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The Social Media Crisis Check-Up: Risky Business

The summer has been full of tragic news: two airline disasters, killer storms, and scores of apologies from businesses whose social media screw-ups made national news. Crisis is not an “if” for brands, it is a “when.” If you are not operating under the assumption that an issue can turn rapidly into a crisis in today’s social media world, you might be engaged in risky business.

In 2011, Altimeter published a report on the crisis preparedness of businesses and found out that the cause of most crises comes from within a business. The causes, seen below, are still accurate in 2014.


There are five basic risky behaviors brands engage in that can contribute to the escalation of crisis. Even though you may have a crisis communications plan, you can still be rolling the dice with irresponsible business operations. It might be a time for a social media check-up to see if you are engaging in risky behavior.

1. The Negligent Parent

Have you given away the keys to the social media car? I’m not sure why, but there are still major brands trusting their real-time social media content to interns and inexperienced employees. Are we still operating under the delusion that anybody can manage brand social media? If so, we may end up with a social media disaster like American Apparel. Not only was American Apparel outsourcing their social media (red flag), but it was apparent that in an attempt to enter the real-time stream of tagging popular events and holidays, there was no filter or supervision in place to catch the mistake.

I should add that I don't believe age is a criteria for social media smarts. There are an abundance of well-trained, savvy social media managers out there that are young. But it’s important to remember that branded journalism is not about the tools, it is about the messages. Knowing how to post on social media does not qualify you to be a community manager. Even though experts are saying that events like these are harmless and soon forgotten, smart brands will lower their risk by hiring competent trained social media managers.

As crisis expert Jonathan Bernstein said in the above article, “Being a social media manager is about more than knowing how to put all of the platforms to work. If the people behind your accounts aren’t doing their homework, if they don’t know how to spot potential crises, and they aren’t intimately familiar with their audience – including its past – you’re going to run into trouble.”

2. The Ostrich Says, “It’s None Of Your Business”

There is nothing you can do to prevent a disaster like the disappearance of Flight MH370. Even though crisis experts are saying cultural differences played a part in the bungling of crisis communications (PRSA Strategist, Summer 2014), there are valuable lessons to be learned here about withholding important information in the face of a crisis. The heartless text message sent to families aside, the company’s lack of communication was a critical factor in the escalation of the crisis. Not only did the airline handle facts poorly, but they were slow and unresponsive about basic information surrounding the tragedy—information they already had in hand.

Sandra Brodnicki, president of Brodnicki Public Relations wrote, “Should a crisis occur, communicating accurate information quickly is essential. Do so by quickly communicating what you know, when you know it, and by minimizing speculation by addressing rumors, which have a way of taking off, especially through social media.” When there is a void of information, people will fill it with rumors.

3. Fly By The Seat Of Your Pants

In the face of a mounting crisis, brands without a plan can end up with an emotionally charged response that can quickly sink a reputation. The age-old adage is true for crisis: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. And in crisis, the consequences of that risky behavior will affect all aspects of your bottom line. In the Altimeter report above, strategist Jeremiah Owyang said, “Interestingly, we found that 76 percent of these crises could have been prevented or diminished had the brand been prepared and had proper training, staff, and processes to respond.” 

That’s a big number. If I told you that you could lower your chances of a crisis by as much as 76 percent, wouldn’t you be interested? Crisis managers not only suggest practicing for a crisis – called table top exercises – they also recommend that a number of preparation-based operations be integrated into your brand’s culture. Before you make a plan, there are basic rules about crisis you must understand to inform that change of culture. Melissa Agnes, president of Agnes+Day, gives a good synopsis of those new rules in this informative infographic.  

4. No Brand Is An Island

Even though a crisis plan and practice are an excellent start, there is no substitute for implementing crisis prevention practices into your everyday social media operations. First and foremost, this involves listening to what’s going on in the social media universe. Many brands I have worked with say they don’t have time to monitor social media. They are only concerned with creating their own social media content. In doing so, they have neglected an important function of social media: feedback about your brand and how others experience your brand. Communication is a two-way street: talking and listening.

Setting up a listening dashboard is critical to your brand’s success and reputation. Here are some key conversations you need to listen to and advice on how to set up a social media listening dashboard. Many crises can be averted just by listening to what others are saying.

5. The Gambler

A brand that thinks a crisis will never happen to them has some severe blind spots. Ask Penn State how that worked for them. Lack of social media risk analysis is at the top of my reasons why brands get into trouble on social media. According to authors Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel, “we are unaware of the gap between how ethical we think we are and how ethical we truly are.”

A risk analysis is one of the most important tasks you can do to decrease the possibility of an issue turning into a crisis. Bringing in at outside experienced agency to conduct the initial analysis is your best hedge against overlooking those pesky blind spots. Also remember, the key here is regular. "Cultures shift, staffs change over, business practices change," according to Bernstein. Find out where you are vulnerable and fix it. Bringing in a risk manager to analyze the cracks in your cement is humbling, but if you don’t do it regularly, you are gambling with your brand’s reputation and well-being.

Which of these risky behaviors are you engaged in? Time to get a plan to lower your risk.

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