Following on from my last article about the importance of preparing for a social media crisis, it’s time to cover the planning and strategy around the actual moment that most forward-thinking brands dread.

There is no excuse for being unprepared

In our last post we discussed the importance of being prepared for a crisis. With the wealth of knowledge and practical examples readily available to your business, it is hard to justify not having a social media strategy and plan in place. As the old saying goes, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”. These days of course the fail would come with a hashtag in front of it.

There are however some simple rules and tips to follow and we cover some of them here. By the very nature of a blog post these are inevitably incomplete but do join us on the webinar on 5th February to find out more.

Reach Out or Draw In

Few companies can afford to resource the large number of people needed to manage a crisis effectively, simply to have them hanging around in the event that a crisis occurs. Crises are all consuming in both time and manpower, and whilst a large multinational can draft people in from other disciplines to help, if your entire social media strategy is being handled by half a marketing assistant post and closes up shop at weekends, you have to take a pragmatic view of what is possible.

This comes down to a key decision that will determine how you approach the crisis – do you reach out to your stakeholders during a crisis through your multiple social channels, or do you acknowledge your lack of resources and try to guide all your stakeholders to a single source of company information where you can articulate your position. There is no room for prevarication here – it is one approach or the other. Trying to mix both approaches is a recipe for disaster, so decide which one to use and stick to it. A couple of examples may help.

When O2 (a UK telecoms company) had their outage last year they already possessed well established social channels and had built a relationship with their customer base over time. As a result, their experienced and well-resourced social media team was able to leverage this relationship and use Twitter and Facebook to turn a crisis into amaster class of ‘outage outrage’ management.

Conversely, when BP suffered their Deepwater Horizon accident, as a B2B operation they had no social media engagement to speak of, no stakeholder relationship on which to draw and a relatively small and inexperienced social media team. They chose very sensibly to rely on asingle website on which they posted the now infamous streaming video of the leaking wellhead together with all the other information, positions, latest news, etc that they wished to make public. They then referred stakeholders to this single resource, allowing them to focus their limited resources on a single channel.

Social Media Steering Committee

Even if culture, hierarchies, egos and corporate politics prevent you establishing a Steering Committee in ‘peacetime’, when a live crisis hits, you as the Crisis Manager have huge influence. Use it to bring together a group of internal stakeholders who can help you to resolve the crisis. Two people not to forget are the company lawyer – you need him or her on your side if you need to make rapid decisions, and someone from employee communications – make them the conscience of the employees and give them express permission to speak up if it looks as though employees are being overlooked, as can often happen when the press are baying at the gates and Twitter is in overdrive.

Monitor the Crisis in Social Media

Talking of Twitter, the immediacy of the platform now makes it the channel of choice for stakeholders to vent their fury or frustration during a crisis. Being able to get an overview of how the crisis is developing on Twitter is key to effectively managing it, but many monitoring dashboards are simply overwhelmed by the volume of tweets that accompany a social media crisis. Ensure your monitoring service is up to the task and does not show you a column of tweets that is spinning past your eyes as quickly as a fruit machine dial. This is why we designed CrisisVu to display all the tweets relating to your crisis in a single, visually intuitive display. A real-time overview allows you to keep ahead of the game.

Delegation of Authority

In the days when the news cycle was aligned to newspaper print timings, delay and discussion were valid approaches, but now that social media drives a 24 hour news cycle, rapid response is essential. We discussed the concept of Twitter Time (the time within which a brand is expected by the public to respond to a crisis in social media) in the first part of this blog post and referenced Kitchen Aid as an example. They responded with a brand apology in just 8 minutes, earning themselves an A+ for swift action. Cynthia Soledad, the Kitchen Aid brand manager had the delegated authority to speak on behalf of the brand and used it to prevent damage to the Kitchen Aid brand. Do you have that delegated authority should you need it?

Don’t delay telling your stakeholders

Once you’ve got a handle on the nature of the crisis, and know you have the authority to respond on behalf of the brand, don’t delay telling your stakeholders, even if your information at this early stage of the crisis is incomplete. Brands that try to cover up or delay informing stakeholders about the crisis are generally criticized more afterwards for their delay than for the incident itself. When Sony lost 77 million credit card details it was the delay in informing the public, not the theft itself that caused the most reputation damage.

Know what your stakeholders want to hear

When crafting your initial public statement think like a human being, not as the inanimate brand you represent. Your very first public statement of the crisis will set the tone for how your brand is perceived throughout it – so show sensitivity, and humility if appropriate, and ensure that people know they are your first priority. There are many mnemonics used by agencies to help structure such an initial statement but I quite like the 5Cs:

  • Compassion – If anyone has been hurt or killed in the crisis, start by expressing your heartfelt condolences to those affected – and mean it!
  • Concern – Express concern that the incident has occurred in the first place.
  • Commitment – Make clear your absolute commitment to get to the bottom of what has gone wrong and ensure it will never happen again.
  • Control – People will feel much better if you make it clear that the crisis response will be managed and controlled from the top.
  • Communication – Undertake to provide regular updates and information to stakeholders. Speculation loves a vacuum and social media will fill it for you if you let it.

Tesco got it absolutely right when they apologized for the horseburger crisis. In its advertisement Tesco said:

“We and our supplier have let you down and we apologise… So here’s our promise. We will find out exactly what happened and, when we do, we’ll come back and tell you”.

If you need help managing your crisis, get it

Not only is gaining an outsiders perspective critical when crisis strikes, but you will almost certainly need additional help. Having an arrangement with your PR agency to provide additional bodies and tactical guidance when a crisis hits is a sensible approach and allows you to scale your response to meet the extent of the crisis.

Post Crisis Review

A whole book could be written on the steps to take following the end of the crisis, but a formal review with all stakeholders is essential and the crisis is seldom over when the news coverage dies away. For example, post-crisis media monitoring can be just as important as your monitoring during the crisis; if your reputation has been damaged you need to know how badly before deciding what steps to take to recover it. Some intriguing research from Freshfields illustrated what types of crisis take the longest time to recover from.

If you have engaged with your stakeholders through social media during the crisis, don’t suddenly stop engaging once it’s over. Consistency is all important in regaining the trust of your customers and will give you the best possible chance to recover as quickly as possible.

Nick Sharples, CEO of CrisisVu will be exploring the points raised in this blog post and many others as well in the free webinar – How to Effectively Manage a Social Media Crisis on 5th February 2013.

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