Tag Archives: crisis management

Crisis Management Essentials for Social Media (Part 2)

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.

Crisis Management Essentials for Social Media (Part 1)

PANIC!If you ask marketing executives what keeps them up at night in the age of social media, one of the most common responses is fear of a PR debacle lighting a brush fire on the web. Every marketer knows there are a hundred things that could go wrong on any given day–from product failures to employee indiscretions–and the fear of being caught flat-footed while the news lights up the social universe is a very real fear. In fact, one of the biggest market drivers for my company SocialRep is the need for businesses to have an ear to the ground and a way to effectively manage engagement.

Surprisingly few companies, however, have protocols in place to manage social media disasters as they unfold–even those that have sophisticated crisis management protocols in place for non-social media issues.The good news is, it’s not that hard to create a plan. In fact, the most important things you need to know were modeled for you in kindergarten. Remember those fire drills? The simple but critical idea was that everyone should know exactly what to do and where to go when a crisis happens, and to practice it even when the possibility of an actual crisis seems remote. Same idea applies to social media.

Why is this important? Think of social media as a massive global amplifier. Events that you used to be able to ignore until they went away can now become an overblown incident with a permanent record on Google. A trivial customer complaint magnified through social media can become an international embarrassment overnight. If you need graphic examples of disaster, Jeremiah Owyang offers a chronicle on his blog.

So here’s a primer on how to build your own crisis plan for social media, whether the crisis is an overblown customer complaint, or a true business disaster affecting many customers.

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

Be Prepared

We put a lot of resources into maintaining resources like flood control systems and fire roads. Why? Because the cost of eventual disaster vastly outweighs the cost of being ready to respond. Social media is the same way. Facing down a crisis is not the time to wish you’d developed the resources to respond.

  1. Start getting engaged now. If you don’t already have people in your company building social relationships with your business communities, you won’t have the channels to deal with a crisis when it hits. When a crisis happens, you need to be able to communicate directly with your business communities through channels you’ve already established; you can’t borrow or buy them from your PR firm.
  2. Build your team. If you don’t already have a social media A-Team, you should. Social media should not be relegated to the PR team or the young people in your organization. It should be a distributed practice that helps your company develop relationships on every operational front. Your engineers should be engaged with the engineering community. Your customer service reps should be engaged with customers. Your legal team should be engaged and up to speed with the legal community. You get the idea. Fortunately, building an A-team isn’t hard, and I’ve written a primer for that too.
  3. Get your ears on. One of the big advantages of being socially connected is real-time intelligence. If you’re tracking social media–even using basic tools like Google alerts–you’re likely to get wind of a problem before it becomes a brush fire. The more sophisticated your tracking experience, the more you’ll be able to discern real threats from fire drills. This is something that should be distributed across your team, as explained in the A-team primer.
  4. If you don’t already have a news section for your website with a feed for the latest news on your homepage, you should think about establishing one. When a crisis hits, traffic to your site will spike with people looking for information. Provide updates people can find quickly. If the crisis is a fast-moving or emerging problem, use your CMS system or a blog to give updates with an RSS feed your market can subscribe to.
  5. If the crisis is substantial, create a dedicated response page, and do so quickly. This goes beyond providing information, and impacts search engine results. In time of a crisis, search engine requests for information about the crisis will grow, and you want to have a point of presence in the top organic results. If you have a blog, write posts that point to your news item and your dedicated page. If you have a Facebook group, and Twitter handles, do the same.
  6. Some SEO experts recommend buying search terms, and even domains, with generic crisis terms to ensure search engine positioning when something goes down. Like [your company] and “failure”. Or “breach”. Choose words that relate to the kinds of crises you would plan for in your line of business. Create landing pages with neutral and generic language to optimize search traffic. When a crisis hits and someone Googles it, you’ll already be ready with a page in the top results.

Know the Tools

While standard crisis communication tools like press releases, press conferences, and video press releases are still important, social media has its own resources that can help you get the word out in a crisis. In most cases, you’ll use social media channels to point people back to your response page on your own web site or blog, where information about the crisis is provided.

  1. Tracking. Staying on top of the daily stream of dialog is the best way to identify a crisis before it blows up. For basic tracking, set up Google alerts to track your corporate and product brands. You can use Twitter search to find discussions about your brand, and set up an RSS feed for monitoring. If you have more complex tracking needs, this is precisely what SocialRep does, but I don’t recommend jumping into technology adoption before you start with the basics laid out in the A-team primer. Your proven business processes should drive technology, not the other way around.
  2. Twitter has emerged as probably the fastest conduit of news in the world today. It’s ubiquitous and immediate. People were tweeting news of the Mumbai attacks in real time, and even news networks were following the threads. If you have a crisis, getting the word out with a link to your own response page is critical, and Twitter is one of the best ways to do it. Having an active Twitter presence is a good idea aside from crisis management, but having an existing network in the event of a crisis will ensure you’re able to get the word out far more quickly.
  3. FriendFeed is rapidly emerging as a channel for real-time threaded dialog, kind of like Twitter, but with more emphasis on dialog, as opposed to broadcast micro-posts. Like Twitter, there’s good reason to be engaged on FriendFeed aside from crisis preparedness, but having an active network will be invaluable when a crisis happens. In a crisis, post a one-sentence announcement with a link to your response page.
  4. Facebook is a great tool for managing the ongoing dialog with your community after the crisis initially unfolds. An existing corporate Facebook group may be fine for managing minor crises, but if there’s a major crisis that gains substantial attention, you’ll want to establish a dedicated group, with a reference to the crisis in the title. Others will create groups to talk about it, so you want a presence in Facebook’s Group search results, not buried in your corporate group among discussions about your Christmas party. You can post links to your response page, video, and discussions group threads. Ideally, you’ll want to point any traffic for dealing directly with the crisis back to your own Web site rather than have crisis response distributed over the Web. But you can use discussion threads on Facebook to talk about the broader issues that impact your brand, such as how you’ve dealt with the crisis and the aftermath.
  5. LinkedIn has far less utility for crisis management than the tools previously mentioned, but if you maintain links to professional or corporate groups relevant to your business, this could be a good channel of communication in a crisis. Especially to the extent that communications in this channel are managed primarily by email, so you may reach professionals who are not yet wired in to the other social networks.
  6. YouTube and Seesmic are potentially good channels for posting a video message from your CEO in response to a social media crisis. In most cases, this will be most effective for wrap-up information and framing of the whole event, rather than real-time management of the crisis. Though I’m sure someone will do a YouTube press conference one of these days.

In Part 2, we’ll look at crisis management techniques for social media, basic crisis management planning, and do’s and don’t’s of dealing with a social media crisis.

If you have your own ideas, tips or criticisms, feel free to comment.

Go on to Part 2

Photo credit: kryst£n