Crisis Communications for the Social Media Age


We’ve all learned that good news travels fast online, but bad news travels faster. Now, with social networks, blogs and microblogs, the speed with which bad news can travel online is staggering, as everyone can get in on the conversation almost instantly. What can any of us — individuals, organizations and companies — do to handle a social media communications crisis?

After publishing my 10 Golden Rules of Social Media, I’ve been asked by a number of people what to do when things go wrong in the social mediasphere. Anyone who is putting themselves out there using social media tools is bound to encounter moments of crisis — some as large as the Domino’s fiasco, others as small as an old-fashioned person-to-person flame war.

My advice is to plan now. Don’t wait for that communications crisis to take place before planning for how you’ll handle the fallout when something bad (inevitably) happens. Here’s a blueprint you can use for your own plan.

1. Pay attention. Whether you are using Google Alerts (s goog) or Twilert or any other monitoring service to see when your name or brand name is mentioned, setting up “digital listening posts” is essential to help learn about not just the good things people are saying about you, but the bad things as well. Getting an early “heads up” can make all the difference in the world between crisis and total disaster.

2. Review context. Before you panic and jump the gun to respond to what might appear to be a crisis, dig a little deeper to make sure you understand what is being said and why. You don’t want to enter the conversation until you have a firm grasp on the issues being raised.

3. Address promptly. Timeliness is everything when dealing with and defusing the crisis. Every day, every hour, every minute you agonize over what to do — or ignore the situation altogether — is time wasted.

4. Acknowledge first. Once you figure out what has happened and what some of the emotions are behind it, make sure to address these issues or emotions in your responses. Like any good interpersonal communications, start with statements like “I understand you’re frustrated” or “We realize this is a confusing situation.” Give credence to the other party’s feelings and perceptions. They may not be correct, but they are valid in that they’re what they believe and feel.

5. Don’t overthink. Running through committees, endless drafts and approval processes to get a response out there can cause far more damage than good. As long as you have taken the time to assess the situation and can take a rational, respectful tone in your response, even an awkward response is OK to start with, and buys you time to continue to respond to the problem.

6. Be open. If you’re upset, nervous, worried, shocked — don’t be afraid to express that as well. People want to see a human response to a crisis, not an overproduced, formulaic or canned reply. When there is a crisis, there are people involved. Pretending there are no emotions mixed in the mess is a surefire way to lose credibility with others. Domino’s CEO responded pretty quickly and openly. However, check out his response to the crisis. The CEO never once looks at the camera. If you are going to be open and forthcoming in your response, at least look straight at the camera at some point. Even when reading from a teleprompter, you can set it up so your eyes are directed at the camera. Otherwise, you’ll look shifty and untrustworthy.

7. Fix the problem. If the crisis is bringing a problem to your attention, admit it, address it and fix it. If something is wrong and you can make it right, do it. If something isn’t really wrong but someone perceives that it is wrong, don’t dismiss their concerns. Take every exchange seriously, and do your best. That is all anyone can really expect. If you make sincere efforts and consistently take the high road, you stand to gain some goodwill, even if the problem is not entirely resolved.

8. Tell your story. Telling your own story throughout the “fixing” process is another good way of helping defuse the issue. Giving updates such as “We’re still looking into that bug that caused your data loss,” and “Please contact us privately so we can make amends to this situation” lets anyone paying attention to the situation see something is being done, even some of it has to happen “behind-the-scenes.”

What other things should we think about when it comes to crisis communications in a social media-powered world?