The ultimate guide to managing a social media crisis

This post has everything you need to know before, during and after a disaster.

This is probably the most important blog post you’ll never need. Drawn from a section of my book “The NOW Revolution,” I gave this presentation about social media crisis recovery recently as part of the Social Media Success Summit 2012.

One of the keys to successful social media crisis mitigation is pre-crisis planning. This is lifeguard mode, and there are four elements of it.

1. Buy some binoculars.

It’s hard to deal with a crisis you can’t find. Your organization needs some sort of social media listening software. See this post on the five categories of social media software for some options.

2. Set a listening protocol.

That software, however, is only good as its operator. Your organization must have a listening protocol. Who is listening to social media? When does he listen? For what is he listening? Who covers nights and weekends?

3. Know what a crisis is—and is not.

Somebody sent a mean tweet about your company? That doesn’t constitute a crisis. There are three characteristics of a true social media crisis. If these three happen, get in crisis mode:

  • Information asymmetry: Information asymmetry is when the company does not know more than the public. When your plane lands in the Hudson River and you see Twitpics of it, that’s information asymmetry. This is the first sign of a social media crisis.
  • A decisive change from the norm: People routinely criticize Nike—and now Apple—for labor practices. But social chatter about that is ongoing and expected. That’s not a crisis. The second sign of a social media crisis is when a markedly different line of criticism occurs.
  • A potential material impact on the overall company: It isn’t a crisis when somebody tweets about how Subway left mustard off his sandwich. It is a crisis if there’s a gunman at a Subway. Scope and scale is the third sign of a social media crisis.

4. Use an internal alert and response flowchart.

Not all crises have the same response teams. The more acute the issue, the more senior the responder. Create a crisis flowchart that specifies who in your organization people should contact in different scenarios.

Make certain that your front-line social media and customer service personnel keep detailed, up-to-date contact information—including home phone numbers—for all executives.

This is also where, depending on the size and complexity of your organization, you may want to work with legal to map out some processes and pre-approved messages. Crisis role-play and fire drills are exceptionally useful, too.

You’ve completed your lifeguard training. Now, what happens when a crisis occurs?

Here are the eight steps to successfully managing a social media crisis.

1. Acknowledge the crisis.

Your first response should always be “Yes, we realize something happened,” even if you don’t have any answers. This will stem the tide of “Hey company, did you know?” messages.

2. Fight social media fire with social media water.

Once you have some information, respond first in the venue where the crisis broke. If the crisis initiated on Facebook, respond first on Facebook, then respond in other venues that picked up on the crisis.

Kellogg’s failed on this point in April 2012 during a Facebook-fueled crisis about the soy ingredients of its Kashi brand. Kashi responded to the crisis with a YouTube video, which got no traction whatsoever. A live-streaming video response on their Facebook page would have been much better.

You never know where a crisis will break, however, so you must have a presence in every social outpost, even if you don’t routinely participate there. For example, are you ready for a Pinterest crisis? It could happen.

It probably goes without saying, but speed matters. What we ask our clients at Convince & Convert is simple, yet difficult: Can you post a video from your CEO online within four hours at any time of the day or night, from anywhere in the world? If the answer is no, you aren’t fully prepared.

3. Be sorry.

America is the land of forgiveness. We’ve forgiven Mike Tyson, Bill Clinton, Exxon, Tylenol, and a gallery of corporate and individual miscreants and ne’er do wells. The public will forgive you too, if you say you’re sorry and mean it.

4. Create a crisis FAQ.

Create a Web page or microsite so you can put all the information about the crisis in one place. This allows you to respond to questions with a link instead of an answer. This saves time and prevents people from misinterpreting your responses-especially on Twitter.

The crisis FAQ should include:

  • An acknowledgement of the crisis.
  • Details about the occurrence.
  • Photos or videos, if available.
  • A description of how the company found out.
  • Who you alerted, when, and how.
  • Specific actions you’ve taken in response.
  • Real or potential effects.
  • Steps you took to prevent a future occurrence.
  • Contact information for real people at the company.

5. Build a pressure relief valve.

This may be counterintuitive, but you want people to vent on a venue you control.

Whether it’s your Facebook page, blog, forum, or comments section on your crisis FAQ microsite, you want ire to accumulate on your turf. There are four benefits to this approach:

  • It allows you to keep more of the conversations about the crisis in a single venue, which makes them easier to track.
  • It’s an early warning detection system for new dimensions of the crisis.
  • It gives your customers an official place to come to your defense.
  • It allows you to set the rules.

If you don’t proactively provide a pressure relief valve, complainants will create their own where you will have no recourse or control whatsoever.

Penn State University used its Facebook wall as a pressure relief valve during the height of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, allowing people to post hundreds of angry comments. Because the comments were on its Facebook page, it could see, find, moderate (as necessary), and answer back. This was smart.

6. Know when to take it offline.

Social media crisis management isn’t about winning. It’s about damage control. Some people will be angry enough that you’re not going to convince them of anything.

Never get into an online tit for tat, especially during a crisis. Keyboards embolden us all, and sometimes the best course of action is to offer your phone number or email address and encourage interaction that way.

Will it take the kettle off boil? Sometimes. But even if it doesn’t, the rest of the community will see that you went the extra mile and provided an olive branch. That matters. Crisis management is a spectator sport.

Remember the rule of three: Never send a third reply. A third reply is an argument, not an answer. Take it offline on the third reply.

7. Arm your army.

We know where everyone works because they list it on their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. If you wanted more information about the Kashi crisis, would you call the corporate communications department and wait on hold, or would you go to LinkedIn and find someone at Kellogg’s with whom you had a connection?

Call centers and waiting on hold is for suckers. Every employee is a potential spokesperson, which is why it’s imperative you keep all employees informed about the crisis. Whether it’s email, text message, internal blog, Yammer, or something similar, you must keep your employees at least as knowledgeable as the public.

8. Learn your lessons.

After the crisis subsides and you dry the tears off your laptop, reconstruct and deconstruct the crisis. Document every facet:

  • Make copies of all tweets, status updates, blog comments, etc.
  • Make copies of all emails.
  • Analyze website traffic patterns.
  • Analyze search volume patterns.
  • Note where the crisis broke, when, where it spread, and how.
  • Determine how your internal notification worked.
  • Determine how your response protocol worked.
  • See if specific customers rose to your defense and, if so, thank them!
  • Make sure your employees were informed.
  • See how the online crisis intersected with offline coverage, if at all.

There you have it. This is the social media crisis management playbook I hope you never need.

Jay Baer is a social media strategy consultant, speaker, and co-author of “The NOW Revolution.” He is the founder of Convince & Convert, a social media strategy firm, and he blogs at the Convince & Convert social media strategy blog, where this article originally ran.

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