Crisis Communications in the Social Age

Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of visiting with a former professor who was instrumental in my career development, Terry Hemeyer. He introduced me to the world of crisis communications more than a decade ago, and is one of the county’s leading experts on the topic.

Inspired by him, I worked in the crisis communications practice at a public relations firm after graduating from college. I got great experience leading executive media training sessions and performing simulated crisis drills. However, most of my work in this space was spent creating binders and binders of blueprints for crisis situations. As social technologies emerged, I created dozens of plans for scenarios like, “What if any employee tweets confidential information?” OR “What if a blogger writes something negative about us?”

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Then, in 2008, a crisis literally hit close to home.

For weeks, my parents were without power and water after Hurricane Ike. They had a hard time getting updates or communicating. This personal experience changed my professional crisis strategy. I realized I needed to be more agile and fast.

If you aren’t prepared, social can be a “threat.” But with the right strategy, social can be a huge help during a crisis.

Here are the 5 Roles Social Can Play During a Crisis

1. Source. From employees tweeting from the wrong account to inappropriate hashtag bombing (the modern form of ambulance chasing), some big brands have suffered from social crisis situations.

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2. Catalyst. There are approximately 3.3 billion brand mentions on social a day, according to KellerFay. So, it’s easy for a simple issue to quickly spiral. Without having a formal social media monitoring and response process (see: Listen Up, Social Managers!), it’s easy for social to become overwhelming. However, Jive Champion Emilie Kopp put it best when she said, “there are two primary words you need to know in order to be a good social media manager: thanks and sorry.” A simple action to let users know they are being heard or a formal apology can go a long way online.  It’s better to join the conversation when it’s a spark then try and step in during a fire.

3. Employee communications channel. Social intranets are faster, more intuitive, and have changed enterprise crisis communications profoundly. During a crisis situation, it is key that information moves across the network and not up or down org charts.  Ted Hopton at UBM shared a great example of this via status updates on the Jive Community. UBM effectively used Jive during Hurricane Sandy to communicate with employees.

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[Watch this webcast and see how McGraw-Hill implemented a social intranet to improve employee communication.]

4. Customer communications channel. External support and marketing communities are a quick and easy way to engage in real-time with customers and prospects during a crisis. From digital newsrooms to corporate blogs, social has emerged as a primary brand crisis communications channel. One of my favorite examples of this comes from Premier Farnell.  During the launch of a hot new product, their website crashed; therefore, they utilized their Jive-powered, online community to surface relevant information, reassure customers, and help resolve ordering issues.

5. Resource. Listening not only helps identify potential crisis situations, it’s also a good source for information.

If one of your New Year’s Resolutions is to put together a crisis communications plan in the social age, here are the first 6-steps of a social crisis communications plan:

  1. Align social with core business objectives.
  2. Integrate social into internal structure, process, policies.
  3. Monitor and respond to “actionable” conversations.
  4. Build valuable social experiences.
  5. Activate and reward advocates. They can serve as front-line of defense during an online crisis.
  6. Analyze metrics.

What role has social played in your crisis communications strategy? Share your story in the comments below.

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