More often than not, businesses are judged first and foremost by their social media presence. If and when a crisis hits a business, it will very often start (and if not start, at least play out) in the very public sphere of social media.
You have no doubt noticed an increase in the amount of PR crises making the headlines in recent years.
These range from the relatively harmless Marks and Spencer biscuit fiasco (which all started with a single social media post) to the far more serious Ashley Madison data breach (which reportedly resulted in a slew of suicides).
Because a company has very little control of what people write about on social media, coupled with the fact that an interesting social media post can go viral in a matter of hours (if not minutes!), social media can often be the place where a crisis starts, or the place where news (true or false) about an existing crisis spreads.
One great (well, not for British Airways) example of how social media users can create big problems for any companies that they perceive to have wronged them is the case of Hasan Syed. Hasan, a Chicago-based business owner, became frustrated with BA when the airline lost his father’s luggage resulting in Hasan having to cancel a trip to Dusseldorf, Germany.
Rather than sit by passively, Hasan spent $1,000 to promote a negative tweet aimed directly at BA. The tweet, which read, “Don’t fly with @British_Airways. They can’t keep track of your luggage.”, was read by over 50,000 Twitter users and the story was picked up by various media publications.
One man’s frustration, combined with the tools available to all social media users, created a crisis for BA that, just a few short years ago, wouldn’t have been possible.
Likewise, in April 2013, Hyundai experienced a PR crisis that, really, should never have happened. The crisis involved an advert that appeared to show a man attempting to commit suicide using the exhausts from his Hyundai car. However, since the Hyundai ix35 (the model depicted in the advert) is a fuel cell car, and emits only water vapour, the man is unable to carry his plan out.
So, it is, at least in my opinion (and I hope you agree), a tasteless idea for an advert. However, the ad was never posted by Hyundai and indeed was never supposed to be broadcast at all. Rather, the ad was posted by an ad agency on an unsecured site and was quickly picked up by a London-based blogger whose father had committed suicide in a similar way to that which the advert depicted.
The story was then picked up by more than 100 global media companies which led to every single social media post published by Hyundai in the immediate aftermath of the crisis receiving a negative response that referenced the advert. Additionally, the hashtag #poorhyundaiad gained traction following the crisis and exposed hundreds of thousands of social media users to what was going on.
And all this happened despite Hyundai not sanctioning the ad and without it ever being planned for public consumption – it was a ‘creative’ idea (presumably amongst many others) that rightly got dismissed. But it goes to show just how negative an impact it can have on a brand’s reputation.
Both of these examples show how social media and the Internet in general can give rise to PR crises that, in the past (for better or for worse), would not have amounted to much. Of course, airlines lose luggage all the time; and, in years gone by, an advert never intended to be seen by an audience would never have become public at all.
Social media not only gives consumers a voice that previously they lacked, but it also allows information to spread at rates never witnessed before. The fact that a single social media post can go viral has been exploited to great effect by many companies as part of their marketing campaigns. However, the flipside of any post’s potential to go viral is that those posts which damage a company’s brand can spread just as quick. If not more quickly.
A crisis can happen to any organisation regardless of size, they are inherently unpredictable, and can wreak havoc for those who experience them. It’s clear, then, that all companies must have a plan for how to manage a PR crisis.
How to Prepare for A Social Media Crisis
…Understand Your Audience
Understanding who your biggest endorsers and detractors are online can enable you to reach out to relevant people when a crisis hits. These are people who are likely to take an interest in any crisis you face, and may play a critical role in alleviating or perpetuating it (especially if they are influencers, i.e., people who have a substantial online following themselves).
To do this, you need to use social listening tactics. Social listening is the process of monitoring digital media channels in order to find out what is being said about you, your competitors, and other topics of interest. There are many aspects of social listening (listed in-depth in the hyperlink above), however, in terms of crisis comms, customer sentiment and audience profiling are the most important.
Analysing customer sentiment allows you to gather insights about whether your customers are happy or not. By using tools (I’ll link to some in the final section of this article) to filter what’s being said, you can see how followers feel about your brand in general. This will allow you to gauge the tone of any communication you release in the midst of a crisis. Additionally, tracking customer sentiment may even allow you to spot a crisis when it’s in is nascent stages.
