Social Media and Crisis Communications

Social media is woven into our lives and that means it should be part of a crisis communications plan. It also means that a breaking news story might not come from a network station or the newspaper. Today, it’s often the citizen journalists who are breaking the news.

What is your organization to do?First, be sure you develop a crisis communications plan. It’s important to have a written plan in place and staff trained before a crisis strikes. Social media has cut the response time down from a few hours to 20 minutes.

Next, be sure you are on social sites and cultivate your followers. When they post a question or comment, respond to it. Provide them access to information that they might not otherwise get. Look how President Obama used social media to drive his campaign.

Monitor the social sites so you know what people are saying about you. However, you won’t always need to respond. If negative comments appear and you have cultivated your followers, “your champions will come speak for you,” says Ann Marie van den Hurk, a PR specialist bridging the gap between traditional PR and social media. If you have a crisis, create a dedicated Twitter account with an appropriate hashtag.

Keep your website up-to-date. If there is a crisis, people are going to go to the site for information. If they can’t find the information, they are going to complain. If needed, dedicate the homepage to the situation.

Finally, provide people, including journalists, with a way to contact you online. You’ll want to share the contact details on your social sites and website. Sometimes, nothing beats a phone call to more fully discuss an issue and clarify points.

Steps to Prevent a Crisis

Most crises are not accidents, but rather foreseeable.

While good communications adds value to an organization by removing barriers, earning trust and creating an environment for sound growth, a crisis subtracts value, said Larry Kamer of Kamer Consulting, who spoke about crisis communications with the PRSA Richmond chapter last month.

Organizations that do well at crisis communications follow a prescribed but flexible plan of action.

Organizations that do well at crisis communications follow a prescribed but flexible plan of action.

To prevent that from happening good crisis communications management relies on strategists and critical thinkers, Kamer said. “Critical thinkers are willing to look at things differently,” he said.

Organizations that do well at crisis communications follow a prescribed but flexible plan of action and treat communications and operational responsiveness equally.  In addition, companies use all their resources, including trained staff and outside experts.

When it comes to being prepared, Kamer cited statistics from the Institute for Crisis Management in Kentucky that prove many companies are “still snoozing” when it comes to preparedness. For example, 55 percent of companies do not have backup at remote sites and another 40 percent do not conduct tight background checks.

To prevent a crisis, Kamer said a company needs to have several things in place, including:

  • Media policies and protocols.
  • Media training.
  • Social media policies. “People are still all over the place with this,” Kamer said. “And now the media is competing with Twitter.”
  • Existing crisis documents.
  • Tabletops and scenarios. These are important Kamer said, because simply looking at a crisis plan is not enough. Companies need to understand how it’s really going to go down, he said. “Tabletops and scenarios are the way to do this.”

Readiness is Key to Crisis Management

Seventy-five percent of readiness in a crisis is making sure you have accurate contact information.

I learned this quickly working as a spokesperson for a major police department. I needed to be able to quickly reach colleagues within the city. I also need to reach out to other spokespersons whose organizations also might be involved in the situation. And I needed to reach out to reporters.

The key to any crisis situation is readiness.

It also helps to recognize that your response will be criticized by people who weren’t at the scene and that the media will quote people who were not involved so you need to get your information out – and quickly.

“Speed beats smart every time,” said James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, during a webinar on crisis management.

His recommendation is to brief continuously through frequent dispersals of 75 words rather than press releases, which he says only generate more questions and require approvals.

“Silence is the most toxic strategy you can choose,” Lukaszewski said. “You have to be able to communicate immediately.”

Are you ready?

Crisis Communications Impacted by Technology

When it comes to handling a crisis today, it’s a whole new world.

Julie Rodriguez, public information manager of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, shared at the National Federation of Press Women 2012 Communications Conference how the world has changed technologically and how those changes impact news.

When she started in the business, press releases were still faxed to reporters. Today communications is instant and includes tools such as email, websites, 24-hour media texts, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, blogs, apps and direct email lists.

“When something starts happening we immediately go to Facebook and Twitter,” said Rodriguez. “The reporters follow us.”

It’s also how news gets out. “We hear about something. We see it on Twitter. We see the photos posted on Twitter. We see it on CNN,” she said. “That’s the progression.”

Rodriguez added, “I love social media, especially Facebook. We can have a conversation.”

When a crisis happens, Rodriguez says it’s important to follow a timeline that includes:

  • Fact finding
  • Communicating with all agencies and business partners involved
  • Returning media calls
  • In-person media briefings

Beginning with the fact finding ensures that you have the needed information or have identified what you still need before speaking to the media. It’s then important to communicate with partners, Rodriguez said.

“We have to stay in our lane,” Rodriguez said. “We can’t share information that is out of our area of control or authority.”

She and her staff, though, will assist reporters in finding the person who can give them the necessary information.

Once you have done these two steps you can return media calls, post to social media and send group emails. Then, she said, schedule in-person media briefings.

Following these steps and using the new technology, Rodriguez, said will help you dispel inaccurate rumors and enable you to quickly contact news outlets.