5 Steps to Preparing for a Social Media Crisis

(this article is a reprint and update of my earlier published article for PRSA Philadelphia)

Social media crises have broken careers of politicians, embarrassed news organizations and criticized corporations. Even if you have a social media crisis plan, have you also invested in an internal infrastructure that will support a sustained crisis? These 5 steps can help you chart out a crisis response structure that will complement your existing social media efforts.

1. Operate from a solid foundation

Have policies

Before you send your first tweet from a proactive campaign, you should have an internal policy that governs both employee use of social media and how business units request to establish accounts. It’s important that the process also keep track of the registered social media accounts just like any other business asset.

Audit and control access to social media accounts

You should know the names of the accounts, the account owner, and who has access to the password. Having a central process for approvals and registration can also expedite the registration of new accounts in a crisis situation.

If possible, consider a centralized engagement tool where you can provision employee or agency access with specific permissions, so the broader team does not run the risk of compromising a password.

Central engagement tools also have the added benefit of team collaboration to better source and approve content quickly in a crisis, and manage time shifts so you have 24/7 coverage. They can also provide a central archive of your published content for your legal team’s use.

Monitor crises in advance

A centralized monitoring framework is also important so you can define regular metrics that will be triggers for crisis response. You may wish to use shifts in conversation topics, tonality or simply spikes in the volume of a particular conversation as your trigger point for action. Having a template for the format of monitoring reports and standardized alerts will also help you effectively process issues that require response.

In an ideal world your monitoring and engagement solution will work together to make your monitoring results immediately actionable.

2. Focus on teamwork

The Altimeter Group has done an excellent job of outlining the main business models of how social media is managed. The “centralized” and “hub-and-spoke” models are the most pervasive, indicative of the stages of development of social media strategy within most organizations.

You should use these definitions to interpret your own structure, so you can understand how your teams should function across the business and design the appropriate workflow.

Establish clear roles for:

  • monitoring
  • strategy
  • content development/ advertising
  • engagement
  • approval, and
  • measurement.

Make sure that in a crisis everyone knows what these roles are expected to do and assign the right individual to service each role on your crisis team.

Don’t forget to develop a bench of staff that can fulfill these roles when your lead staff are on another assignment or otherwise unavailable.

To do so, invest in training your proactive marketing and PR staff and have a staff augmentation plan with your outside agency or other functions within the business.

3. Have a crisis process that supports speed 

Even with the right team, you can still be caught helpless in a crisis if you don’t know how to process and react to information.

Establish an escalation process that anticipates the level of severity of various scenarios that you will regularly come across, and then align each level to your traditional business response. With each level, define your trigger points, anticipate what teams will need to be activated and how quickly they should be assembled.

It may also help you expedite the escalation process if you have a “triage” team of internal social media experts and/or business stakeholders that can work with the monitoring team to filter and flag posts based on content, influence rank and/or risk to the business.

4. Invest in scenario planning

Introduce social media implications into your regular crisis scenario planning. As part of that process, help your crisis teams to understand how to define the audience and match the message to the channel.

Once you move into the action planning phase, keep it simple – brainstorm response plans according to a low, middle and high states (e.g.: “low” may be < 100 shares of a news story – indicating you will only monitor the situation – whereas “high” may be 500 unique negative comments that you must respond to on your Twitter accounts).

Make sure your team picks an engagement model (are you only providing corrective or factual information, or are you seeking a two-way dialogue?), defines flexible trigger measurements that help you understand when the situation is moving into a new scenario, and establishes the approval process with specific individuals appointed to serve in each defined role.

5. Don’t forget the metrics

Finally, don’t forget that you need to be clear on what success looks like.

By responding to a crisis in social media are you seeking to shift the tonality of a conversation? Change perception of a target audience? Or simply share your point of view?

Define metrics about keyword phrase dominance and sentiment to measure the qualitative impact, but also use measures like click through rate (CTR), engagement, follower growth, and audience size to interpret the effect you’ve had on the crisis situation.

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