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Using social media in a crisis: 7 best practices

July 7, 2014 • Company News

Cindy Bodenstein

Cindy Bodenstein, Marketing Manager at ContinuitySA.

There’s a gas explosion at your main manufacturing plant: lives are at risk and production is likely to be affected…. Your call centre has been hit by an outbreak of food poisoning after a team party and is running at 20 percent capacity… Your products are contaminated and you need to perform a large scale product recall.

These scenarios may vary from business to business, but the fact is that crises do occur, usually when you least expect them. When the world’s eyes are on you in real time, thanks to social media, there is very little leeway to sit back and figure what to do next. The company’s reputation is on the line, and depends on how quickly its executive team reacts: chaos is not an option! The fundamental principle underlying good crisis management is to have a well-rehearsed and simple plan already set up, with protocols that spell out what each role-player has to do… and how.

“A key part of any company’s crisis management plan must be communication—regularly keeping customers and all other stakeholders, including internal ones, updated on developments may be the single difference between success and failure during a crisis,” says Cindy Bodenstein, Marketing Manager at ContinuitySA, Africa’s leading provider of Business Continuity Management solutions. “In today’s connected world, social media considerations have become a crucial element in the communication strategy.”

Because they offer a certain immediacy and access to a wide audience, social media strategies and tactics are particularly effective in a crisis situation, when getting the right message out to interested parties needs to happen as quickly as possible. Of equal importance, says Bodenstein, is the fact that social media platforms offer a way for stakeholders, and the public at large, to communicate one-on-one with the company.

“Listening to what people are saying is one of the most valuable uses of social media—along with the ability to react quickly to what they are saying,” remarks Bodenstein. “In a crisis situation, social media can help you track a developing crisis and, to an extent, control it, but only if you are responsive and empathetic.”

Based on international best practice and on its experience in helping leading companies develop crisis management protocols, ContinuitySA has identified the following best practices for using social media effectively in a crisis situation:

1. Make sure you have a plan in place before the crisis occurs. In particular, understand which audiences you want to reach and which social media tactics are most appropriate; for example, LinkedIn is effective for a business audience, whereas Twitter or Facebook might be more suited for reaching consumers in general.

2. Develop strategic relationships with key audiences before the crisis hits. Know who you must communicate with when a crisis hits.

3. Listen and then respond to the concerns of the public in general or your audience in particular. If you communicate regularly and appropriately, people will be more likely to continue to use that particular channel rather than others where you may not be present.

4. Be honest and transparent when you communicate. Social media platforms are supposed to be authentic, so “corporate speak” is usually not appropriate. By the same token, responsibility for posting on social media channels should not be delegated to junior employees or outsourced to communications service providers that may not know the company culture and communication protocols well enough.

5. Be available to the news media. The media represent an important audience as well as a channel, and media companies and journalists are using social media extensively themselves.

6. Communicate with sympathy and understanding. Crisis communication typically takes place in an environment in which the audience is full of uncertainty and sometimes fear. The first rule should be to emphasise with those who have concerns.

7. Provide guidance to members of the public on avoiding risk or harm in the wake of the crisis. In instances where the crisis could have implications for the wider community—a product recall or a fire, for example—then the company should make every effort to limit the damage by providing pertinent information to the appropriate stakeholders.

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