Surviving a social media crisis

by  — 20 April 2013

Rishi Saha, a Gulf based digital communications expert provides five steps to think about when managing an online crisis.

The feeling will be all too familiar to many of you: the sweaty palms, the dry mouth, the surges of adrenaline and the head-spinning disorientation.  When a crisis hits your organisation, it can test all of your critical faculties. And the bad news is that social media has made the job of crisis communications even tougher.

The core features of the crisis playbook - message, discipline, transparency, empathy, response and rebuttal – have remained, but the rules of the game have changed. Consumers and citizens now have a public voice, thanks to Facebook, Twitter and all the other digital publishing tools at our disposal. 

Social media has also emboldened other key stakeholders – the media, employees, pressure groups and government. Those who have been on the receiving end of shoddy service no longer need to wait on a premium-rate customer care line for hours for an official response. They can vent their anger, publicly and immediately, whether you like it or not.

Effective crisis response goes well beyond reputation management and becomes a quasi-emergency service. Recent high-profile cases have shown how difficult this terrain can be.

More substantial crises – disasters, IT breaches and product recalls – pose an even greater threat. In these situations, effective crisis response goes well beyond reputation management and becomes a quasi-emergency service. Recent high-profile cases have shown how difficult this terrain can be. The horse meat scandal in the United Kingdom dominated coverage across the traditional news media and the Internet, with many of the firms involved castigated for their slow approach. 

Conversely, the Qatari Ministry of Interior was praised for its agile, informative and sensitive handling of the Villaggio Mall tragedy, with their Twitter and Facebook accounts providing points of clarity amidst the online rumour mill.

So how can organisations prepare and protect themselves? Here are five steps to consider:

Always be listening:

Do you know what people are saying about you today? Without an up-to-date and accurate monitoring system, it is impossible to react with speed to fast-moving events. For example, Dell’s Social Media Command Center helps them track more than 25,000 daily conversations about their brand, and responds appropriately.

Build advocacy:

If a crisis hits, who would give you the benefit of the doubt? By forging strong relationships with influential voices in your sector, you give yourself the chance to be heard, if and when the roof does cave in.

Design protocols:

Holding statements, approval structures and online collateral can all be designed ahead of time and deployed when problems occur.  When FedEx was confronted with a YouTube film showing one of their deliverymen mishandling a customer’s property, they responded with their own apologetic video response within 24 hours. Could your firm respond that swiftly?

Test yourself:

The worst time to test your crisis protocols is, of course, during a crisis. At Hill+Knowlton Strategies, we have built a social media crisis simulator, Flight School, through which day-long online crises can be simulated for clients, where staff are tested and protocols get drilled. 

Respond with empathy:

You may not possess all the facts, but social media abhors a vacuum. And if you fail to respond, the space will be filled by less sympathetic and inaccurate voices. Acknowledge concerns; be honest about the situation and correct misinformation.

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