Social Media in a Crisis

Social Media in a Crisis

Prepare, or prepare to pay the price.

Reputation, like businesses, can take a lifetime to build and then just a moment to lose, which is why companies need to prepare and protect their reputation, especially on social media.

Crises are still the domain of ‘big’ media – the global broadcasters, the national newspapers – but they are now joined at the hip with social media. What can start as a ‘twitter backlash’ can become front page news very quickly.

Companies, corporations and public sector bodies need to have robust crisis handling strategies if they want to protect their reputation and bottom line.

I have been dealing with crises for the last 20 years, working in government, the NHS and the private sector. These have ranged from malarial outbreaks, the floods and fuel crises in the early 2000s, the fire strike, the response to the tube bombs and the financial crash caused by the collapse of Northern Rock.

For the last 15 years I have trained company directors, CEOs, medics and UK diplomats on crisis media handling across the globe. In my 12 years working for Whitehall I prepped and briefed countless minsters and secretaries of state, in good times and bad.

These days training includes preparing to face the world’s TV cameras, but also has to include handling social media – and how to prepare for the tsunami of posts, engagements and demands it will make.

Corporate crises are nothing new. Gerald Ratner managed to kill his family firm in 1991 by making an ‘off the cuff’ comment that the jewellery they sold was ‘crap’. A firm built since 1949 saw £500m wiped off its shares, followed by rebrands then closure.

Since then however, the lifespan of a company has dropped from the 60 year average of the 1950s to under 20 years (Credit Suisse) – so where does that leave smaller enterprises exposed to crises?

Experimenting or ‘winging it’ during the crisis itself is too late. Trying to keep heads below the parapet in the hope it will blow over is similarly futile.

Here are the first five rules to remember:

  • PREPARE. This means assess risks, identify spokespeople, media train, plan and exercise.
  • Continually monitor the effects of the media on your community/customers and address the negative impact media can have, while recognising the positive role media can play.
  • Remain calm and in control, keeping your eye on senior stakeholders/shareholders, customers and metrics (via sales/social media traffic).
  • Treat fears seriously – answer the questions people want to ask.
  • Demonstrate action and progress – create shareable posts and images to reassure, give context, tell people where they can get help or an answer.

If you can do that, then there’s a good chance your business can harness the power of social media to make it through a crisis with its reputation not just intact, but even stronger.

Stuart Baird is an award-winning communicator, having delivered national campaigns such as Think! and Change4Life. He has worked in the Strategic Communications Unit at 10 Downing Street and led communications, marketing and engagement within the NHS. He has been a specialist trainer and coach to Ministers, diplomats and NHS leadership teams for more than 10 years with work in Africa, South East Asia, the Middle East and the USA.