Using Digital and Social Media During a Crisis

Tackling the proliferation of new communications channels

It’s every CEO’s worst nightmare: your carefully planned communications strategy blown off course by a developing firestorm from leftfield.

These days, it’s highly likely that a crisis situation will come to the surface on social media. A grumpy Tweet can lead to a rash of Facebook comments, which in turn stimulates some blogger outrage and viral video campaign on YouTube. Before your press team have even switched on their BlackBerries in the morning, the crisis is halfway across the world and on the radar of mainstream media.

In today’s ‘samizdat’ culture, where everyone can be a publisher, it’s not surprising that social media are where criticism and unhelpful stories about your organisation or brand take root and develop momentum. Around the globe, in every section of society, digital tools are being used to speed up and amplify problems and crises in a way never experienced before. For good measure, they are also being used to generate new types of crisis.

This presents fresh challenges for today’s leaders. In my experience, too few executives have fully thought through the impact of the new media landscape on their business. As a result, they are not adequately prepared to deal with a crisis when it happens.

How digital media affect crises

Response times, once determined by publishing deadlines of daily newspapers, have shrunk to hours or minutes in dealing with postings and Tweets. News of Osama Bin Laden’s death was all over Twitter well before President Obama confirmed the news on TV. Within 12 hours of the news being broken there had been 40,000 blog posts and an amazing 2.2 million Tweets. When a Qantas Airbus A380 had to make an emergency landing in Singapore last year, passengers Tweeting pictures of damage to the plane at a time when the airline were still saying they were unaware of any damage. We live in a world where not even the US Special Forces, never mind corporations, have the power to control the speed at which news travels.

Events across North Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring have showed how social media can facilitate and amplify a real life crisis. Digital tools are ideal for connecting loose networks of association, bringing together otherwise disparate groups and individuals to support a common cause. The web is no respecter of borders. What happens in Morocco and Egypt motivates and empowers protesters in Libya, Syria and Yemen. We saw digital activists from Morocco support Egyptians, teaching them how to exploit these new tools.

The case of BP and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was an example of a real crisis that became a PR crisis. We are all familiar with the way the company, in particular its Chief Executive Tony Hayward, failed to demonstrate the right tone and sense of humility in its communications. In terms of social media, BP was woefully slow to react. A fake BP Global PR Twitter account became notorious for its satirical take on the crisis and built up a following many times larger than BP’s official feed. The company was late in producing content and updates on the spill and was heavily criticised for a lack of empathy in its messaging.

So what does it mean in practice for organisations in crisis?

There are certain practical steps you should be taking to prepare for a crisis. Firstly, you should be monitoring social media in real time, not just rely on press clippings. Good social media monitoring will act as your early warning system. The key thing to avoid a crisis is you must spot it coming. You should have a plan of when it’s important to engage and when it’s best to just steer clear.

Secondly, you can’t respond to a crisis without the right channels. As well as a company website, consider setting up a corporate blog which could act as a hub for all your crisis communications and materials. If you don’t have them already then think about setting up a Twitter feed and Facebook page. It’s much better to build up a trusted presence now rather than waiting until a crisis breaks.

Thirdly, remember that speed really is of the essence. There’s no point in having a complicated process for approving messages that takes days or even hours. We heard recently of one company that had a crisis response process which meant each answer had to go through a legal team which would take 10 days to get approval. When you consider that a tweet has a 5-9 minute lifespan, that’s not really going to cut it.

Fourthly, prepare and document policies in advance for the key parts of your organisation – covering operations, stakeholders and communications. You should anticipate the issues that need to be escalated up the organisation and what the appropriate level of response and channel is for each. Adapt statements for social channels (does it fit into 140 characters?).

Finally, the best thing you can do to manage your reputation through a crisis is to manage it before the issue hits. During a crisis, you’ll draw on whatever reputation you had before that crisis struck. Whatever positive or negative sentiment you have banked with customers, stakeholders and media will be what sees you through the crisis period. Make sure it’s goodwill.

In essence, social media doesn’t change, but instead underlines, the basic rules of crisis communications. But the speed at which crises can travel in a digital age means you need to be fully prepared and have a plan ready to implement.

If you’re in any doubt, it’s worth repeating an oft-used quote from the American silent movie actor Will Rogers. It went something like this: “It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute.”

Steve Morris is the Managing Partner at Portland. Prior to joining Portland he managed a series of crises as Director of Communications at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs including foot and mouth disease, floods and the outbreak of avian flu.