.e., a building collapses) may be different than dealing with a crisis manufactured within social media (i.e., mommy bloggers indignant about a Web ad they think is politically incorrect). Both can damage a brand, but may require a slightly different tack.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to crises management in social media is that there isn’t anyone assigned to “listen” to conversations on Sunday afternoon. What good are monitoring tools if nobody is using them at 1:00 am on Saturday when a sh*tstorm breaks out on Twitter?

Social media requires that large corporations – and PR firms – rethink staffing and operations from the ground up. In the past, we could count on most journalists checking their facts and calling sources before going to press – and savvy PR folks knew when press deadlines were. Very few in social media (except bloggers with journalistic backgrounds) check facts or solicit quotes and comments from reliable sources before posting stories. This represents a completely new crisis model for communications professionals, but I’ve not heard of any company that has changed its business model as a result.
@CarriBugbee

Chris Kenton January 2, 2009 at 5:10 pm

Hi Carri. Thank you so much for the insightful reply. You make a number of great points, about the need for 24/7 scanning, and the new dynamics of social media that require a new model for crisis management. It’s a brave new world. I’ll look forward to following you on Twitter.

John Lee April 8, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Hi Chris
Extremely helpful information. Many thanks for sharing.

Marisa December 10, 2010 at 11:49 am

I really loved this article. This was so helpful.

sheeda cheng February 2, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Hello Chris,
Thanks for the insightful article. The way social media behaves is so different to traditional media and tactics have to adapt to stay relevant.

Ina July 5, 2011 at 6:25 am

Hi,
Thank you for a really helpful post! I’m currently working on crisis communication 2.0 as my master thesis, in this is the first post I’ve read with such clear and specific advice of the use of each channel.
Would you by any chance have the dates of the posts? Can’t seem to find them and need them for referencing;)

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