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 How to manage a crisis on social media

by uma
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 Helen Reynolds  founder of Comms Creatives

Business leaders fear a crisis playing out on social media, but how many have a strategic plan for how they will deal with it?

If an employee says something controversial, if your practices or processes are flawed or outdated – you can be ‘cancelled’ by an angry Twitter mob before you know it.

For many brands, reputation is the difference between failure and success.

I’ve worked as a social media expert for brands for nearly two decades, and though the world has rapidly changed, the tactics brands employ to ‘kill a story’ have lagged behind.

Few organisations truly understand how the landscape has changed for reputation management since platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok made consumers part of the story when a crisis hits. Your social crisis comms strategy needs to account for how things have changed.

As issues turn into crises, things happen so quickly that brands don’t get a head-start like they used to.

Smartphones mean ordinary people can document and amplify an emerging issue, damaging brand perception within minutes.

Journalists – who want to be first to report on a story – won’t wait for you to issue a press release, and will look to amplify ordinary people’s opinions and reactions shared on social media.

Employees will be using social media to research and discover the truth of a situation, but at the same time, citizens and consumers can play detective just as effectively using the same free tools. And if a celebrity or influencer decides to pass comment, the whole thing can become an international incident within hours.

Over the years of being involved in, and training others to deal with a crisis, I’ve picked up some useful techniques and tactics. Much of the work I’ve done has been working with public services, where a crisis can often be a life-or-death situation. The vital importance of getting it right means public services are often light years ahead in how they plan for and respond to tricky issues and crises.

Private companies should take a similar approach to crisis planning, making sure they work to predict and have processes in place to cope with a crisis of reputation in a social media age.

If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.

Here are my tips and tricks to consider when planning for a crisis:

  1. Identify a figurehead for your brand who is social media friendly, charismatic and who understands social media. The last thing you need is for a well-meaning but misguided person representing your company. You need someone who doesn’t panic, but also doesn’t underestimate the importance of a crisis. They need to be likeable, as well as having authority.  Unfortunately, these qualities aren’t always present in your CEO. Use a leader who can connect positively with your audience.
  2. Train your subject matter experts to use social media so that they can respond quickly and accurately during a crisis. This means you have to work with and train colleagues right now, so that they understand what to say, how to say it, and the speed at which they need to react. Because you don’t want to be left short or have to explain it all when the crisis has just hit.
  3. Keep communicating to your audience during a crisis. If you say nothing, people will assume you’re hiding something, or panicking. Even if you have nothing to say, say you have nothing to say for the time being, but you’ll update them when you do. 
  4. A live blog is good in a crisis. This is one single place to put the most current updates, and it gives a clear timeline for how you’re reacting. Because the liveblog will always be up to date, you can safely schedule social media posts to publish every few hours with a link to the liveblog and a message like “Take a look at our liveblog for the latest on the xxxx situation”.   
  5. “Pity, promise, praise” is a phrase to keep in mind when it comes to messaging. Once you have a hold on what’s happening and have begun to address the situation it helps you make sure you: express remorse where necessary (or regret what’s happened); promise to be better or that you’ll be investigating how to prevent something similar happening again; and praise those who are helping fix the problem, or who have acted with bravery, swiftness or dedication.
  6. Don’t just rely on your own channels. Join groups and have conversations with people at source. Keep an eye on communities like Facebook Groups. 

The thing about business, and life is – nothing runs smoothly forever. A crisis can jump out at the most inconvenient and unexpected time.

On our social media crisis course we work with communications professionals who know that this is not something they can leave until next month.  You never know when the crisis is going to hit, so be sure you have training and processes in place.

Helen Reynolds is the founder of Comms Creatives, which provides social media training courses. Helen works online teaching courses and giving social media advice to her clients.

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