How to make your crisis plan ‘social media compliant’

Enough of the theory (for the time being).  There is a very practical impact of social media that affects every organisation right now.  This is the fact that every crisis management plan and process is now out of date – unless it has been made ‘social media compliant’.

If you now have a crisis, you have no time or space within which to hide.  You are essentially in the business of performing ‘live’ within a rolling 24/7 press conference.  This requires different skills and preparation – just as doing live TV is different from making a documentary.

However, this is not all bad news.  Social media allows you to communicate directly with the people you need to influence, without having to rely on the filter of the media.  This can make it easier to get information out much quicker, to dampen concerns and emotions and to limit the extent to which a crisis can develop or spread.

There are five things an organisation needs to do to make their crisis preparation social media compliant.

  1. Monitor social media in real-time
  2. Establish a management process that delivers a response that is quicker and more specific to the needs of social media, rather than adapted only to the needs of traditional media
  3. Create an information publication platform that is optimised to spread information effectively through social networks
  4. Re-purpose your existing information so that it can spread easily through social networks
  5. Incorporate social media into your crisis training.

Looking at these points in more detail.

1.  Real time monitoring

It is now the case that almost everything that may become elevated into a crisis will surface first in the world of social media, probably in Twitter.  This is because crises become real when they touch people and social media gives people the tools to publicise what they are seeing, thinking or doing in real time not in the time prescribed by publication deadlines.

In the past, the start of a crisis was usually marked from the time you received ‘the phone call’ from ‘the journalist’ (most crisis simulation exercises often start with this).  Now it will probably start in a tweet from someone immediately connected to the event.  By the time you receive the call from ‘the journalist’, the crisis will probably be in full flight and you will already have missed opportunities to gain control.  It is also quite possible that ‘the journalist’ will be monitoring Twitter, thus the call, when it comes, will be a lot earlier than might otherwise have been the case.

Monitoring the social media space is therefore essential and it is important to ensure that this monitoring is as close to real time as possible.  Real time monitoring gives you the opportunity to have the maximum amount of that most vital asset in crisis response – time.  Also, a tweet may be a spark, not necessarily the full fire.  Prompt action can sometimes stop a crisis developing in the first place.

Having a monitoring service that tracks buzz or sentiment, monitors influential blogs or produces weekly or monthly reports and analysis is of no use.  You don’t have to be an influential blogger to start a social media firestorm.  Anyone at the right (wrong) place at the right (wrong) time with a mobile phone can do it.

Real time monitoring is not difficult.   All that is required is a little initial instruction and then keeping in touch with the latest techniques – just simply add “social AND media AND monitoring” to the list of things you monitor.

I currently recommend using Netvibes to establish a desktop monitoring dashboard that pulls together in one place all the various ‘feeds’ from a variety of monitoring sources.  A daily, preferably hourly, check of you monitoring dashboard by someone in your corporate communications department, press office or PR agency, is then all that it takes.


2.  New response process

In the old world we had the luxury of an element of down-time between the publication and production deadlines of the media outlets that were most important in shaping a story.  This could be used to craft messages, conduct interviews, consider strategy etc.  This time has gone.  Crises now play out in a far more relentless and transparent way with social media being the engine that drives it.

This requires organisations to change their crisis management process to take account of two things:

Speed: Crises now happen in ‘Twitter Time’ – essentially real time.  Your strategy has to match this.  Communication needs to be issued much quicker and it needs to be updated constantly.  This means it is no longer possible to have some pre-prepared statements which can be tailored and issued and expect that this will buy the time necessary to work behind-the-scenes preparing more detailed information.  Much like managing live television, organisations need to have sufficient information to hand in order to avoid the development of ‘dead air’ so that they can be seen to constantly engaged in a conversation even if what is said still remains a variant on some core messages.

Specificity: It is no longer sufficient to rely on very generic statements to adequately convey a corporate response. These may have worked when designed to be included within a 500 word news article or as a 5 second sound-bite in a radio or TV segment, but they don’t work within the social media discourse.  One of the principal effects of social media is creation of a new type of audience – the connected crowd.  This has the power and collective influence of a mass audience, but it cannot be communicated to via mass communication methods.  It can only be influenced on the basis of individual communication or conversations.  This is the essence of something like Twitter – each tweet has to be seen as an individual conversation, but it is a conversation taking place in front of an audience of everyone.  Tweets and blog posts need to be treated as though they were questions from journalists in a traditional press conference – i.e. something that requires a specific answer but one that is also phrased to inform and control the whole audience.  In fact the analogy of constant performance in rolling 24/7 press conference is quite a useful one to help understand how to manage a crisis in the social media world.

