Is Your Organization’s Social Media Creating - Or Solving - A Crisis? Expert Tips To Incorporate Social Media Into Your Emergency Communications

  • 09 May 2018

Bob Clark, emergency preparedness expert and author, joins Danielle Ricci, Sr. Director of Marketing for AlertFind, to lead a discussion about the best strategies for incorporating social media into crisis communications.

Danielle Ricci: Let’s start by outlining the role that social media plays in crisis communications – both as a cause and a solution.

Bob Clark: Social media itself has been around now for about 20 years. Although it’s only really been used for crisis management about half that time. In this current state, I think it’s probably worth saying that there are around 200 platforms, although their success and survival is certainly not guaranteed. Probably some have already failed and disappeared, including the first platform to be launched in 1997, which was called SixDegrees.

One of the most important things about managing a crisis is an organization’s ability to communicate with its stakeholders. And that information flow can be both outbound and inbound. Some companies forget that you need to listen as well as speak.

What social media has provided is a means of complementing rather than replacing the existing channels that we already use, such as phone, SMS texting, email, television, press and so on. So when an emergency occurs, social media could be one of the channels your organization decides to use for managing its communications.

But what is important is if your organization does not have a crisis management communication plan, just deciding to use social media in isolation is unlikely to work. It’s not something you can look upon as a plug-and-play panacea. It’d probably cause you more problems than it will actually solve.

And on the other hand, social media could actually be the cause of your crisis. It’s very multi-faceted and it has a very dark and ugly side too, which many people don’t necessarily appreciate. So there’s a number of different potential scenarios behind social media actually generating a crisis.

For example, an insider threat where an employee uses the company account to proliferate malicious information or opinions. Your social media platforms can be hacked. One example is when Burger King found that their logo had been replaced by a McDonald’s logo. Okay, everyone had a good laugh at their expense. But it’s still a serious situation which could obviously cause serious repercussions.

A genuine customer complaint can go viral. So your company can very quickly look like the villain. And to make matters worse, it may not actually be your company that caused the problem in the first place. It could be one of your suppliers who failed. But people are looking in your direction because you appear to be the guilty party.

Another example is an influencer, and that’s someone with a large social media following. They can post something that has a detrimental effect on your company. A good example is the TV personality Kylie Jenner who tweeted, “sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me… ugh this is so sad.” The impact was Snapchat’s parent company, Snap, saw an immediate devastating drop of $1.3 billion in their market value.

Danielle Ricci: I know some emergency preparedness experts will say “You have to communicate in channels that your employees are really familiar with already.” What do you recommend?

Bob Clark: Well, yes, up to a point. You need to make sure that whatever channels you’re using that your employees are familiar with them and your training includes these channels. It’s a little bit like rehearsing anything. Whether you’re sheltering in place or evacuating a building, if people know what to do because they’ve rehearsed, then things become more natural and instinctive.

So I would put that caveat on the introduction of a new communication channel – people need to be trained. Don’t just expect them to adopt it without any sort of planning, without any thought, and in particular, without any training.

Danielle Ricci: When you’re in a situation where social media is causing a crisis, how do you get that back under control? Can you share a few business examples to illustrate this?

Bob Clark: Well, first of all, it would depend on how the crisis is created. In one scenario, you may be aware of the crisis because it’s something that’s happened within your organization. Whether there’s been a fire, a cyber attack or something else. So at that point in time, you have the opportunity to break the story, to own the story, and control the story. The worst thing you can do in a crisis is say nothing and do nothing because when it breaks, when it becomes public, people will assume you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re not in control.

On the other hand, there may be other reasons for why you’re lacking in that respect and it may simply be that you’re not prepared. But a lot of crises can be caused by things beyond your control. And I think that you may find yourself, in the first instance, on the back foot.

So you’ve got to be prepared to apologize and take responsibility. If it’s a case of, “Look, we found our procedures were wanting. We are going to look into it and we’re going to make whatever changes are needed,” then make sure you do it.

