How to accelerate your online response when a crisis hits

With social media—especially live-stream video platforms—heightening the potential damage to an organization or brand, communicators must respond like lightning. Here’s how to do so.

To be an expert in crisis communications you have to move your organization at the speed of Twitter when “it” hits the fan.

As @shroomy0021 was riding down the highway, he noticed flames from a natural gas explosion in California. Within minutes he posted a video to the web.

In short order, a barrage came from journalists asking to use the video. Do you really want someone known as @shroomy0021 managing your corporate communications? Until the company fills the void with accurate information, @shroomy0021 is the spokesperson for the event.

Meanwhile, near my home, a massive chemical plant explosion killed two people and injured 114. As employees ran for safety, one stopped to take a photo of the fireball, then sat in his Ford F150 and created a Facebook page. The page had more than 4,000 “likes” within about three-and-a-half hours—it was that long before the company issued its first public statement via their website.

Social media is your competition. Who is winning that competition? Are you even in the game?

How long does it take your organization to send out your first official public statement or news release when a crisis happens? One hour, two hours, three hours—or even longer?

If you still live in the dark ages—in which you write a news release from scratch, then send it up the chain of command for approvals and changes, then take it back for rewrites, then send it for a final approval, and then you disseminate the information to the world—you have a lot of work to do.

That archaic process usually takes several hours. By then, eyewitnesses on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other sites have been telling their version of your story. With greater frequency, they are also broadcasting your crisis live on Facebook or Periscope.

During a recent shooting in which a sniper killed three police officers in Baton Rouge on a Sunday morning, one person was broadcasting the event on Facebook Live while another eyewitness was live on Periscope. It was five-and-a-half hours before a news conference was held. In what world is that acceptable? Meanwhile, social media posts from the affected police agencies were weak and sporadic, as were attempts to post statements to their official websites.

What are the tasks you must accomplish to leave the dark ages?

First, make sure your executives know more about social media than just the names of the platforms. If your leaders have never spent time on social media, they are ill prepared to comprehend its speed, nuance and complexities. Hence, any decision they make regarding the crisis and the communications around it will be flawed. At a minimum, put all your leaders on Facebook for a week and require them to be active and engaged for 30 minutes a day for seven days. After that, they can shut down their profiles, but at least they will have experienced it, which will lead to better decisions.

Second, review your crisis communications plan and make sure it specifies deadlines for getting messages to the world. The crisis communications plans I write most frequently give a company one hour or less from the flashpoint of the crisis before a public statement must be made, with the understanding that in a world of social media, that’s 59 minutes too slow.

Third, spend time on a clear sunny day writing the bones of the news releases you will need. I have hundreds of pre-written news releases on my computer at all times. Each is written with multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank options. On average, it takes 10 minutes to make the edits and issue the release. Best of all, the leadership and legal team can read the language on a sunny day, long before the documents will ever get used. That way, on the day of the crisis, they will have to approve it only for accuracy and not for language.

Fourth, put your public relations and leadership team through the paces with a realistic, anxiety-rich drill at least once a year. Leaders can make decisions in a tabletop format, but force the communications team to follow and test their crisis plan in real time. Then force the leadership team to conduct several news conferences during the drill to test their ability as spokespeople.

The bottom line is that your reputation and revenue erode more with each passing second that your organization remains silent. Don’t let an eyewitness with a mobile phone destroy your organization when “it” hits the fan.

A version of this article originally appeared on the PRSay blog.

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