Managing these two factors of speed and specificity requires two things.  Firstly an organisation needs to be able to draft in many more people to manage the conversational side of social media – monitoring things like Twitter and responding at an individual level to what is being said.  The importance of this cannot be underestimated.  One of the frequent complaints of those who have had to manage crises in the Twitter world is the fact that Twitter has become so influential but also so inaccurate.  This is hardly surprising – Twitter is not a considered medium, it is more a registration of initial impressions and emotions often based on incomplete knowledge.  This can make it extremely attractive as fodder for the traditional media who can use it to access from a desktop the sort of raw emotion that is otherwise difficult and expensive to capture.  Twitter therefore needs to be calmed and corrected as much as possible – and this can only be done via the full-time (possibly even 24/7) attention of dedicated personnel.

Secondly, as with managing live news coverage of an event, the more information that is available or ‘in the can’ the better.  Trying to eke-out a conversation on the basis of a restricted amount of information is very difficult.  However, if people can be deflected to relevant sources of information, either specific to an event or to provide background and context, this lightens the conversational burden.

This means having more information prepared, but also producing a much broader range of information during a crisis which talks directly to people, rather than being crafted to influence media coverage.  For example, rather than simply issue a written statement, video the CEO presenting this statement and host this on YouTube.  Here you have one or two minutes to tell your story, rather than 5 or ten seconds within someone else’s interpretation of your story.  Such a video is also dual purpose, because increasingly the TV media will use this as though it were a video news release and also include it in their reporting.

Having this information prepared, and having it available in a format which makes it easy to spread within social networks, will make the job of managing and controlling a crisis much easier.  This will involve using third-party content hosts such as YouTube and Flickr.

We recommend doing a root-and-branch review of a crisis management process and adopting it so that more people can be brought to bear, more information is prepared in advance and also the response strategy is changed to align itself with the need for both a constant feed of information and also the opportunity to “broadcast” direct to the people you want to talk to.

3.  New response platform

It has always been important is a crisis to get your message out as quickly as possible.  In the pre-internet days this could be achieved through the channels that fed the traditional media – mass press releases and newswires.

When websites became the norm at the end of the 80s many organisations developed ‘dark’ microsites that were used as information platforms to be rolled-out in the event of a crisis.  This practice, sensible as it was, is now redundant because traditional microsites are now not the most effective tools to publish digital content.  Traditional websites and microsites are designed as places to contain information – rather than spread it.  The social media space is characterised by the fact that information is not held in one place – it is portable and therefore is moved and shared around networks.  You therefore need a platform that is optimised to launch and spread information through the social media space.

This means using social media software to create an information platform.  This can be a ‘dark’ platform or it can become a conventional on-line newsroom that simply becomes re-focused in the event of a crisis.  The advantage of such a platform is that it is adapted to the social media world.  Information can be added or updated very easily and quickly, everything published is search-engine friendly, features such as RSS and email subscription are already built-in and it is easy to establish links with third-party content hosts such as YouTube and Flickr.

There are proprietary on-line newsroom products available and every digital agency in town will tell you it can build you one of these (for a price).  However, all of the necessary features are available within blogging software such as WordPress.  WordPress is free, very easy to use and means that a completely bespoke platform can be created without reliance on a generic solution or an outside supplier.  Here is a great example of how the American Red Cross used WordPress to establish an information hub to handle a specific crisis. This is a very basic site, which uses standard WordPress templates and was probably set-up very quickly.  For more polished examples of social media newsrooms take a look at Electrolux GM Europe or Scania

I believe that every organisation should have such a platform prepared, but also consider not keeping it ‘dark’ but use it as an online / social media newsroom as part of day-to-day communications.

4.  Re-purpose your content

I have already mentioned the need to have information to hand in order to make it easier to sustain the ‘conversation’ and also to have information that is in a format that is easy to find and spread through social media channels.

Probably quite a lot of this you already have, but it is buried somewhere within your existing website or contained within ‘static’ word documents.

As part of the review of process and preparation this information needs to be retrieved and re-purposed to work within social media.  This will mostly revolve around ensuring that there is adequate background information available in video, image and text forms and that this is hosted in sites such as YouTube and Flickr with text information (up-to-date biographies, company information etc), held within your publishing platform.

Of all the steps, this is probably the easiest and one which will actually be of benefit to you irrespective of whether you are in a crisis or not.  It is worth remembering that YouTube is a major search engine it its own right – second only to Google for many people.  Organisations spend vast amounts of money on search engine optimisation, yet frequently pay no attention at all to their YouTube ‘real estate’.  You should exert the maximum amount of control over your organisation’s name tag in YouTube as well as sites such as flickr and delicious.

5.  Build social media into your crisis training

It is no use running training sessions that are based around response to only the traditional media.  Given the centrality of social media in the playing-out of any crisis, this has to be replicated in training – both so that what you train for is as close as possible to reality, but also so that you start to understand how things like Twitter actually work.

I have devised a way of running a training session that has ‘live’ social media built into it – however, this is one area where I am not going to share the details (I do have to earn a living).  If you want to organise one of these you will need to contact me directly –


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