Though SXSW ended a couple of weeks ago, an event put on by Polpeo, a social management service, is still on my mind. They hosted a clinic that simulated brand crisis - a firm's CEO is caught getting drunk, obnoxiously hitting on women, and doing drugs in a bar. Participants were then divided into teams, and then graded on how well they handled the crisis.
Some good lessons came out of the simulation, like learning to humanize a brand through things like emojis. But, more importantly, it highlighted the chaos that ensues when a company doesn't have a social crisis plan in place. There are loads of articles out there dedicated to managing a social media disaster after the crisis is sparked, but very few on how to plan for one. At a time where you need to be calm, cool, and collected, the last thing you want is to have to fly blind during a brand disaster. Getting a social media crisis plan in place keeps that from happening.
Have a chain of command
This is key - someone needs to be in charge during any crisis, or nothing will get done. Normally, the head of your crisis team is going to be the manager of your marketing or social media department. But who is going to handle community management? Who will deal with the press? Who is going to handle cross-departmental problems, like human resource complaints? Some social media consultants advise you get the higher-ups' approval for everything; I disagree. Not every problem has to make it to the CEO. I trust my social media team to deal with low-level crises, like angry customers attacking us on Twitter. Get a team of people you trust together, and only get involved when major problems rear their head. Otherwise you may wind up having to approve every, single step.
Plan for common problems
Crises can be set off by anything, but there are a few causes you can pre-plan for. The first step to handling a crisis is to identify where the complaint or problem is coming from. You may not be able to fully plan for a CEO getting caught doing drugs in a bar, but there are a few common scenarios. Trolls can cause problems, but normally are just trying to get a rise so all you need to do it monitor what they are saying. Customer complaints, another common problem, should be answered and solved before the spiral into a crisis. Angry, or ex, employees can be reached out to and, if that doesn't work, you can address the problem if you feel you must - normally you don't. Every business is different, but you should have a pretty good idea of the most common problems and complaints you get. Run through them with your crisis team.
An important part of handling a brand crisis is to have a consistent message. And, for some scenarios, you can build a framework for that message. Don't write-up any canned answers, but hit the factors that normally help solve the problem. Take the example of an angry customer - you need to reach out to them, acknowledge their complaint, and solve it. What language do you normally use to calm down a customer? Use it to create a few points to hit with every message, which can then be tailored to the situation.
When it comes to scenarios that are harder to plan for, you still need to be consistent - you just won't have that framework. Your crisis team needs to be ready to craft a response, and then you'll need a system in place to monitor feeds to get that response where it needs to go. A CMS will go a long way to help you do just that.
Finally, put your plan into action. Make up a crisis, or have someone else make up a crisis. A mad customer that won't stop complaining publicly, a scandal involving someone in upper-management, a notable failure in your product or service. Get your team together, and let them figure out how to respond. See how long it takes and what they chose to do. Then review everything with them and make sure everyone involved is happy with how they handled everything.
Business crises are nothing new - social media just changes the way they have to be handled. Even small businesses can benefit by having a plan in place for dealing with problems as they arise. A quick, planned response is normally more effective than a delayed one. Make sure you have a system for dealing with these problems, and you'll keep a crisis from becoming a disaster.