How social media has changed crisis and issues handling


Who is responsible for social media during a crisis?   Spending recent weekends on crisis call for a couple of clients confirmed for me how important it is that it’s the PR function which maintains an active watch and control on social media.

The business of managing, and hopefully containing, a crisis through traditional means has changed beyond recognition.  Now, with the almost universal use of Twitter and Facebook (amongst many others), it is no longer the journalist who breaks the story.  These days it is members of the public who are first on the scene as a crisis breaks.  Smartphones enable instant upload of pictures that will be shared and picked up widely before the PRO has even lifted the phone to get the debrief on the incident.  So being on the ball means more than just acting fast in this social media savvy world.

When assessing and creating a strategy for an incident, it is no longer enough to see the issue of a statement to ‘traditional’ media as the first step.  People now have an insatiable appetite for instant answers – we all want and demand immediate gratification.  Furthermore, the lack of a response within minutes is now publicly humiliated with a swift #fail, which might escalate your crisis even further.  Obviously the traditional method of agreeing a set of messages and sticking to them still rings true, as does being consistent and moderate in responding to a breaking issue.  However, the PRO now has to be mindful that not only are immediate responses public property but also, even if they are non-committal, they have to be timely to avoid mass hysteria.  The recent social media request by the police for people to send them pictures of the terrorist incident in Westminster first, plus the complaints about what was put online, demonstrates how emotive the wrong use of a picture can be.

So although the public like it, it is bad news for your holidays if you are on crisis call.  You need much more than to keep a watching brief on the media and have an emergency phone number.  The PRO has, in a way, become a public information officer too.  Where in the past the media was the conduit for mass communication, it is now just one of many routes to reach a wide audience, with social media often being faster and more effective when news breaks.

This evolution of our industry means many things for the aspiring PR person – it means we all have to be social media experts and have the tools to hand all day and every day.  Plus we potentially have to monitor and respond, as appropriate, at any time of the day or night. Clearly it is no longer enough to have an understanding of the media and knowledge of communications – knowing how to use social media to your advantage during a crisis must be a core skillset for us all.

So, when creating your crisis and issues plans with social media in mind, think of the following:

Listening and monitoring – if you know what people think of you already and who is following you, you are halfway to understanding what to do when it all goes wrong.

Planning – be ready with your plans and have agreed procedures in place.  While you will have to change them as you go along, it is easier than starting from scratch.

Tone – know the tone in which your organisation speaks – does it have a sense of humour?  Does it speak plain English or techno-jargon?

Total acceptance of social media – ensure the whole organisation supports and understands the value and necessity of being active on social media

Finish what you start – if you have a Twitter feed you have to be ready to have it monitored all day every day and to have a suitable person prepared to keep it going.

We live in a world of instant opinions and perceptions with facts frequently misrepresented or blown out of proportion.  Crisis planning and preparation begins well before an issue breaks, so ensure your crisis PR team is both social media savvy and ready to act swiftly when needed.






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