5 ways to contain a crisis through social media

Guest blogger Sheldon Levine is the Community Manager at SMWF Gold sponsors Sysomos.

In the wake of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, its people, landscape and communities have been devastated beyond recognition, he writes. Many companies have also been severely affected, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

With this tragedy at the forefront of people’s minds, companies around the world are revisiting their own crisis plan and how it would be executed if the time comes. Communication is an extremely important aspect of any crisis plan, particularly with the advent of social media as a vehicle to deliver real-time messages.  And, today, more and more companies are utilizing social media to address crises, both large and small.

How should companies use social media in the event of a crisis? How can they integrate it into their current crisis communications plan? Here are five key steps to use social media to contain a crisis before it gets the best of your brand:

  1. Be prepared
    Sit down with your team and brainstorm all the things that could possibly go wrong before they actually do. As you create a plan, figure out if social media can play a role in your strategy. If it does, determine roles and responsibilities. For instance, John will post information on the corporate Facebook account, Mary will be in charge of Twitter, etc. Think of general messages that you want to release to your audience, given the crisis at hand. How much information do you want to release? How often? In what voice (i.e., calm or with a sense of urgency)? Create templates that speak to the most common or likely issues that could arise, then modify when necessary. You can even create Web pages ahead of time and set up “dark sites” that are active but invisible from your site’s navigation tree, instantly activating them when needed. The more prepared you are in your communications, the more control you will have of the situation.
  2. Always monitor
    Crisis situations can pop up anywhere at any time. Rather than waiting for a situation to spin out of control before you even hear about it, you should watch for warning signs at all times. Using a social media monitoring tool, like Sysomos, allows you keep an eye on what people are saying about your brand – both positive and negative – in real time. If you can catch a potential crisis situation at the onset, it becomes easier to contain. In social media especially, a crisis can start and spread quickly, but, it can also be extinguished just as fast if you monitor social media conversations closely.
  3. Craft messages appropriately
    During times of crisis, communications to your internal and/or external audiences can either help a situation or make it worse.  While you can’t always be specific in your planning, prepare yourself with a general template that can be customized to fit the appropriate situation (as mentioned in No. 1). Since crises oftentimes create heightened emotional states, be mindful of tone in your messaging, show sensitivity to those most affected and, if applicable, suggest different ways other people can help (i.e., make a donation, become a volunteer, etc.).
  4. Be informative and helpful
    When crafting these messages, include information that will help the public, not just your company. While the crisis is happening to your brand, your audiences are the ones who will spread information that can either help or hurt you. Help your public understand exactly what is happening and what your company is doing to fix it and encourage them to help spread the word. Withholding any useful or practical information leaves room for people to speculate, which can sometimes turn a bad situation worse.
  5. Always be truthful
    One of the unofficial commandments of social media is to be authentic and true. This is even more applicable during times of crisis. Generally, people want to be informed – whether the news is negative or positive – and they certainly do not tolerate dishonesty. When you’re crafting your messages, include truthful accounts of what your company is doing to address the situation and give them real information that they can use to make informed decisions. In the public eye, honesty and transparency carry a lot of weight, even if the fault is your own company’s. Of course, there are times when you are unable to publicly share information – for legal or proprietary purposes, for example. In these situations, be truthful and tell them that. A message such as “We are currently working on fixing the problem and will gladly update you with information when it becomes available” may delay the spreading of a crisis situation. But, saying nothing or giving false information will only add fuel to the fire.

As Japan, and the world, has just experienced, crisis situations can appear out of nowhere. And, no matter how much planning you have done or preventive measures you have taken, sometimes they are inevitable. Whether a crisis erupts in our physical environment or within social media channels, you can use social media to your advantage to address the situation quickly before false information spreads.

What other tactics have you employed to use social media for crisis control? What were some of the results?