Social media in crisis communications: It’s not just about speed

Crisis communication is increasingly focusing on social media but too often the emphasis is on speed. Instead, it is necessary to draw breath before responding and not get too carried away with what is really just a communications tool.

Just looking to respond quickly disguises the multiple impacts that social media has on reputation – building, maintenance and protection. Of course speed is important. Information and allegations can come at an organisation quickly and the response can be made quickly as well. Social media also allows a more direct communication. A defence or response is stronger because it is from the horse’s mouth; there is not the reliance of others, the traditional media, to filter your comments or use only small parts of a carefully worded statement.

Just as a press office can be run from the site of an incident there is no reason why social media can’t be run in real time from there as well. Live tweeting and images could show what is really happening – citizen journalism becomes corporate journalism.

Social media is, in that case, another tool to be used to help maintain control over the message and prevent a void from being created. It is where such activity is lacking that you can really get into trouble. A social media presence is now expected, if not inevitable.

To really be effective, an organisation’s social media presence needs to be established in advance of any crisis. That enables it to have established a reputation for authenticity so that whatever comes out of that channel is treated seriously.

But social media is just a tool. Reputation takes time and effort to build. As Lord Browne, former Group Chief Executive of BP, as quoted in PR Week (February 2014), said:

“Trust begins with honesty and transparency, not with incomprehensible corporate jargon or a 140-character tweet.”

So there is more to reputation than just the social media. But it does need time, effort and resources if it is to maximise its elevated place in reputation development and protection, especially in a crisis.

I spoke at a recent meeting of the Professional Services Group on making the most of social media. It was clear that whilst the role it could play in crisis management was appreciated, it was not always clear to the audience how it could be properly harnessed or, if needed, controlled.

There are also balances to be maintained in keeping the more human, less reverent of differential voices alive in the social media presence in a crisis whilst balancing this against the knowledge that every word and phrase is amplified in importance. And of course there are lawyers around worrying about future liabilities!

However, the central rules of crisis management apply whatever the channel of communication that you are using – apologising, getting to the bottom of what is going on, senior leaders in charge, providing new information as it becomes available, feeding the media, not allowing vacuums to build and not letting the pundits and ‘experts’ take charge. There also needs to be a consistency in message and you can’t let social media wander off on its own.

As Ze Frank, Executive Vice President of Video at Buzz Feed said:

“Despite enhanced communication, there will be no significant advances in the technology of saying sorry”.

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

Leave a Reply