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”.