Because one of the things that other people don’t realize is that social media has turned crisis management into a spectator sport. And anyone who’s got a smartphone can watch, and if they feel so inclined, they can actually join in. So it’s pretty much having your dirty laundry aired in public.

Danielle Ricci: Is there a way that companies can have a game plan for if x, y, z happens, here’s how we’re going to communicate that to the public, our employees and stakeholders?

Bob Clark: Go back to your basic business continuity plan. You’re going to perform a risk assessment. What are the threats that the company is facing or could face? Let’s build a risk profile, and we can identify those risks that we’re particularly concerned about and those that we don’t care about. And we can identify those that we can’t do anything about, we just need to be as prepared as we can, such as an earthquake.

So if you’ve done your risk assessment, and you’ve been effective, that’s going to help you in preparing your crisis management plan and your crisis management communications as part of that. It’s not as though social media has changed the process in that way.

What social media has done is just provide a very very powerful and highly visible means of inbound and outbound communications.

So by taking that approach and saying, “What could go wrong? What are the threats? Let’s assess those,” then you’re going to be able to come up with a more realistic crisis management and a communication plan which should deal with most eventualities. No company can identify every risk that they face. It’s just not possible. Things just come out the woodwork and you can learn from other companies’ experience.

Danielle Ricci: Could you offer an example of a company or a CEO that you feel really used social media well, was able to pivot and use the channel to address the crisis and actually help mitigate any potential damage to their business?

Bob Clark: I would go further. I would compare Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, with former BP CEO Tony Hayward and his handling of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In the first instance, Branson was on holiday and there had been a train crash in the U.K. involving a Virgin train. He cancelled his holiday, flew to the event, and went on camera almost in tears.

You felt what he was saying was coming from the heart. What he was saying the Virgin Group would be doing, you believed. And he delivered. He was just someone who you could say, “Yeah. If I found myself in that situation, I think I would want to follow his lead and try to behave in the way that he has.”

He said, “At this point in time, we don’t know what’s caused this particular incident.” And as it happened, it was a fault with the tracks. Now this is one example of where you, as an organization, could find yourself facing criticism and finger pointing.

But, in this particular incidence, it wasn’t anything to do with Virgin. They just happened to be the victim along with the people that were in the train.

Now, if you compare that with Hayward, who decided that because he was CEO, he was the person that should front the company during the Deepwater Horizon disaster. And if you want to see how not to communicate during a crisis, then look at the YouTube video where he said on camera that no one wanted this crisis resolved more than he did because “he’d like his life back.”

Here we had a situation where there had been fatalities, many injuries, people had lost their livelihoods and the impact on the environment was unprecedented. And this guy was acting like he just wanted to get back on the golf course and this was just an inconvenience. That did not go down well. In fact, it was a PR disaster.

So here we’ve got two examples of the good and the bad. You need to make sure that whoever’s fronting your company in a situation like that is the right person. And you may not have the right person in your company, and you may have to consider going to a specialist PR company that will deal with this type of situation for you.

Moreover, the person that stands up in front of television crews and the press is probably not going to be the same person that’s manning the social media platforms for your company. So you’re going to have different levels of communication, and this is why your communication plan is important. You cannot underestimate the value and the significance of that communication plan.

Danielle Ricci: How should companies react when there’s a crisis but it doesn’t directly affect them?

When there’s been a major high profile incident, it’s become social media etiquette that companies should stop marketing. Now, in the case of the 2013 Boston Marathon, many companies stopped marketing. They found it inappropriate to publish their messages to their clients and prospective clients after the atrocity that had occurred.

However, Adidas continued to market and they sent an email to all the marathon participants with the subject line, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!”

Now, how inappropriate was that, especially given that several people have been killed, and many others had suffered life-changing injuries?

