Is there such a thing as a social media crisis?

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

Image by @ChrisLennonPR on Twitter
Image by @ChrisLennonPR on Twitter

This is the question we kicked off with for our fourth PR Academy Crisis Communication Hub Webinar. The resounding answer from our panellists was “no” but that’s not to say social media has left unchanged the crisis communication landscape. Far from it.

Kate Hartley, co-founder of crisis simulator, Polpeo and a published author on crisis (Crisis Communication Strategies) and Paul Sutton, a social media expert on a mission, as he says, to demystify digital marketing and communication, joined us to debate all things social media in a crisis.

Speakers agreed that the idea of a social media crisis was akin to the term “PR crisis”.

After agreeing that the idea of a social media crisis was akin to the term “PR crisis” – and we all know how communications can get the blame for poor organisational behaviour – we began to examine how social media had changed the way we communicate in a crisis. Chiefly we all felt the biggest changes these new channels had brought about were around speed and transparency.

Whereas in crisis communication we used to talk about the Golden Hour as being the time we had to devise our initial response to a crisis nowadays we are lucky if we even get 15 minutes. In fact, 15 minutes is often said to be the time to aim for to get that first response out.

The only way to even stand a chance to respond as speedily as that is to get the preparation in first.   It is critical to have identified the risks your organisation is running and to then walk that through in terms of what might happen next when this risk becomes manifest and then actually tips into a crisis. What might this crisis look like as it spilled over into social media? This will enable you to put together at least the bare bones of a strategy in terms of when you engage and what you might say.

Think also in advance of the tone of voice you have adopted across your social media channels.  Many organisations have worked to establish an online personality that is humorous or playful – Yorkshire Tea is an example often pointed to. But how does this play out in a crisis? Practice social media responses to crises that are true to your online brand personality but also respectful of what has happened and the concern your stakeholders may well feel about the situation.

Make sure you do a communications audit, so you are aware of all the social media accounts your organisation has – even those that are no longer used.  It is often the case that larger organisations run several different accounts perhaps for different departments or even to front campaigns. Don’t be surprised if in a crisis all these accounts erupt into activity as those wanting to comment on the crisis or perhaps are genuinely searching for information use whatever way is open to them to reach you.

As one of our attendees pointed out we are all aware of the possibility that social media is the first place you actually hear about a crisis. This is where it is worth making sure you have in place some sort of social listening tool. It could give you that heads up something is afoot.

Picking up on a crisis in this way means it is important to know what is normal and what is not.  As Kate pointed out she has worked with companies for whom 10,000 complaints a week across social media is not unusual. Look also at who is doing the complaining or commenting on your organisation and how many followers and therefore influence they have.

Of course, a customer service issue may not necessarily be a crisis, but your response could provoke one if it is not handled appropriately. As Paul pointed out watch for when you are dealing online with an unhappy customer on a social media channel that the exchange does not risk tipping into one where both sides are entrenched in far apart positions. Paul suggested his “rule of three”. This is where once you have tried three times online to resolve a customer’s issue and they are still posting unhappy messages it is time to look to engaging with them in a less public way.

Think very carefully before blocking people on social media or deleting or hiding comments. As Kate pointed out hidden comments can often be seen, and deleted posts can always be screenshot and then circulated. There are plenty of people out there who will read all sorts into your decision to do any of these things although there was agreement across the panel that people will understand if you take action to protect others from abusive posts.

The other big change social media has brought about is that of transparency. One campaign we discussed during the Webinar that used social media very successfully to highlight poor behaviour on the part of corporates was the so-called Gender Pay Gap Bot. Those behind the  campaign were annoyed by businesses every year seeking to trumpet their support for International Women’s Day even though often the gender pay gap – the difference between what men and women earn at an organisation – was hard to justify.

So, when International Women’s Day came around in 2022 the Gender Pay Gap Bot responded to these annual homilies on Twitter to female “empowerment” by replying with the actual gender pay gap the organisation had been forced by the Government to disclose. Within hours, the bot had 250,000 Twitter followers and companies with the starkest pay disparities were getting hundreds of retweets. Perhaps not a social media crisis but certainly an issue that social media had given greater transparency to. As Kate observed nothing much can be hidden away these days.

The other big change social media has brought about is that of transparency. Organisations nowadays are extremely porous and highly communicative thanks in a big part to social media.

The idea of the PR professional being a gatekeeper when it comes to the dissemination of information is pretty much dead.

One attendee asked about managing senior executives who may make statements not in line with the image the organisation is striving to communicate. As we know with social media there is no hiding and instances such as this could lead to a so-called Twitter storm very quickly indeed.

Kate gave the example of an organisation she ran a simulation for when the crisis management team found it relatively easy to determine their answers to the unfolding crisis as they were so well aligned from a mission, vision and purpose point of view. So perhaps the answer is that if we can no longer control the flow of information coming out of our organisations then part of the preparation for crises on or offline is to ensure the organisation has a positive corporate culture and that lives and is true to its values.

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