[Crisis 101 – Part 1] How to develop a social media crisis management plan

Many corporations have very strong social media presence, with high volume of engagement between the company and its audience; but engaging widely does not mean engaging wisely. Especially during crises, a good social media crisis management plan directs the company’s effort to the more relevant people, using the more influential channels, to achieve the more concrete control.

Beside the monitoring process mentioned above, Norton (2013) detailed ten dimensions to be considered for the precrisis stage in a crisis management plan: crisis management team, pre-draft updates, communication channels, online newsrooms or corporate blogs, creating a terms-of-use policy, scooping up negative domains and usernames, mobilizing team, targeted advertising, and internal communications. When crossed-examined with the industry practice, compared to Hopwood PR (2013)’s and Lewis Communications (2011)’s white papers on the social media challenge, and Social Media Explorer (2013)’s recommendations on social media strategies, these dimensions can be categorized into three groups: people, platforms, and preventative actions.

  • Connect the people:

Managing an organization’s social media networks requires more than one person. A crisis management team is the first thing to consider in a crisis plan. Since it is like representing the company to a large and dynamic public, the social media task needs to be a joint effort from the management, the marketing team, as well as the digital experts (Hopwood PR, 2013). Since time is key in crisis management, a well-created team, in which each member is clear on which task s/he is taking, can lessen the confusion and make the important decision more easily (Norton, 2013).

Mobilizing team is needed when the crisis team members are spread out geographically. The plan should include which channel(s) can be used for in-team communication and sharing sensitive information.

Beside the crisis team members, it is also helpful to include internal communications with other employees in the company into the plan. It is a two-way relationship within an organization, enabling an exchange of information with its employees. If reporters or other people ask an employee for opinion, and the employee does not know what happened or what s/he can or cannot say, a misstep can sensationalize the story. Therefore, a company should keep everyone in the loop at all times.

  • Identify the platforms:

This is one of the most overwhelming steps in social media planning, as there are so many networks to choose from. Crisis managers, or social media managers, must first identify the target audiences, in order to determine which platforms are preferred by the targets. Target audiences are the many people that matters to a business – investors, shareholders, suppliers, customers, employees, and even the government. A single message cannot be suitable for all those audiences. The company must decide which target audiences are of higher priority, or are more likely to use social media so it can customize the broadcasts accordingly. Creating a profile of the target audiences, with their demographic information as well as professions, hobbies and online habits can help narrow down which platforms are more suitable to use.

Lewis Communications (2013) argued that for businesses, it is better to use an “owned channel,” such as a blog, forum, or organization-generated community than to apply a third party platform, such as Twitter or Facebook. An owned channel was believed to be the more effective way to build an authoritative and meaningful social presence, compared to relying on the communication flow and audience of an existing platform. This is supported by Norton (2013) in his online newsrooms or corporate blogs dimension. Norton stated that by having its own channels, a company can make it easier for readers to find and get the information they want. Moreover, if the crisis is minor, it is easier to broadcast the response on these channels, as the company can control the statements, tone and material.

However, communication channels dimension does not include only the owned channels. Social Media Explorer (2013) highlighted that Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+ and YouTube are among the most chosen social networking platforms for businesses. They are also the platforms that require the most monitoring, as more and more people are using them on a daily basis. Further, while it is easier to control a message on a company’s newsroom, if the negative discussion starts on another platform (for example, Twitter), it is best to respond on that same platform instead of moving it around. Staying on the same platform helps contain the message and prevents spreading the negative comments on the social world (Norton, 2013; Coombs, 2009). Conclusively, there is a plethora of channels out there, and a company must always ask itself beforehand which social media channels should be used and why, and how it will use these channels effectively.

  • Work on the preventative actions:

The first preventative action to consider is pre-draft updates. While an online crisis can hardly wait for a response to be approved by many levels of management, crisis managers can pre-draft templates for Twitter messages, Facebook posts or blog entries, with blank sections for the case details. The templates can be approved by the legal team beforehand so that the crisis team can disseminate the message on the appropriate platforms as soon as the details are confirmed.

The next action is creating a terms-of-use policy, which is outlining how people can or cannot behave. This is a way to guide the conversations and prevent people from taking the issue too far on the company’s owned channels.

Scooping up the negative domains and usernames is a proactive way to control the easy to remember names that can share destructive stories about the company. Norton (2013)’s example was if a hateful party owned the ihatestarbucks.com domain and started distributing negative stories about Starbucks, people tend to remember the domain and spread the stories more effortlessly. If the company gained control over the names first, they cannot be used against its campaigns.

Another action is dark sites, which are online hubs that remain in the dark until a crisis breaks out. They contain pre-made resources, such as message from CEO or hotline contacts, and the blank parts to be filled out with the crisis details. These sites are used to respond to a crisis in the most timely and professional manner.

The last preventative action mentioned by Norton (2013) is targeted advertising, which is used to control search results to make sure Google or Bing shows the correct and suitable messages when a searcher types in a relevant key word. Beside its preventative characteristic, this action can also be used for responsive purpose. Norton noted that this tactic has been employed by BP during it Deepwater Horizon crisis, when BP tried to use PPC advertising to tone down the news of the disaster. Crisis managers should consider a list of potential key words, as well as a search landing page (such as a dark site) to prepare for the upcoming crises.

By: Clāra Ly-Le, Managing Director of EloQ Communications (formerly Vero IMC Vietnam), taken from her 2014 paper. Clāra is a senior public relations consultant who has been involved in multiple national and regional PR campaigns in Vietnam. She is also a PhD candidate at Bond University, Australia. Her research interests include crisis management, intercultural communication, and new media communication.

X-posted on EloQ’s Blog.

Hopwood PR. (2013). Embracing the communications revolution. Retrieved from http://www.hopwood.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Hopwood-Social-Media-white-paper7.pdf
Lewis Communications. (2011). The global social media challenge. Retrieved from http://publish.lewispr.com/whitepapers/globalsocialchallenge/LEWIS_whitepaperEN.pdf
Norton, C. (2013). Online crisis management. In R. Brown & S. Waddington (Eds.), Share this too: More social media solutions for PR professionals (pp. 159-168). Cornwall, UK: John Wiley & Son, Ltd.
Social Media Explorer. (2013, September 18). 5 steps to determine the perfect social media strategy. Retrieved from http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com/social-media-marketing/5-steps-to-determine-the-perfect-social-media-strategy/

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