During this same time, food site Epicurious tweeted out the following: “In honor of Boston and New England, may we suggest: whole-grain cranberry scones!” and “Boston, our hearts are with you. Here’s a bowl of breakfast energy we could all use to start today:”

I honestly do not know what they were thinking. Do they really think that their whole grain cranberry scones were going to make the whole effect of the bombing just go away? They came in for an awful lot of criticism and quite rightly so.

This just proves the point that It’s just the right thing to do to stop marketing during a tragedy. Don’t try and compete with that. I think it’s something which an awful lot of companies, I hope, learned from.

Danielle Ricci: How should companies respond when they make a more minor gaffe on social media?

Bob Clark: This example is a little bit tongue-in-cheek. Virgin Atlantic put an advertisement on Facebook saying that there had never been a better time to visit London. And someone at British Airways – keep in mind British Airways is a competitor of Virgin Atlantic – actually shared the Virgin post on the British Airways account. So it looked as though British Airways were endorsing advertising on behalf of Virgin.

And while it’s not clear whether any heads rolled over at British Airways, we found ourselves in the situation of a little bit of playful back and forth between the two. And Virgin came back and said, “Thanks British Airways! So kind of you to share! #onethingweagreeon #flyvirginatlantic.” Then British Airways updated their post with “Finally we agree on something except for how to get there. #FlyBAtoLondon.”

Sometimes companies will make mistakes on social media, and everyone has a good laugh. No damage done and we all move on. That was a good case in point.

Danielle Ricci: That’s a very artful way to handle that little gaffe.

Bob Clark: Sometimes humor can be the best way to handle it. But you need to be sure of your audience and of the potential impact that it’s likely to have. And sometimes a bit of tongue-in-cheek response is the best answer.

Danielle Ricci: Let’s look at the use of social media in emergency situations. How can companies use social media in emergency preparedness? For example, how it was used by first responders in Hurricane Sandy vs. Hurricane Harvey.

Bob Clark: Sandy occurred in 2013 and Harvey was in 2017. It appeared that Sandy had marked a major shift in the use of social media in disasters. Government agencies throughout the North East, and especially New Jersey, were very proactive in using social media to communicate with the public. First responders were sharing information and maintaining an awareness of what was going on. So it seemed like a very well-oiled machine in that respect.

But here’s the curious thing in my view. Harvey occurs some four years later and many people took to social media looking for help. However, it was a US Coast Guard post on Twitter that was telling people they should refrain from using social media and use 911 instead.

But the trouble was that the 911 system was completely overloaded, and dispatchers just couldn’t cope with the sheer volume of calls. In Houston alone, there were an estimated 56,000 calls in the first 15 hours.

So when comparing the two situations, it would appear that the Northeastern states, and specifically New Jersey, certainly came in for some praise in the way they handled it. They were prepared and used social media well. Whereas Texas, when Harvey came ashore, they just weren’t ready for it.

If you have a communication system which is broken or becomes broken as a result of a crisis, you need alternatives. So if you’re planning to use email to communicate with someone and there’s something wrong with the email service, what’s your plan B? How else are you going to communicate with whoever you need to be sending messages to or receiving messages from?

So it’s important that we look at social media in a more serious light and think about how best to use it during an emergency. How are we going to deal with natural disasters, whether they’re hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes or pandemics? We have this potentially very, very powerful tool at our disposal. Why don’t we use it?

Danielle Ricci: That raises an important point for businesses. During an emergency, their employees may communicate with them outside of their emergency notification system. They may use Twitter or Facebook to reach out. Is that something that businesses have to adapt to as well?

Bob Clark: It’s certainly something businesses should consider because one of their stakeholder groups is their employees. Now, the employees may all work in one single building or they may be spread all over the country.

So companies have to determine how they’re going to communicate with their employees. If they’re going to send out an email, what happens if there’s a problem with the email service and you don’t get it. What’s plan B?

