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Don’t panic! Using social media in a reputational crisis

The proper use of social media in a crisis can be a determining factor in whether you emerge on the side of the people, or with your reputation in tatters. And one thing is for certain, if you're not in the conversation you have no hope of influencing it.

Crises come in all kinds of disguises - ‘physical’, where something has actually gone wrong, or reputational, where people have simply started to hate you…

The first is a different kind of problem and not really the issue here. If you have a bunch of clients stuck down a lift shaft with the waters rising, then I suggest you crack on with that one and get to thinking about the social media repercussions once everyone is out, and sitting in blankets clutching warming mugs of tea.

A reputational crisis is, of course, of a different order and while it feels intense and existential, it’s often more fleeting than you think in the moment.

They can be created out of both something and nothing - an opinion badly expressed by a senior figure or a severe failure of service or product. Both can explode amongst the Twitterati to much the same heights and it can often feel difficult for an organisation to get it’s bearings in such a scenario.

But rest assured, if something’s gone awry, social media will generally be pretty happy to let you know about it. And if you face that kind of problem, there’s a natural tendency to look for comfort in familiar processes and issue press releases, while phoning friendly journalists. That media-facing approach comes from a desire to control - the fewer the variables in a situation, the easier it is to manage. And from the belief that social media is difficult to control - so you shouldn’t even try.

And that’s wrong - you can do this...

In basic terms, you have a choice in a social media crisis of fight or flight - and many choose the latter. Yet, by entering the fray in troubled times, you, or your team, can:

  • Amplify: Put the case better, and without the prism of professional media interpretation. This is vital - you can deliver messages to change people’s opinion over a reputational issue, or at least make you look more likeable. In doing that, reach is vital.

  • Listen and understand what people are saying about an issue and respond accordingly. This might be to change approach or attitudes in a reputational problem, or it might be to understand how a situation is unfolding in a product or service failing.

  • Engage: use that monitoring to find the engagement possibilities and interact with users accordingly, to give advice on the effect of product issues or to put a different case, in times of reputational problems.

Using social media effectively in a crisis is, in many ways, no more than a heightened version of a ‘peacetime’ strategy, i.e. you may want an overall social media strategy which ‘stretches’ to crisis management. What changes is the atmosphere in which they are enacted and the speed of delivery. The principles of social media in a crisis remains steady, but the delivery is heightened.

In short, there needs to be a certain number of principles and processes in place, before it all goes belly up. No point trying to do this afterwards.

Have the social media apparatus ready

A social media strategy should be in place, and working. It is impossible to produce the apparatus for effective social media delivery in a crisis from scratch. It is essential that the platform strategy has been decided - either you know what your doing or your team/agency do: adopting platforms that suit messages and audiences and the internal processes to deliver them.

Have the audiences, and the influencers, in place

It is important, obviously, to have spent time building the audience so that messaging (and information gathering) happens on as large a scale as possible. The higher the volume of people that are comfortable with your brand and your messages in the good times, the more trust you’ll have when things take a wobble.

But don’t just rely on your mates. During a reputational crisis or product/service issue, it is important to speak to, and hear from, those who might ordinarily be viewed as problematic types. Following these individuals is not a sign of approval, it is a sign of interest. Bear in mind, too, the influencers - those who project messages out to large numbers of people: they can be of enormous use when delivering (and trying to hear) messages in difficult times.

Keep channels open and two-way

People react badly when they think a crisis is being ‘fanned’ by social media and so can be tempted to shut down. Yet information is like water and people will always find ways around social media silence, sometimes aided by rivals. To ignore those messages is to let them gain the upper hand - enter those conversations, since genuine communication is vital.

And know what it’s all for

Any form of crisis communication needs a focus and that focus depends on what the nature of the crisis is, but you should determine what engaging on social media should accomplish - improving information flow, improving the quality of information or creating calls to action, and follow through on that need.

Social media engagement is, still, often not the default approach for many people and their organisations, but by having robust processes and networks in place early and the social-by-default instincts ready, they can maintain their place in the conversations that otherwise go on around them. An engaged leader or organisation will listen more, learn more and deliver more in any crisis, and emerge all the stronger.

Disquiet Dog provides social media audits to help organisations understand their current positioning, and identify new strategies to drive engagement and return on investment.