May 8, 2012

The (social) media is the message

Being proactive and using a different approach for each platform are key to social media crisis communication.

A powerful new weapon has been added to your crisis communications arsenal: social media.

Like all weapons, it can be used for good or evil. It can assure you of a swift victory over those who would defame your reputation. Or it can blow up in your face. Because social media can change public opinion — for better or worse.

In the old days, companies relied on traditional media to handle a crisis. In 1982, for example, Johnson & Johnson executed its revered Tylenol crisis communications plan, calling for a comprehensive recall of potentially poisonous product. J&J (and its PR agency) used traditional media outlets to spread the word. With the 24-hour news cycle was still in its infancy, the company reclaimed 70% of its market share within a few short months. Crisis averted.

Flash forward to 2012, and many companies are still struggling with crisis communications — even though anyone can connect with their public in an instant. But instant connection requires carefully crafted strategy.

First, you have to be proactive. Your brand’s social media prowess and reputation will require several months, if not years, to build up. If you wait until after a crisis to enter into the conversation, users might question its authenticity.

Second, each social media platform demands a different approach. Don’t post the same content on Facebook and Twitter, while ignoring YouTube and other opportunities. Facebook is a community; Twitter is a news-sharing platform; YouTube adds a (generally untapped) visual element. You need to know the strengths of each platform to use them to your advantage.


  • Shape the conversation. At this writing, there are eighteen gazillion citizen journalists standing ready to regurgitate information, whether fact, opinion or rumor. Let your voice be heard. Your company must participate actively.
  • Use Twitter as a fire department, not the fire. While the public can get very negative very quickly, an astute PR professional recognizes an opportunity. Monitor Twitter for concerned customers, curious media and misinformation and, most important, respond immediately. Users #hashtag their comments. Use this to your advantage. Search out inaccurate information and provide the facts.
  • Twitter is the ultimate megaphone. If the @Chicago_Police Twitter site existed in 1982, officers could have warned the Windy City’s residents about the poisoned Tylenol far more efficiently, rather than issuing warnings on loudspeakers. In 2012, you have a more powerful loudspeaker. You can shoot down rumors and misinformation with up-to-the-minute crisis specifics.


  • Don’t leave your brand advocates in the dark. Your Facebook followers are your promoters. With no 140-character restrictions, Facebook allows a brand to release detailed statements to alleviate customer (and employee) fears.
  • Facebook is permanent. Well, more or less. Tweets may disappear into the Twitter ether, but Facebook Wall comments can last a long time. This means it’s very important for you to respond promptly. If you don’t take part in the conversation, your Wall can become a never-ending airing of grievances. That doesn’t mean you should delete negative posts — conversations on your page should be authentic and transparent.
  • Redirect your landing page. Show Facebook visitors your company statement immediately. They should grasp the company’s position before reading any Wall posts. When they move on to the Wall posts or make their own comments, at least they’ve got a good idea where you stand.


  • You oughta be in pictures. While well-crafted tweets and posts are essential to a crisis response, news-seekers need a visual component. YouTube clips add this missing element to your crisis messaging — people will be able to see and hear your crisis spokesperson. Maybe you think creating and editing a video is expensive and time-consuming, but it beats a static, silent newspaper image.

We’ve established that these sites are separate. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be some crossover.

  • Post videos to Facebook.
  • Provide links to longer statements on Twitter.
  • Direct users to accurate, external articles not connected with the company.

Remember, other social media site might also be useful, depending on your situation and industry. Other social media sites lack the critical mass acceptance of the big three, but may help your cause. For example:

  • Amid layoff rumors, LinkedIn’s 150 million users might be an appropriate audience.
  • During an oil spill/nuclear plant crisis, Pinterest could showcase cleanup efforts.

Don’t let outside sources manage your crisis response. Build a detailed social media response into your plan, execute it properly and control your own message. After all, that’s what effective communications is all about.