The other danger of using social media is that it can be a public forum if you’re not careful. You need to decide what channels are we going to use, how are we going to use it, what are we using it for? And there may be some communications that you’re not going to put on Twitter, because then the whole world can see it. But nevertheless you still need to think, how are we going to communicate with our employees during a crisis?

Danielle Ricci: Could you use that public forum and post a reminder to employees, “Please refer to our emergency notification system,” “Please use our employee check-in number” or “Please use our well-check two-way texting within that system.”

Bob Clark: However you want to do that, the most important thing is that people know about the communication channels in advance of an emergency.

Don’t wait until a crisis hits before you start telling people how to communicate with you, as their employer. This is something that people should know in advance. One international corporation that I worked for had little plastic communication cards that fit in a wallet and had all the contact numbers you might need to know in the event of a crisis. This card was replaced on a regular basis as things changed. We found these cards to be very, very effective. Everyone knew in advance what to do and how to do it and how to make contact.

Danielle Ricci: How can companies go from being reactive to being proactive in their social media monitoring?

Bob Clark: Well, let me start by saying when you’re being reactive, you are in crisis management mode. You’re in reaction mode.

Companies used to look at all the papers to see if there’s anything about their organization that they needed to know about or react to. Now, I feel like social media is a million times more effective than the newspapers ever were in that context. Because things can happen in an instant, you don’t have to wait for tomorrow’s papers to find out what people were saying about you. Things can go global very quickly.

You need to be consistently monitoring social media to see if there is anything about your organization, your products, your services, etc. So, the larger the organization, the more likely they’re going to need to look for tools that monitor social media and Hootsuite comes to mind. So, you’re putting in the parameters you want these tools to use when looking for any references to your company, your CEO, etc. And this will provide you with the information that you need to monitor effectively.

When you get to the point where you say, “There is something happening that we need to react to,” then that’s when you consider going into crisis management mode. One example is someone who goes online to complain about one of your products and suddenly it escalates with many people suddenly complaining about your products.

Danielle Ricci: And what was an isolated incident has now become a tidal wave.

Bob Clark: We never had that before social media came along. And suddenly, 10,000 little problems become one massive problem. So how you respond to that is important. And at that point in time, you should have long since gone into crisis management mode to say, “This is what we’re going to do. This is how we’re going to deal with it.”

You want to activate your communication strategy and put your communication plan into effect, along with any other actions you need to take to deal with the crisis.

Danielle Ricci: We’ve set the stage to talk about how to actually create a crisis communications plan. What should that include?

Robert Clark: The first question you need to be asking is, “Who are your stakeholders?” Some will be internal, such as your employees, and most will be external to your company, like your customers.

The next question to answer is how are we going to communicate? To do this, you need multiple channels identified so if plan A fails, what’s plan B? And to some extent, you’re going to need to go to the individuals, in some cases, and say, “How can you receive information from us?” You can ask, “Can we communicate with you on email, SMS, social media or can we phone you?”

Then they’ll give an indication as to what their preferences are. Another thing to consider if if you have people who only have one means of communication – their smartphone – then is it your responsibility to come up with some alternate means of communicating with them?

When it comes to your stakeholders, they’re probably going to be fairly cooperative in terms of saying, “Well, if you can’t get us on the phone, you can get us on email. Or if you can’t get us on email, then use my cell phone number.” So they can provide you with multiple ways of getting in touch.

Danielle Ricci: Is that where your social media piece comes in? Let’s say I have 1,000 people that I have to notify. First, we’re going to do our ENS notifications. And then maybe social media serves as a backup communication channel.

Bob Clark: Yeah. If you think of the situation with Kylie Jenner and Snapchat, if Snapchat was her preferred means of receiving information, and she didn’t open it, it’s the old story about you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. So you have to send the information to a channel they’ll use.

You can do your best to communicate, but if no one’s listening, that’s another challenge. In the California wildfires last year, first responders did not use social media to contact people. They used SMS because if a text comes in, people tend to read it, whereas if you’re not active on the social media platform, you don’t necessarily see a message that might come in.

