The 10 commandments of social media crisis management

It’s not enough simply to have a plan in place; proceeding swiftly and genuinely engaging your angry audience are essential.

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This post is inspired by a conversation I had with a group of senior PR professionals in Chicago who got really nervous when I asked them, “So do you have a social media crisis-management plan in case something bad happens?”

It amazes me that we as communicators still underestimate the impact of social media on your online image, especially during a crisis. I hope these Ten Commandments of Social Media Crisis Management will provide guidance in how to respond in the era of Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

1. Thou shalt move at lightning speed: The first 24 hours after negative news hits online are crucial, and case studies show that bad news spreads like wildfire on social media—especially on Twitter. This demands a sense of urgency to react in a matter of hours and not days.

2. Thou shalt build a micro-site to provide 24/7 updates: Every company must have a micro-site ready to go live with at least basic information about the situation. This will serve as the go-to site for all relevant, timely information. We encourage clients to quickly populate a FAQ page providing essential information, including next steps for customers to follow.

3. Thou shalt deploy a round-the-clock Twitter monitoring schedule: Twitter is fast and easy, and the viral aspect of the micro-blog spreads crises like wildfire. With proactive monitoring and by staying ahead of the conversation on Twitter, you can contain that wildfire, at least to some extent. We have seen that Twitter activity picks up during late evenings and on weekends when people are browsing online, reading a blog post or news story, and the next thing they do is retweet. This escalates the negative chatter online. Simply by monitoring and responding to tweets, you are letting your audience know their outpouring is being heard on social channels.

4. Thou shalt not delete negative comments: If you don’t have answers to tough questions, the least you can do is leave that comment untouched. By deleting negative chatter, you are only aggravating the situation. It takes five minutes to start a blog or go to a different forum to leave the same negative comment, so don’t assume that a simple “delete” will stop someone from posting negative comments online. When customers complain that you have deleted their comments, it takes a toll on your online image—especially during a crisis.

5. Thou shalt train your crisis team on social media: OK, so you have a final version of the approved messaging document ready to guide you with crisis response. Now, can you condense that to 140 characters with a link to more information? Yeah, crisis communication in 140 characters is very different from issuing a press release or calling a press conference. Is your team ready to proactively monitor and respond on social networks? If not, that’s a starting point.

Some companies wait until a crisis is widely shared on social networks, gravely jeopardizing their brand image, before they finally start paying attention to social media.

6. Thou shalt be willing to say “Sorry” openly on the Web: First and foremost, get used to openly apologizing on social networks and taking full responsibility. Saying “sorry” during a press conference or on a press release is very different from responding to numerous blog posts and tweets with an apology. I have seen companies struggle to do this, as they think that by admitting the mistake, they are further engaging on the sensitive topic. But we have seen our clients receiving kudos for openly acknowledging a crisis, and an apology is the important first step in retaining customer loyalty.

7. Thou shalt create hyper-transparency on the crisis situation: The level of transparency that a crisis demands—since the advent of micro-blogs and online forums—is dramatically greater than before. The more you share information on social networks to build transparency, the better.

8. Thou shalt proactively alert bloggers on PR crises: By alerting bloggers and providing facts about the situation, you’ll solicit help from influencers who might carry your message forward. This is a very powerful tactic to neutralize the negative sentiment online.

9. Thou shalt NOT feed the troll: Remember there will always be constant complainers who thrive on crises and leverage the situation to further bad-mouth your company. While you actively listen and respond during a crisis, you must also keep a closer eye on the trolls and try to disengage them when needed. When you act responsibly and work diligently to help your customers, you will start seeing your own customers fight the trolls and do the work for you. Here’s a really good post from Social Conversations on how to deal with trolls on social media.

10. Thou shalt listen and engage: If you make promises to take particular actions/next steps as a result of the crisis, you better ensure that you demonstrate action at the end of the crisis. A decline in negative chatter does not mean people are not paying attention to you anymore; they are waiting for your next steps. Companies that demonstrate that they have listened and have taken the right action are the ones that maintain a favorable image online.

I hope this has given you a framework on how to manage a crisis through social media. Here’s a case study that might give you more practical advice on how General Motors uses social media for crisis.

Priya Ramesh heads the social media practice at CRT/tanaka, and blogs at The Buzz Bin.

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