By Sharon A.M. MacLean
Many companies still struggle with social media strategies for their business and brands, especially when it comes to a crisis. We’ve had our fair share of calamities over recent days in Alberta and around the world.
Traditionally, corporate communicators had well-practised systems in place to take control of events on the ground to ensure clear lines of communication. I met with one experience in my early career that I have never forgotten
A group-home emergency involving “negative behaviour management” of children led to a media maelstrom in Grande Prairie where I was working on a routine communications audit. Government personnel clearly were at fault and it made my stomach turn. Yet, as the go-to person, I was required to manage the media crisis through a telephone relay that involved Peace River, 2.5 hours north of Grande Prairie where I was located, and Edmonton where wagons were circling around the minister’s office in the Legislature. Stressed employees later said they felt under siege by national media.
Today, the atrocity would have exploded online. Deservedly so.
It’s one thing to watch a video on YouTube go viral. It’s quite another thing to be motivated beyond clicking “Like” on Facebook to register shared outrage or re-tweeting a message without leaving the comfort of your computer—as in the case of BP’s Horizon disaster in 2010. The catastrophe has been described by media analyst, Metrica, as “the first new media and the first social media corporate environmental crisis.” Online activity saw the launch of an interactive website, an interactive pollution map, and the Instant Oil Spill interactive game by Cleaner Future.
In crisis communications, Ethical Corporation says, the volume, speed, and spread of opinions via social media can leave companies with a sense of being “outflanked, outpaced and overwhelmed.” Here are their recommendations combined with a few of my own to survive the instant flood of real-time reactions, comments and questions.
- The whole wide world: There is no option to contain a story to a local operations base. The addition of hashtags turned up the volume forever.
- Tell us now. Social media users won’t wait patiently until the corporate statement is worked out through an old school approval process. Leadership will appear aloof and arrogant.
- Tell us nicely. Users expect social media etiquette to be respected. That means being polite, humble, and transparent. Leaders who shun media interviews will alienate audiences and escalate the crisis.
- Get the story first. Gather as many facts early as possible from trusted sources—despite the craziness of many moving parts. The ability to separate fact from fantasy is served well by instincts like those of an investigative reporter.
- Citizen journalism. This element joins traditional reporting in the search for individual experiences with material that will find its way to a variety of channels in real time.
- Hoax sites. Another very real element that adds to all the confusion. Jump on those fast.
- Credibility and influence. Credible third parties offer independent perspectives—driving hubs of conversation online and off. Best to become familiar with those influencers and their views about your brand—before a crisis hits.
- Black out. Put a hold on all other messaging going out on a regular basis. It will seem insensitive.
- Beware skeletons. This has ever been thus—and becomes even more relevant when it comes to online.
Since my earliest experience with crisis communications, I’ve come to believe that corporate communicators usually have good common sense. Company spokes people need not react to everything they hear. It’s a good idea, though, to listen first—before you engage and act.