So the next question you need to cover is what are we going to communicate? If you’d look at various scenarios that you’ve identified through your risk assessment, then you will have a number of scenarios that you are prepared to respond to. One of the risks should be a social media crisis, either created by the company itself or by external forces like customers.

With that in mind, you can prepare some outbound communications or templates. It may not be the precise words that you want to use, but it will save you a lot of time and effort if you’ve actually got these things ready to roll. You just dot the I’s, cross the T’s, put in the appropriate names, put in the details of whatever’s happened, and that’s it. They’re done. There will be others where you have got to react to what is going on, and consequently, you can’t necessarily pre-script these things.

So when it comes to social media, you need someone who is empowered to actually communicate. And this is where, again, your experience and your training is vital. You do not want someone sending out messages on your behalf who can barely spell social media, let alone knows how to use it. So that’s imperative.

Do not look around the organization saying, “So who’s not really busy? Oh, Fred over there, he’s got a bit of spare time. He can become the new social media manager,” and Fred has never used Twitter.

You’ve got to find the right people with the right skills and experience or you’re potentially going to make embarrassing situations even worse, simply because you’ve got the wrong person in the job.

Danielle Ricci: Businesses need to recognize that social media administration is a legitimate skillset, and it’s something that you need to have reflected on your team. As a business, it is important. And we’ve demonstrated time and time again in this conversation that if you get it wrong, it has a real dollar and cents impact on your business.

Bob Clark: Yes. And obviously, money talks. So that should be an incentive to organizations to say, “Right. Let’s take this seriously.” Social media’s not going to go away. You can’t ignore it. And if you’re not ready to deal with it, however big or small you are, then you’ll be the worse for it.

And for the final point, you need to think about who is actually going to do the communication. Who is going to stand in front of the television cameras? Who is going to speak to the press? Who is going to be the social media guru? You may have a number of people assigned to these different tasks.

Depending on the size of the organization, you may have a team which is responsible for communications and PR. For smaller companies, this is more of a challenge. But the likelihood is that smaller companies are going to attract less attention of the media. But every company needs to take social media seriously.

So how do you deal with it? Obviously, putting the right person in the appropriate communication position is vital. It’s one of the key aspects you need to cover in your communication plan.

Danielle Ricci: You had a good piece of advice earlier where you said if you don’t have these skills in-house to look for a crisis manager or a PR specialist who can come in and help you. Either to help you get a plan set up or to help if you find yourself in the middle of something terrible like a plane crash.

Bob Clark: A plane crash is a very good example. A lot of companies these days are global companies. And consequently, they are active somewhere in the world 24/7. If their crisis management team is working 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., how are you going to deal with crises that occur outside your normal office hours?

Take the example of the Asiana Flight 214 crash in San Francisco in 2013. How many hours passed before the corporate leadership responded? So if you are running a 24/7 or 24/365 operation, then you should have a crisis management presence that matches. Otherwise, again, it could cost you.

Danielle Ricci: Any other advice you’d offer about creating a communications plan?

Bob Clark: Yes. You need to test and validate your plan. Here’s the difference between testing and validation: testing in today’s business continuity arena is, “Does it work? Yes, it does. No, it doesn’t. If I press that light switch over there will the light go on? Yes, it does. No, it doesn’t.” It’s a straightforward binary test.

Validation is looking at a far more complex set of parameters in terms of, “Does the plan work, or does this aspect of the plan work?” You need to give your employees the opportunity to rehearse what they should be doing in a particular set of circumstances.

Now, whether it’s someone in IT trying to fix a computer problem or someone on the crisis management team going over their social media response, do they know what they should be doing? And part of the plan, actually, establishes just how ready an organization is to deal with a serious crisis. So the validation side of it is important. If you’re going to have a plan which has not been validated, then as far as I’m concerned all you’ve got is a strategy.

More on