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8 tips for crisis communication in social media

Emanuel Schmid, Junior Consultant

Critical Facebook posts, mocking Instagram stories or tweets with fake news: never before have people been able to complain about grievances in real time as easily as in the age of social media. Due to global networking, news from and about companies nowadays spreads like wildfire - rapidly, uncontrollably and unfiltered. Sometimes all it takes is an Instagram post that inexplicably goes viral. But sometimes it's a shitstorm that comes out of nowhere. What's clear is that social media has dramatically changed the way a corporate crisis can unfold.

Mastering crises and shitstorms

Effective crisis management begins long before a problem arises - and social media is no exception. Preparing in good time increases the chances of surviving a reputational crisis in the best possible way. Of course, it's even better if it can be averted before it begins. What creates security in any case and helps in the event of an escalation is a sound concept for social media crisis management.

The following eight elements are worth their weight in gold for identifying potential critical topics, so-called issues, as soon as they arise and counteracting them in the early stages. Plus, learn what you can do if you do end up facing a full-blown social media crisis management situation.

#1 Create a social media policy

Some of the easiest crises to avoid originate from inappropriate employee postings. Remedy this with understandable guidelines, familiar to all, on how employees should conduct themselves on social media. Every social media policy should include four key points:

  • Privacy guidelines. Specify how to interact with customers online and when to redirect a conversation to a private channel.

  • Confidentiality guidelines. Describe what business information employees are allowed (and even encouraged) to share and what should be kept under wraps.

  • Guidelines on tone. Establish the tone of voice. Do you maintain a formal tone or should it be more informal, direct and personal?

  • Copyright guidelines. Don't assume employees understand how copyright applies online. Provide clear instructions on the use and attribution of third-party content.

#2 Use social listening to identify potential issues.

Using social listening tools (social media monitoring) can help identify social media issues ahead of time, long before they develop into a crisis. By specifically monitoring, extracting, analyzing and processing mentions of companies, brands, products, people, news or topics on the social web, you can learn if and where there is a surge in activity.

But if you really want to pay attention to a potential crisis in social media, you should also bring in sentiment analysis. Sentiment analysis can give you clues as to what your stakeholders think, mean and feel. If you notice a sudden change in this regard, it's an immediate clue and reason to check what people are saying about you. A sudden increase in mentions or negative sentiment scores on a topic is always worth investigating.

#3 Create a crisis communication plan

A well-established crisis communications plan with roles, processes, checklists, language and reserved resolutions will allow you to respond more quickly to any potential issue. Rather than spending a long time debating internally how to handle something or waiting for decision makers to weigh in, you can take action quickly and possibly prevent things from getting out of control.

Quick action is important. According to Duncan Gallagher, head of crisis management at Edelman, more than a quarter of all crises spread internationally within just an hour. But companies take an average of 21 hours to defend themselves in any meaningful way. That's nearly a full day of the crisis making the rounds online without your team being able to intervene in any meaningful way.

Your plan should outline the exact steps everyone will take during a crisis on social media. Include a list of people to alert at each stage of a potential crisis.

For example, your communications plan for managing a crisis on social media might include the following list:

  • Guidelines for identifying the nature and extent of a crisis.

  • Roles and responsibilities for each department

  • A communication plan for internal updates

  • Up-to-date contact information for employees

  • Approval processes for messages posted to social media

  • Any pre-approved external messages, images or information

  • A link to your social media policy

Regardless of how well you prepare: Depending on the nature of the crisis, you may not be able to solve everything with just one or two social media posts. But: people want to hear from you and expect you to communicate. Therefore, it is important that you acknowledge the problem right away. Even during weekends and vacations, your organization needs to be able to respond quickly in an emergency.

A few informative posts will buy you the time to put the rest of your social media crisis communications plan into action. Communicate openly and transparently: admit there's a problem and let people know more information will be coming soon.

#4 Exercise your team

Being effectively prepared means not only working out the measures in theory, but also practicing them in practice. Crisis training and social media crisis simulations help to ideally prepare your team for an emergency. Here, an imaginary crisis develops realistically and all players have the opportunity to practice their skills in a protected space. A final exercise report summarizes observations and experiences. It also identifies gaps so that you and your team can close them and be better equipped to handle social media crises and shitstorms on an ongoing basis.

#5 Stop all scheduled posts

During a crisis, pre-planned posts on social media are often out of place and unfavorable. In a worst-case scenario, a planned tweet during a crisis could completely derail your crisis management plan. It's critical that all communications be planned, consistent and in an appropriate tone. Therefore, pause all scheduled posts as soon as you put your social media crisis communications plan into effect.

#6 Engage in dialogue - but don't argue

Once you've posted your initial response, it's time for the appropriate staff to work on more in-depth communications. This could be a media release, an official statement, a letter or a video from your CEO.

Social media are predestined to engage in dialogue. Therefore, it is not enough to simply make "one-way" announcements. You will have to engage with people - even those who persistently say very negative things about you. In this case, keep it short and to the point. Don't get into a long discussion about what went wrong and how. Instead, try to move the conversation to a more personal channel, such as private messages. You could also offer a phone number, email address, or other means of communication outside of social media.

Of course, some people will just keep arguing with you until you stop responding. In this case, acknowledge the concerns and frustrations, but don't get drawn into an online fight, as this will not improve the situation. Remember, people are watching you on social media - especially in a crisis. So take the right approach.

#7 Communicate internally

Internal communication is always an essential part of crisis management. It keeps everyone on the same page and helps prevent misinformation and the spread of rumors.

Make sure everyone in the organization knows exactly what they should (or shouldn't) say about the crisis on social media. One option is to distribute pre-approved company messages to all employees, which they could then use on their own personal or professional social media channels as needed.

#8 Last but not least: learn from experience.

Once you have survived the crisis, take the time to debrief and analyze what happened. Therefore, keep a detailed rapport during the event about everything you did and how well it worked.

In addition, the debrief is a good time to bring the entire company together to talk about what everyone learned. Maybe the customer service department had an important insight. Or maybe the communications department has some new guidelines that need to be incorporated into the social media policy.

What's important: Take the time to review your social media policy as well as your crisis communications plan. Think about anything you might add to prevent a similar crisis from occurring in the future.

A shitstorm can come out of nowhere. Are you prepared just in case? Meet with us for a no-obligation sparring partner session. We'll help you identify and anticipate critical issues as quickly as possible so you're ideally prepared.


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