Often, when we hear crisis, we think of a catastrophic event – a natural disaster, mass casualties, panic and hysteria. However, for a brand, a crisis can erupt with one ill-placed post or a post from an unsatisfied customer. Social media has changed the landscape with how consumers interact with brands and organizations, how they receive their news and information, and how they express their feelings. They expect immediate responses and real-time results often leaving brands scrambling to keep up.
It is not a question of if, but when. When will a brand need to react to a crisis. Organizations spend considerable time – or at least they should – developing a crisis communication strategy, and part of this strategy needs to include a social media response. Responding to a crisis on social media should be a continuation of current crisis communication. In a previous role as the director of public relations for the Kansas Department of Agriculture, I prepared for how we would respond to animal or human health crises. We trained every year with FEMA and the USDA for the worst-case scenario – a foot and mouth disease outbreak in our cattle industry.
You see, foot and mouth disease is untreatable and highly contagious among cloven-hooved animals (i.e. cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, deer, etc.) Kansas is the third largest beef producing state in nation and agriculture contributes more than 40 percent to the Kansas economy. (Kansas Agriculture, 2019) An outbreak of foot and mouth disease would be catastrophic to Kansas’ economy. Our planned communication efforts were not only targeted to beef producers to provide real-time updates but also needed to target consumers with the most important message of all: this is not a human health concern; your food is safe.
We knew in order for us to be prepared, we needed to follow these general guidelines:
- Be Active and Engaged
It may seem like a silly first step, but think about it. If you do not establish yourself on social media, how will people know to turn to you for information in the event of a crisis? Establishing yourself as an expert increases your chance of becoming the go-to site during a crisis and potentially reduces the spread of incorrect information.
- Monitor – Be on the lookout
Monitoring social media for emerging issues allows you to be proactive and track online hot-issues. I like to think of monitoring as playing offense as opposed to defense. “It’s hard to deal with a social media crisis you can’t find” (Baer &Teague, 2018). Monitoring will also help you evaluate the emotions surrounding the crisis and help dictate how to respond appropriately.
In our training exercises with FEMA and USDA, we were “graded” on how we (the Department of Agriculture) responded to a foot and mouth outbreak. In our first exercise we failed to acknowledge and communicate the crisis quickly – instead waiting until we had all the facts. Social media does not afford us the luxury of waiting. The longer we waited to respond, the more we saw rumors escalate. “Up-to-date information is important to perceived credibility, because slow updates decrease credibility; nevertheless, posting social media messages too quickly may instead decrease the level of perceived competence of the organization: both too fast and too few slow updates may impact specific credibility perceptions” (Eriksson, 2018, p. 533).
- Tone of Voice
Be human. I think we all can point to instances where we have cringed when an organization gave a generic, cold response to a passionate customer. Our tone on social media, especially when responding to a crisis, must be personal, polite, and professional. It definitely should never be dismissive. If it is appropriate, having an actual person as the source of news has a greater effect on the effectiveness of conveying a message than an anonymous organizational social media account (Eriksson, 2018).
- Listen to Customers
Interpersonal skills still apply to social media. We should work to listen to understand, not simply to respond. Managing social media for the Kansas Department of Agriculture taught me that in order for our responses to not fall on deaf ears, we needed to find mutual ground with the consumers questioning agriculture.
- Embrace Criticism
It’s hard, but necessary to embrace criticism. It wouldn’t be a crisis if it did not adversely affect someone. First rule of embracing criticism, never delete negative comments. The only time it is appropriate to delete negative comments is if a comment violates your stated page guidelines (uses profanity, etc.). “Removing the offending comments may lead to more, harsher comments” (Goldstein, 2017). In fact, we should even go as far as to create a safe place for people to express their feelings. This also allows you to monitor negative comments and have a voice in responding.
- Respond to Customers
No response is still a response and during a crisis, no news is not necessarily good news. As we planned and prepared for a foreign animal disease outbreak, we identified that there were a lot of official statements that needed to be cleared by our legal department before posting. We found that during our first practice exercise there was no way we could get approval in the moment to respond as promptly as we needed to questions coming. Things wentmuchsmoother when we planned ahead and had responses ready to go.
Also, by responding publicly, it allows you to have an open conversation and others can see your responses.
- Create a landing page
Some of the prep work we did to prepare for a crisis was to build a crisis landing page that stored all of our fact sheets and information and a chronological timeline of official responses and updates in one place. “Websites and social media platforms need to be updated 24/7. People will be expecting interaction on social media platforms” (Goldstein, 2017). A crisis landing page also ensures that your organization’s entire website does not crash with an overwhelming number of visitors.
- Arm your army
Finally, organizations should make sure to provide all staff with information and talking points so contradictory information is not provided. People will call and reach out to employees and others outside of social media. One of the most important principles in a crisis is to communicate inconsistent and inaccurate information. Having talking points and official statements ready for every employee or influencer not only ensures that consumers receive correct information, but it also empowers your employees to help and take ownership in the crisis. During our first practice exercise, we recognized the weak link we created when administrative assistants’ phones began ringing and they were not equipped to respond. This also reinforces an organizations credibility.
Social media has created a unique landscape for communication practitioners. It has positively created a space for consumers to engage with organizations and brands. But, it would be unrealistic to expect this interaction to always be positive. A strong crisis communication plan that includes social media, ensures organizations establish a positive relationship with their customers. Additionally, social media enables organizations to update consumers immediately during a crisis.
Baer, J & Teague, L. (2018) Don’t be scared, Be Prepared: How to Manage a Social Media Crisis. Convince & Convert. Retrieved from: https://www.convinceandconvert.com/social-media-strategy/dont-be-scared-be-prepared-how-to-manage-a-social-media-crisis/
Eriksson, M (2018). Lessons for Crisis Communication on Social Media: A Systematic Review of What Research Tells the Practice. International Journal of Strategic Communication. 12:5, p. 526-551. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/1553118X.2018.1510405
Goldstein, S. (2017, February). A Social Media Checklist for your Crisis Communications Plan. PR News Online. Retrieved from: https://www.prnewsonline.com/water-cooler/how-to-integrate-social-media-into-your-crisis-plan
Kansas Agriculture. (2019) Kansas Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from: https://agriculture.ks.gov/about-kda/kansas-agriculture