One of the keys to successful social media crisis mitigation is pre-crisis planning. This is lifeguard mode, and there are four elements of it.

Buy Some Binoculars
It’s hard to deal with a crisis you can’t find. You need some sort of social media listening software in your organization. See this post on the 5 Categories of Social Media Software for some options.

Set a Listening Protocol
That software, however, is only good as its operator. You must have a listening protocol in your organization. Who is listening to the social Web? When are they listening? For what are they listening? Who is covering nights and weekends?

Know What Is and What Is Not a Crisis
Somebody sending a mean tweet about your company doesn’t constitute a crisis. There are three characteristics of a true social media crisis. If these three happen, you’re in crisis mode.

  • A social media crisis has information asymmetry. When the company does not know any more than the public about what’s going on. When your plane lands in the Hudson River, and you start seeing Twit Pics of it, that’s information asymmetry – the first sign of a social media crisis.
  • A social media crisis is a decisive change from the norm. Nike (and now Apple) are routinely criticized for labor practices. Social chatter about that is ongoing and expected, however. That’s not a crisis. When a markedly different line of criticism occurs, that’s the second sign of a social media crisis.
  • A social media crisis has a potentially material impact on the company overall. Somebody tweeting that Subway left mustard off their sandwich isn’t a crisis. A gunman at a Subway is. Scope and scale is the theirs sign of a social media crisis.

Social Media Crisis Management Response ProtocolUse an Internal Alert and Response Flowchart
Not all crises have the same response teams. The more acute the issue, the more senior the responder. Create a crisis flowchart that specifies who in your organization should be contacted in different scenarios. Make certain that your front lines social media and customer service personnel keep detailed, up-to-date contact information (including home phone) for all executives.

This is also where – depending on the size and complexity of your organization – you may want to work with legal to map out some processes and pre-approved messaging. Crisis role-playing and fire drills are exceptionally useful, too.

You’ve completed your lifeguard training. Now what happens when a crisis occurs?

In Case of Overwhelming Negativity, Break Glass

Here are the 8 steps to successfully managing a social media crisis.

1. Acknowledge
Your first response should always be “yes, we realize something has happened” even if you have ZERO answers. This will stem the tide of “hey company, did you know?” messages.

Kashi Social Media Crisis Management2. Fight Social Media Fire With Social Media Water
Once you have some information, you should respond first in the venue where the crisis first broke. If the crisis initiated on Facebook, respond first on Facebook. Then circle around and respond in other venue that have picked up on the crisis.

Kellogg’s failed on this point in April, 2012 during a Facebook-fueled crisis about the soy ingredients of their Kashi brand. Kashi responded to the crisis with a YouTube video, which got no traction whatsoever. A live, streaming video response on their Facebook page would have been a much better balm.

You never know where a crisis will break, however, so you must have presences in every social outpost, even if you’re not routinely participating there. For example, are you ready for a Pinterest crisis? It could happen.

It probably goes without saying, but speed matters. What we ask our clients at Convince & Convert is simple, yet difficult. “Can you get a video online from your CEO within 4 hours, any time of the day or night, from anywhere in the world?” If the answer is no, you aren’t fully prepared.

3. Be Sorry
America is the land of forgiveness. We’ve forgiven Mike Tyson, Bill Clinton, Exxon, Tylenol, and a rogue’s gallery of corporate and individual miscreants and near do wells. You’ll be forgiven too, if you say you’re sorry and mean it.

4. Create a Crisis FAQ
Create a Web page or microsite and put all the information about the crisis in one place. This allows you to respond to questions with a link instead of an answer. This saves times and prevents misinterpretation of your responses (especially on Twitter).

This Crisis FAQ should include:

  • Acknowledgement of the crisis
  • Details about the occurrence
  • Photos or videos, if available
  • How the company found out
  • Who was alerted, when, and how
  • Specific actions taken in response
  • Real or potential effects
  • Steps taken to prevent future occurrence
  • Contact information for real people at the company

5. Build a Pressure Relief Valve
This may be counterintuitive, but you WANT people to vent on a venue you control. Whether it’s your Facebook page, blog, forum, or comments section on your Crisis FAQ microsite, you want ire to accumulate on your turf. There are four benefits to this approach:

  • It allows you to keep more of the conversations about the crisis in a single venue, making them easier to track.
  • It’s an early warning detection system for new dimensions of the crisis.
  • It gives your customers an official place to come to your defense (sometimes).
  • When your turf is the conversational boxing ring, you set the rules.

If you do not proactively provide a pressure relief valve, complainants will create their own, giving you no recourse or control whatsoever.

Penn State Social Media CrisisTo their credit, Penn State University used their Facebook wall as a pressure relief valve during the height of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, allowing hundreds of angry comments to be posted. But, because it was on their Facebook page, they could see, find, moderate (as necessary), and answer back. Smart.

6. Know When to Take it Offline
Social media crisis management isn’t about winning, it’s about damage control. Some people will be angry enough that you’re not going to convince them of anything.

Do not get in an online tit for tat, ever (and certainly not in a crisis scenario). Keyboards embolden us all, and sometimes the best course of action is to offer your phone number or email address, and encourage the troll to contact you that way. Will it take the kettle off boil? Sometimes, but even if it doesn’t the rest of the community sees that you went the extra mile and provided an olive branch. That matters. Crisis management is a spectator sport.

Remember the rule of 3. Never send a third reply. A third reply is an argument, not an answer. On the third reply, you take it offline.

7. Arm Your Army
We know where everyone works, because it’s listed on their Facebook and Linkedin profiles. If you wanted more information about the Kashi crisis, would you call their corporate communications department and wait on hold, or would you go to Linkedin and find ANYONE at Kellogg’s to whom you had a connection. Bingo! Call centers and waiting on hold is for suckers, and every employee is a potential spokesperson.

That’s why it’s imperative that you keep ALL employees informed about the crisis.Whether it’s email, text message, internal blog, Yammer (or similar) you must keep your employees at least as knowledgeable as the public.

8. Learn Your Lessons
After the crisis subsides, and you’ve dried the tears off your laptop, reconstruct and deconstruct the crisis. Document every facet:

  • Make copies of all tweets, status updates, blog comments, etc.
  • Make copies of all emails
  • Analyze website traffic patterns
  • Analyze search volume patterns
  • Where did the crisis break, and when? Where did it spread, and how?
  • How did your internal notification work?
  • How did your response protocol work?
  • Did specific customers rise to your defense? (thank them!)
  • Were your employees informed?
  • How did the online crisis intersect with offline coverage (if any)

There you have it. The social media crisis management playbook than I hope you never need. If you’d like to put a customized crisis plan together for your company, let me know. We can help.