Social Media for Crisis Communication

You can choose to ignore social media in a crisis, but it will not ignore you. What your organization does will be on social media one way or another, good or bad, accurate or inaccurate.  Facebook posts and Tweets are shaped from a user’s personal perspective, often with little or no context. Traditional news outlets are measuring success by “hits” and views” rather than subscribers and subscriptions, and as a result, reporters are turning to these often-unsubstantiated Facebook posts and Tweets for their story ideas and content. Diligent story research and balanced perspective in reporting are quickly becoming a thing of the past. It’s more important than ever to know what to do when it happens to you.

There are four steps to successful communication in a crisis:

  1. Prepare – did you include google alerts and twitter monitoring?
  2. Buy Time
  3. Disseminate and Wrap Up
  4. After Action Review.

#1 Prepare – There is nothing more important to crisis management than being prepared. Know who is talking about you, establish monitoring systems, make friends with the media, and build a good offense.

You can assure your organization has the advantage in a crisis if you know about a developing story before it is published. Monitor your local news channels’ websites and Facebook pages. Keep an eye on community blogs and Facebook groups as well.  Digital listening posts like Hootsuite and Google Alerts are critical tools for monitoring what people are saying about you, but the most important monitoring you can do is watching the comments and “Visitor Posts” on your own Facebook page closely and often.

If you’re going to be monitoring local media, take things a step further by commenting constructively and positively on their online stories, and offer your assistance – offering expert advice on current events or counterpoints on stories about animals in your community. The media will appreciate the input – after all, you’re making their job easier, and they will quickly learn who you are, that you are an available resource, and that they can trust you.

“The best defense is a good offense” also applies to crisis communication. Building a good offense gives you a strategic advantage.  Tell our story every day. Show how hard you work and how much you care.  Show your staff going the extra mile, and promote their efforts to give back to the community. Use your social channels to educate the public and become a resource for pet owners. Promote your professionalism and your training.  Build your reputation and you’ll build a good offense in no time.

Step #2 – Buy time.

It would be great if you got advance warning of a crisis, but realistically, you can’t expect it.  So when it happens, buy your team some time with a holding statement, gather information, continue monitoring and carefully consider any rebuttal before you post.

When you see something with the potential to harm your reputation, start gathering preliminary information right away with a holding statement. A carefully crafted holding statement can stop the situation from escalating, put the brakes on speculation, and let the media know you are working to get them a statement.  They buy your team time to find out what happened, how it happened, why it happened, and give management time to decide what preventative measure or disciplinary actions, if any, will be taken

Holding statements should be very simple, factual, and show empathy and transparency.  If your crisis is about something bad happening to people and pets out in the community, try to add some simple reassurance as well.

Once drafted, your holding statement may be used once or twice on your own page, or many times on your page and on others as well. The frequency and timing will depend upon how long it takes for your management team to investigate and resolve the situation, how serious the situations is and how far the misinformation spread before your holding statement was ready.

It is best not to make any further comment during this time and instead simply respond to all questions and accusations with your holding statement.  Unless you identify a “teachable moment” when a comment is made that you can respond to without defensiveness, but with a generic response regarding established policies and procedures, resist the temptation to say more.

Do not stop telling your story. You may have a lot of new people visiting your page, so this may be a good time to focus your posts on positive stories about a totally unrelated aspect of what you do. It never hurts to “Like” the supportive comments you see, especially from known advocates, as a way to encourage more from them.  Be sensitive to the situation and avoid flippant or funny posts or comments until the crisis has passed. Be sure that any prescheduled posts are immediately reviewed in light of current development and edited or pulled if necessary. Be very careful using hashtags during this time as they can be too easily misconstrued.

#3 Disseminate Information and Wrap Up

Eventually, there will be more to tell. Your final statement should give people closure. In a PR disaster, your final statement may include apologies, condolences, facts, and prevention – policy changes or disciplinary action. In a natural disaster, this may include where people affected can go for help, where pets can go, and how and where people who want to help can assist. Always include compassion, humility, reassurance and resources in your final statement.

Unless the situation has completely changed or information has come to light that significantly alters the outcome, make your statement and then move on, and the public will as well.

#4 After Action Review

Once the crisis has passed, take he time to work with your team to review and rehash what happened from a social media perspective. What happened? What messaging did you choose? How was it received? What would you like to do differently next time? Then document your findings and keep them where you can find and refer to them when you need them.

That old saying, “If you’re doing your job right, no one knows you are there” no longer works. It’s been replaced by “If it’s not on Facebook, it didn’t happen.”  Plan now, and if done right, you can prevent a lot of the damage a crisis can bring and grow your organization’s reputation in the community.


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