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Crisis Communication and Social Media When “It” Hits the Fan

Silhouettes of depressed business people in the office.
Credit:istockphoto.com/kieferpix

It’s time to face the music. To be an expert in crisis communication, you have to move your organization at the speed of Twitter when “it” hits the fan.

Someone with the handle @shroomy0021 was riding down the highway in California when he noticed flames from a natural gas explosion. Within minutes, he posted video to the web. In short order, it was followed a barrage of requests from media asking to use the footage. Do you really want someone known as @shroomy0021 managing your corporate communication? Until the company fills the void with accurate information, @shroomy0021 is currently the spokesperson for the event.

Meanwhile, near my home, a massive chemical plant explosion killed two and injured 114. As employees ran for safety, one stopped to take a photo of the fireball, then sat in his Ford F150 and created a Facebook page. The page had more than 4,000 likes within three hours and 38 minutes. I know because it was that long before the company issued its first public statement via their website.

Social media are your competition. Who is winning that competition? Are you even in the game?

Take a quick test. How long does it take your organization to send out your first official public statement or news release when a crisis happens?

If you still live in the dark ages in which you write a news release from scratch, then send it up the chain of command for approvals and changes, then take it back for re-writes, then send it for a final approval, then you disseminate the information to the world, you have a lot of work to do. That traditional process usually takes several hours. By then, eyewitnesses on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other sites have been telling their version of your story.

During a recent shooting in which three police officers were killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by a sniper on a Sunday morning, one person was broadcasting the event on Facebook Live while another eyewitness was live on Periscope. It was five and a half hours before a news conference was held. Meanwhile, social media posts from the affected police agencies were weak and sporadic, as were any attempts to simply post statements to their official websites.

First, you need to make sure your executives know more about social media than just the name of the platforms. If your leaders have never spent time on social media, they are ill prepared to comprehend its speed, nuance, and complexities. Hence, any decision they make regarding the crisis and the communications around it is a flawed decision. At a minimum, put all of your leaders on Facebook for a week and require them to be active and engaged for 30 minutes a day for seven days.

Second, review your crisis communication plan and make sure it states specific time goals for getting messages to the world. The crisis communication plans that I write most frequently give a company one hour or less from the flashpoint of the crisis before a public statement must be made, with the understanding that in a world of social media, this is 59 minutes too slow.

Third, spend time on a clear sunny day writing the bones of the news releases you will need. I have hundreds of pre-written news releases on my computer at all times. Each is written with multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank options. On average, it takes 10 minutes to make the edits and issue the release. Best of all, the leadership and legal team can read the language on a sunny day, long before the documents will ever get used. That way, on the day of the crisis, they only need to approve it for accuracy and not for language.

Fourth, put your public relations and leadership team through the paces with a realistic, anxiety-rich drill at least once a year. Leaders can make decisions in a tabletop format, but force the communication team to follow and test their crisis communication plan in real time.

Join Gerard Braud as the guest speaker on an upcoming webinar sponsored by RockDove Solutions at 2 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, 23 May, the first of a series of webinars exploring the changing face of crisis in the digital age.

Gerard Braud

Gerard Braud is an international expert, coach, trainer, author and speaker, who has worked with organizations on five continents. Author of Don’t Talk to the Media: 29 Secrets You Need to Know Before You Open Your Mouth to a Reporter, Braud is widely regarded as an expert in crisis communications and media issues. Learn more at www.braudcommunications.com or contact him at gerard@braudcommunications.com.

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