A crisis usually arises from one of two factors: ignored smoldering issues or a triggering event. It may catch you by surprise, but it doesn't have to catch you unprepared.
Social media is becoming a necessary partner in crisis communications strategy. It can disseminate needed information at a speed not possible with traditional media, and can raise a corps of citizen journalists that help spread your information quickly. To make social media work for you in a crisis, consider these three must-haves.
1. Pre-Crisis Strategy. Set up a Twitter account now. Mashable has the most comprehensive Twitter primer out there. Even though this can be done when a crisis strikes, it's better to be a credible, experienced veteran when the inevitable rolls around. Three important pieces are needed here, in this order: craft a policy, set up a listening program, and then ease into tweeting.
Who is in charge of tweeting? Who will be in charge of monitoring? In a crisis, what kinds of information will you tweet? When? Will you answer questions, concerns, and misinformation via social media? Like every other aspect of your crisis communications plan, make sure you address (ahead of time) the who, what, when, where, and how in a policy document. I wrote a three-part series on developing an organizational social media policy you can access (here) for ideas.
One of the biggest overlooked strengths of Twitter is search. You can set up searches to monitor mentions of your organization, chief officers, competitors, sector news, or whatever else you'd like to keep an eye on. Coupled with Google Alerts and Google News, these three make a good basic and free listening program. If you are bigger and need a more comprehensive strategy, look for an enterprise level listening suite. It's important to stay ahead of the crisis by using diligent monitoring practices.
After you know your way around Twitter, implement an editorial policy that fits the culture of your organization. If you've been monitoring, you have an idea what best practices look like and what you can handle. Again, the Mashable guide above offers some good suggestions on how to start tweeting. The main thing to remember: be present consistently. That doesn't mean you have to tweet every hour, it just means you have a content strategy that fits your goals, and you are committed to it.
2. Crisis Strategy. The inevitable happens and you are faced with a crisis. It may or may not be your fault--it doesn't matter yet. The first priority is to get information out quickly. In The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management, Jane Jordan-Meier outlines what happens in the critical first stage: fact-finding. The media and the public are looking for basic information: who, what, when, and where. Jordan-Meier says social media can be a game changer in this stage, establishing you as the source of credible information. Take responsibility for the situation (in other words, you are in charge, not necessarily to blame), tell it all, and tell it fast. The 2011 Labor Day weekend blackout in southern California is a good example of how an organization used Twitter effectively in an emergency response. Also, check out how the Red Cross uses Twitter for good examples. Don't be afraid to alter your normal social media editorial policy in a crisis. We saw this work positively in the breaking of the recent Penn State scandal. The bottom line: Twitter can be a credible and quick source of information for a needy public and an inquiring press.
3. Post-Crisis Strategy. After the first three stages of a crisis, Jordan-Meier says the spotlight turns to resolution and fallout. In this stage, the public and press are most interested in finding out, "what are you going to do to ensure that this will never happen again?" If you have an organizational news piece on your website or blog, this is the time when you start to answer those questions there. At this point, Twitter can transition back to its normal function of being a newsfeed. It's important to tweet follow-up events that include resources for those affected by the crisis, and links to your "quick wins" news stories--what you've done to clean things up and what you're going to continue to do.
Every crisis communications policy needs a social media piece. Twitter can be a go-to channel for your organization in a crisis and help accelerate your recovery time. Do you have plans to use Twitter in the event of a crisis? Would you share in the comments below?