Audience profiling gives you an understanding of your audience’s personality – what they like, what they don’t, what they care about, and what the fear – as well as geographic data, age, education level, occupation, and so on. In terms of crisis comms, audience profiling can be used to identify your influencers. When a crisis hits, you should consider reaching out to the most important of these in order to distribute approved information – they can play a powerful role in amplifying the correct version of events or helping dispel rumours.
Understand What Constitutes an Appropriate Reaction and Prepare What You Can
You should attempt to avoid making a crisis comms decision in the heat of the moment. Although not always possible, you should, prior to a crisis emerging, have an understanding of how to react in a crisis situation. One hundred percent appropriate responses can’t be created in advance since a crisis is, by its very nature, unpredictable, so all of your crisis communication should be guided by what’s going on around you.
That said, you can still plan some things. As such, the first step when it comes to preparing for a crisis is to plan your external communication strategy. Your plan should be shared with all employees (from your most junior members to board level executives).
Your plan should:
- Identify which external communication channels will be used in the event of a crisis (e.g., social channels, media channels, blog posts, and executive videos).
- Explain what tone of voice to use when a crisis hits. Every employee is an ambassador for your brand, and training that ensures how they engage with people on social media during a crisis will ensure a consistent message and tone. In general, a suitable response will:
- Admit culpability where appropriate, and show and demonstrate empathy with those affected
- Explain any relevant extenuating circumstances
- Correct any misinformation that may be circulating
- Explain how you have or plan to react to the crisis
- Explain what measures you are taking to ensure that a similar event doesn’t occur in the future
- Identify different types of crisis, with no scenario being considered too far-fetched, thus taking into account all possibilities and what-ifs.
- Define what counts as a “crisis”, and when such a crisis hits who this should be communicated to. (It is especially important that your social teams are aware of this, since it is often they who spot a potential crisis first). Knowing the escalation protocol in advance can help response times and enable the right messages and responses to go out in a timely and sensitive fashion.
- Contain crisis best practice guidance, such as responding to a crisis on the platform where it first appeared.
When a crisis hits, it’s important that you release a holding statement within (ideally) around 15-30 minutes. Such a statement simply tells your audience that you are aware of a situation and that you are responding. A good holding statement will give timelines for action and will tell people where you will be posting any further updates.
Drafting different holding statement templates based on potential crises you have identified will allow you to communicate as soon as possible, and make sure your voice is heard.
You should also consider creating a dark site. In the event that your site goes down in the midst of a crisis, you need to have an alternative platform from which to disseminate information. A dark site enables an organisation to provide updates on a crisis, acts as a hub of information, and a link to social platforms.
Using a mobile-optimised content management system or hosting site such as WordPress, your dark site should be easy to update from anywhere in the world even from just a smartphone.
The Tools Which Can Help
Social media management tools can be used to mitigate the harmful effects from a PR crisis. The best of these tools allow their users:
- To analyse and understand data relating to their audiences (so that gauging customer sentiment and carrying out audience profiling are relatively easy tasks).
- To access a social media inbox so that they can respond to all incoming messages, tweets, posts, etc., from a single place.
- To use content creation and scheduling tools which will make it far easier to create a mid- or post-crisis social media campaign.
- To communicate with other social media managers internally in an efficient manner.
- To access as a platform on which pre-approved content (such as a template holding statements, etc.) can be stored and shared.
There are lots of social media management tools available. And deciding which one best suits your needs can be difficult.
Luckily, however, iag.me recently partnered with g2crowd.com in order to find out what the best social media tools were. Based on reviews and ratings from real social media management tool users, they created this infographic which details the top rated tools and shows the areas in which they excel.
If you’re still contemplating which social media management too can best help you prepare and deal with a PR crisis, check out the infographic. It’s a great place to begin learning about social media management tools, and to find out which one may be best suited to your organisation.
Are you interested in crisis comms? Or perhaps you already experienced a social media PR crisis? Either way, I’d love to hear from you – whether that’s pointing out something I’ve missed in the article or just to share your thoughts and experiences.