6 Social Media “Musts” for Crisis Communication

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It was an air traveler’s nightmare.

When it touched down on the runway traveling about 170 miles per hour, the front landing gear of the plane crumbled and the airplane skidded off the runaway. The plane finally stopped with its nose on the ground. It was momentarily terrifying for the passengers, 16 of whom suffered minor injuries. The concern of families of the passengers as this news broke and they wondered about the health of their loved ones was palpable, especially as time passed with no reassurance.

Within minutes, the airline acknowledged the situation on Twitter and Facebook. Passengers on the plane replied to the posts affirming that they were okay. The airline continued to communicate via social media throughout the ordeal and was universally lauded for its social media response to this crisis.

Social media adds an overwhelming complexity to crisis communication. The multiple channels, user-level control of messaging, and real-time delivery make social media far more complex than press releases and conferences. Like a leaky boat in a cartoon, there is a lot to repair and it’s hard to know where to start. What I want to do in this post is to examine how to best use social media for crisis communication.

1. You must remember communication basics

Possibly the most reassuring aspect of social media for crisis communication is that nothing fundamental changes.

In their paper, “Incorporating Social Media in Risk and Crisis Communication,” Veil, Buehner and Palenchar recommend the following:

  • Communicate with honesty, candor and openness while acknowledging risk
  • Collaborate and coordinate with credible sources
  • Meet the needs of the media and remain accessible
  • Communicate with compassion, concern and empathy
  • Accept uncertainty and ambiguity

If we weren’t discussing social media, these would all be reasonable actions for crisis management. Crystal DeGoede of BurrellesLuce calls social media an “instigator,” an “accelerant” and an “extinguisher.” These are apt descriptions. Social adds complexity to crisis communication, but doesn’t supersede good communication practice.

Want to handle a crisis smoothly? Click here to register for Peter LaMotte’s free “Crush Crises Before They Spread” webinar!

2. You must incorporate social into risk and crisis planning

What is the first thing that Veil, Buehner and Palenchar recommend to integrate SoMe into your crisis communication? Incorporate social in risk and crisis communication. The genesis of your integration is to get ahead of your social media “accelerants.”

Christine Gallagher Kearney of DePaul University Office of Public Relations writes that integrating social media into risk and crisis planning and incorporating social into drills and practice is paramount for communication professionals. Kearney concludes that:

“Integrating social media into crisis communications response is non-negotiable in the 24-hour information cycle.”

3. You must realize social isn’t intended for the masses

Target Journalists - Crisis Communication

Consider the following statistics:

These are all pretty reliable sources, and they describe a social environment that isn’t as conducive to communication as we might assume. So, why is social media so important to crisis communication? Consider this:

Social media for crisis communication isn’t intended to directly communicate with everyone you’re socially connected to. It is to provide resources and accessibility to the journalists and key influencers who amplify your message, and it is for stakeholders that need a place to find information.

Or as John Hallock, VP of corporate communications for CareCloud writes in PR News:

“Social media can act as a very fast and effective way to communicate with key stakeholders in the event of a crisis, as many individuals now use various social media conduits as their primary means for getting information.”

4. You must use social media as a collaborative tool

In a crisis it might be tempting to think of social media as a channel to distribute press releases and other official communication, but as Timothy Coombs points out in his “Crisis Management and Communications” paper for the Institute for Public Relations, social media’s defining characteristic is that it enables “stakeholders to create content.”

One would assume that ignoring social media’s defining characteristic would be an unwise strategy. By letting anyone with a Facebook account co-opt your messaging, you can very easily lose the purpose of your messaging. Veil, Buehner and Palenchar discuss the neccessity to “partner with the public” when integrating social media into a crisis communication plan:

“Social media, in this way, provide access to a ‘mass of individuals who are directly involved in the incident’ and have a ‘clearer geographic visualization of the extent of the emergency’. By partnering with the public, crisis communicators ‘can enhance their organizations’ ability to gather accurate field data.”

Wendling and Jacobzone also discuss public expectations for social media accessibility in their paper “The Use of Social Media in Risk and Crisis Communication” where they write:

“Public expectations and roles are changing in terms of the desire for increased transparency of information.”

5. You must monitor social media and the Internet

When you understand that you must partner with the public and want to understand the “instigator” and “accelerator” that is social media, you’ll need to have some sort of monitoring system in place. Susan Etlinger of Altimeter Group wrote an interesting white paper with case studies of large-scale companies and the social media software that they employ. At a certain scale, sampling and filtering is necessarily employed to properly deal with the volume of mentions (eBay for example has 80,000 brand mentions on social media every day).

While monitoring may seem like a pretty starightforward process, it is actually quite interpretive. In their paper “Social Media Monitoring for Crisis Communication: Process, Methods and Trends in the Scientific Literature,” Ruggiero and Vos discuss the inconsistencies of monitoring research to include sampling methods and platforms. In other words, we don’t have great data about what constitutes “good” listening, so it’s really up to you to form a strategic (and subjective) opinion.

In a crisis your stakeholders, “instigators” and “accelerants” aren’t necessarily the same people who are following you on a day-to-day basis. They may not be using the same platforms that you focus on, opting to use lesser used social platforms or blogs to make their point. There are a lot of monitoring options for all budgets and scales that perform these tasks.

Understand however that monitoring tools can be necessary and fallible. This makes relationships with journalists and influencers that much more important.

6. You must not “keep up with the Joneses?”

Ring - Crisis Communication

You can spend a lot of money and time doing superfluous social tasks. This is particularly evident at scale, but is true for enterprises of any size.

In a crisis the economy with which you react increases your likelihood for success (or mitigation). The faster you get control of the situation and control the message, the better the outcome.

Social media is your antagonist in the quest for economy: multiple people can hijack your message, and amplify that message further than you can organically. You can reach a scale where social care must either be prioritized or requires huge resource expenditures to keep up. And reach on social platforms is so low, that your social stakeholders are unlikely to be directly reached without promoting posts to do so (which is a sound tactic to use in some instances, incidentally).

You may find yourself benchmarked against another company or against another industry and find that you don’t use the same tools, have the same social media tactics addressed in your crisis plans, et cetera. Trying to keep up with these folks can have huge ramifications to your budget and impact your ability to appropriately react in other areas.

When integrating social media into crisis planning, it’s very important to allocate resources to meet your needs, rather than trying to benchmark against others or buy the newest, slickest software to hit the market. The “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality in business is sometimes a substitute for proper planning, and oftentimes can waste resources and (ironically) make you less prepared for a crisis.


Social media adds an element of speed and complexity to crisis communication that can make PR practitioners feel overwhelmed. It makes messaging difficult and oftentimes enables stakeholder demand for real-time information.

While even the most seasoned PR professionals find managing social media in a crisis challenging, I hope this piece illustrates that there are some actions you can take to give you more control over your social response. Just like that airline, you may end up lauded for your transparency, and quick social response.

I’ll close with an insight from football Paul “Bear” Bryant” the legendary head coach of the University of Alabama football team, who said:

“In a crisis, don’t hide behind anything or anybody. They’re going to find you anyway.”

About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.

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