For most companies, social media means posting content, replying to their followers’ comments and questions, and maybe a basic analysis of their channels’ performance. But what about a serious communication crisis? It is easier to be prepared than you might think…

When I started working in communications, social media did not exist – at least for companies. What did exist though was what really matters in communications – independent from the media you use: a good old communication strategy, including a crisis plan. I recently joined a Hootsuite webinar about social media crises and would like to share my insights, which were, funny enough, not really different from what I learned more than a decade ago.

What is a communication crisis?

Communication is a wide-spread discipline. It starts with as much as an informal chat over lunch with your boss and entails every single comment you make on behalf of a company. It can be a press release, a live event to launch your new product, a sales pitch – you name it. Communication can happen any time – with and without your communication manager in control, because you cannot stop people talking about your company. Now a crisis is an event that (thank you, Wikipedia) is unexpected and has potential impact on your community, business, reputation etc. A communication crisis simply adds the communication factor to a crisis. Think about product recalls, a tragic accident in your production facilities, legal trouble – the list of threats is endless. Whenever something bad happens, it has an impact on how your company is perceived. A crisis communication plan in place will help you navigate through tough times with countless questions from journalists, employees, and other stakeholders.

What is a social media crisis?

Social media is an integral part to today’s communication mix. Thus, it is not more or less than another channel to consider when your company is in crisis mode. Just make sure you don’t forget this column in your plan.

How can I prepare for a communication crisis?

Even in unexpected situations, a structured plan is key. You might ask yourself how you can structure something you cannot predict – fair enough. Let me help you with a few basic principles you can apply even if you are a one-man marketing show.

  • Identify the most common crisis scenarios and assign people in charge: What could happen? Who is allowed to speak publicly (with journalists, employees, on social media etc.)? Who can provide (legally) correct information?
  • Monitor potential internal and external threats: have an eye on your industry, analyze what could go wrong in your business, don’t forget that we’re all humans and humans do make mistakes. Be aware that things can go wrong.
  • Don’t abandon your audience: If a crisis pops up, don’t hide. The first thing to do is speak to the people in charge and to know who could help you in this situation (your boss, a lawyer, a technician). Tell your audience (journalists calling you for information, fans posting on your channels, etc.) that you are aware of the issue and will look into it. This will give you time to assess the actual problem. Please make sure that ONLY the people you previously assigned are the ones to communicate. There is no room for freestylers here.
  • Stay calm and analyze: Once you know what you are dealing with, you need to develop a message to communicate. The most important thing to consider: Be authentic and do not lie!
  • React properly and be transparent: If you did something wrong which might have a legal impact, say that you are aware of what happened and that you will follow up as soon as you have verified it. If you delivered chicken salad without chicken and a customer tweets about it, apologize first and then make it up to the customer. A sincere apology is often more impactful in communication than insisting you did nothing wrong.
  • Evaluate and go back to normal: Once your crisis is slowing down, don’t forget to protocol what happened and how you handled it. This information must be compared with your existing plan and – if there is a new learning – your plan in place must be updated. Make sure to circulate this information in your team.
  • Exercise: Even if you are not facing a crisis, it cannot do any harm for you to train your team. Simulate a communication crisis once a year – just like you were trained at school when you had a fire alarm simulation that allowed you to interrupt a boring class to the delight of most students.

In most cases, your company will never have to deal with a real communication crisis such as Volkswagen is currently facing. Please don’t think this makes the efforts described above in vain. Consider it a corporate investment – or do you pay your third-party insurance because you really want to face a lawsuit?


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