As is painfully well known to many companies that have endured crises, social media can be a troublemaker:

An irate consumer posts a recording she captured of some impolite customer service she experienced from your company, and it’s being re-Tweeted ad nauseum. Or, a diner’s video of a cockroach backstroking through your restaurant’s clam chowder goes viral on YouTube and Facebook. The upshot is you’ve got a serious threat to your company’s reputation on your hands being driven by social media, and it very well could grow into a full-blown crisis.

But many companies also know that social media can be a potent tool for solving the problem. Here are six rules for leveraging social media before and during a crisis:

Before a crisis: Prepare

  1. As part of your Crisis Plan, include the establishment of a productive presence on social media. Embrace social media platforms to project your brand attributes. Convey confidence in your products. Show pride in your good corporate citizenship actions, environmental policies, and so on. All of these things work to establish your organization as one of living, breathing humans who care about their customers, communities and planet. Your organization’s humanity and projection of it through social media channels is a necessary prerequisite for effective communications when a crisis hits.
  1. Create a social media policy for your employees. Do you want your employees to talk about your company as they hobnob with their friends and family on Facebook, or post photos of their workspace on Pinterest? Whether you do or you don’t, employees must understand their obligation to protect the source of their livelihoods. They must be given clear guidelines as to what is expected of them in their social media use.

If no policy exists and a crisis occurs, employees’ social media conduct could make matters worse. “Yeah, sometimes our customer service really does suck.” “I work back in the kitchen, and I’ve seen those cockroaches doing water ballet in the chowder.” Clearly such employee postings during the crisis will worsen the problem, and it will be far more awkward for management to suddenly impose rules for social media. You need to have a social media policy for employees in place now. It’s a cornerstone of crisis preparedness.

  1. Monitor and assess. Whether they’re good, bad or ugly, it’s important to keep abreast of social media conversations involving your organization and continuously gauge the volume and consistency of positive and negative comments. You can then decide when a tipping point has been reached, indicating a crisis might be brewing and preemptive actions need to be taken.

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During a Crisis: Use social media as a potent crisis management tool

  1. Address the crisis. If you’ve successfully established your social media presence as part of your crisis preparedness, you have a platform people know to go to for information. If you were to try to establish a social media presence after the crisis is already underway, it would likely come off as a suspiciously defensive measure that could do your organization more harm than good.

Your ongoing social media presence serves as a positive framework that surrounds and gives perspective to any particular sub-set of crisis-related messages you need to convey. “We are truly sorry for the bad customer service you received (or egregious dining experience you recently had) and have investigated the matter. What we found was a serious violation of the policies we have in place, and we have taken the following actions to make things right:…; we will gladly provide a refund…; etc., etc.” The crisis is addressed and then you move back to announcing your new sale items or your educational program for disadvantaged kids. An ongoing social media presence isolates particular crisis-related messages, containing them within a wider, more reasonable, more human context.

  1. Engage – Selectively. You will of course be closely monitoring social media (and all other media) during a potential or actual crisis; it’s an important indicator of the effectiveness of your crisis management. You then use your constant evaluation of that information to help inform your ongoing communications strategies.

Probably you will not want to respond to every negative posting. But, you might decide to engage. It’s a strategic decision you’ll have to make depending on the substance and number of complaints and on the influence of individual complainers.

  1. Determine how or if to coordinate your social media engagement with your website content. Some social media-driven crises may be best handled exclusively through social media. This is often the considered strategy when there are customer complaints appearing with some regularity on social media sites, but they haven’t yet reached what the company determines to be a critical volume. In this case, companies will not post their crisis-related responses on their website believing it will draw even more interest to the situation unnecessarily and further feed social media exchanges.

If the volume of interest on social media has reached that tipping point where your business and reputation is continuously threatened, you may decide to coordinate your social media engagement with crisis messages on your website.

Sometimes companies purposely bury the crisis-related material on their sites so you’d have to search hard for it – a sort of middle ground, but not necessarily advisable. Try to find, for example, VW’s messages about its emissions cheating scandal on its website. They’re there, but you have to search hard to find them. This obfuscation strategy, while often very carefully considered and quite common, carries a risk. It could contradict pledges many companies make to be transparent and worthy of your trust.

For the most dire crises, messages that you deliver in social media conversations should usually be coordinated closely with easy-to-find messages on your website. That often entails creating new web content in its own dedicated section during the crisis. Some companies maintain a so-called “dark site” that’s nearly ready to go and can be finalized and made to go live quickly in a very serious crisis.

After the crisis

If you’ve been successful in managing the crisis, it’s now been consigned to past history and you’ve moved on. But not so fast. Now is the time to carefully analyze what happened and the effectiveness of your response. Use the experience to improve your crisis preparedness in general and your social media policies, monitoring and engagement strategies in particular.

Modify your crisis plans accordingly and test that plan through regular simulated crisis exercises that should always include a social media component. Only then will you be as prepared as you possibly can be to respond to thousands of amused people who have been sharing a clever video of a cockroach water ballet in your restaurant’s soup.

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David Kalson

David Kalson

David Kalson is an expert in issues and crisis management. He has more than 25 years experience providing strategic communications counsel, on-the-ground assistance and highly targeted media relations and “new media” programs to manage issues and crises as well as reputation enhancement for both profit and not-for-profit organizations. Business sectors he has counseled include energy, food and beverage, financial services, healthcare, consumer products and technology. He has designed and implemented communication / media relations programs, often emphasizing Web-based strategies, to address issues including data security breaches, environmental accidents, product recalls, financial problems, high-profile lawsuits, corporate governance issues, criminal behavior, attacks by opposition groups, government/regulatory challenges, competitive challenges and labor disputes. Companies he has counseled in relation to crisis drills, plans and crisis management include Cargill, Dunkin’ Brands, Cadbury Schweppes, Staples, Entergy, Eli Lilly, Canaport LNG and the American Automobile Association (AAA)