Social media fanning the flames of crises

There was a time not long ago when crisis situations had a clock that was relatively easy to manage.  After all, even breaking news reports had to be written and moved on a news wire by reputable journalists or a camera truck had to be sent to the scene to capture footage.  All of this took time - time that allowed crisis communications professionals to take a phone call from the site, assess the situation and decide what to do about it.  And resulting stories were disseminated via traditional media - television, radio and newspaper.

The advent of social media has changed all that. Now, crisis PR pros can first learn about a crisis impacting their company by watching a live video feed uplinked from an employee or passerby's cell phone directly to CNN. In today's world, a natural disaster is captured via Twit Pics and discussed by tens of thousands of people before any "real" reporter makes it to the scene.  And never before have social injustices been brought to light with such speed and momentum - a disgruntled employee can now have a louder voice than any company Web site by merely posting a rant on YouTube.  So anyone who says social media are unimportant or can be ignored when assessing crisis preparedness is an accident waiting to happen.

So what can you do to get ready?  Here are a few tips to improve your chances of successfully navigating a crisis now that journeyman commentators with cell phones, blogs and Twitter accounts are watching from all angles:

  • Evaluate your online presence. This should be done before the crisis, because it is often the most difficult part to figure out once the problem has occurred.  Many companies have no clue about their social media footprint.  So when they need to engage the tools to communicate, they have no idea where to start.  Work with your communication team to keep a steady eye on how your company is being talked about and in what forums.  This will help you decide how you should communicate when the need arises.
  • Have a monitoring service on standby for an emergency. When a crisis happens in seconds, it is important to glean everything that's being said about your company.  The first few posts, videos or comments that are reported can be the most important to respond to.  United Airlines and Domino's Pizza, both victims of recent social media-born crises, were caught off guard in the first 24 hours.  A delayed response from each company resulted in several hundred thousand views of YouTube videos, several blog posts and countless tweets about both companies' failure to "listen."  Both companies are rebounding well via their eventual responses, but clearly the sudden impact of social media made their job much harder and more immediate than they were prepared to handle.
  • Have a social media policy in place. Often, employees are the first to comment or jump into the social mediasphere during a crisis.  Having a good social media policy in place before the crisis happens can prevent employees from making damaging statements that can be picked up by the media.  During this time, any employee can become an adhoc "company spokesperson."
  • Make sure you can communicate swiftly. During a crisis, there is very little time for multiple approvals and opinions on how the company should react and respond.  Having a crisis committee in place that consists of mainly decision-makers is the best and most effective way to figure out what you are going to say, and how you are going to say it. 

The bottom line is that being prepared is no longer just about having a crisis communications manual on your shelf and spokespeople who have been trained to deal with the media.  It's now about being sure you know what is being said, who is saying it and how to respond quickly - in the right way and within hours, not days - when a crisis hits your organization and the social media engine targets you.  

If you'd like to continue this conversation, please contact Matt Barkett at 216-241-3073 or   

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