Time moves strangely on social media. When you’re casually scrolling through your timeline, tweets flow like sand through an egg timer, with little lasting impact. However, if you are caught up in a social media crisis it can seem like the whole world and time is standing still.
We are all aware of the damage that a social spat can cause to a brand, to individual reputations and share prices. Social media crises require special treatment and should not be treated in the same way as a more conventional issue.
Ahead of the CIPR’s national conference on Preparing for the Digital Future, conference sponsors Crisp got together with Influence to host a roundtable to discuss social crises and how to plan and deal with them.
While there might be many differences between a conventional reputational crisis and a social media one, the group started by identifying areas of similarity – with a view to helping plan for any eventuality.
“It’s not that the parameters have shifted,” said Justine Bower, director of communications, consumer & social at UKTV. “’What’s the story, who’s got the story, how many people are joining in with the story?’ It’s that rather than being funnelled through the press office it comes from a tweet.”
“What can turn an incident into a crisis? Certainly, if we’re not ready for it?” commented James Puxty, head of incident communications at Nationwide. He continued, “Once your social media monitoring tools have picked up that there is unusual activity and your team has taken stock of the situation, the nature of the initial response can be key to whether an incident can be resolved or it escalates.”
That can involve building relationships with other teams. “Our social media sits in marketing rather than the PR team,” said Ann-Marie Russell, group external communications manager at Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. “For us the need to get close to our social team has been really important. We have a good relationship with them and they know when to flag something, not just to us but to key parts of the business.”
Once flagged, what shape should the response take?
Emma Monks, Crisp’s VP of crisis intelligence, asked whether a response should be best described as ‘the solution’ or an ‘acknowledgement’.
“I’d say that it has to be the acknowledgment that is important,” she said. “I see some brands jumping to ‘a solution’ but the problem is the large amount of disinformation targeting them – they could be jumping to resolve a fake issue invented by someone whose sole intention is to harm their brand, and in trying to offer a solution in that situation they end up digging the hole even deeper for themselves.”
“A lot of our responses have to be quite technical, because of the nature of the stakeholders following us,” said Mary Whenman, director of communications at British Business Bank. “They are not quick customer service-type answers that one would normally give.”
Sometimes it can feel like a serious challenge to an organisation’s culture to require responses on social right away.
“As an investment bank we work through intermediaries, we are one-set removed from our end user. What’s really interesting is that our communications and policy team is really the only team in the bank which works in real time,” said Whenman, “Almost everyone else is working on long lead times, for example the investment teams usually work to a six to twelve-month lead time.
“I think that’s a real challenge and means educating people internally. That when you do need to respond to something on social media we’re not asking for a response next week, but in the next hour.”
With silence seen as the greatest mistake when trouble is brewing getting something out to show that you are taking matters seriously, without going into too much detail was agreed as a good move for most organisations.
Holly Bremner, head of comms, Rutland County Council, believes the acknowledgement is also vital to the wider audience, who will be checking their social accounts to see what has been said. The recent flooding has provided her with more than one example.
“The public don’t always want to know the details they want to know that the council is on it,” she commented.
Despite the temptation to have standardised responses, keeping the human element is important for the sake of keeping people onside during a potentially tricky situation.
“It’s about transparency,” said George Cathcart, head of organic social at threepipe. “There are times when it’s a complex issue and it’s impossible to get back in half an hour, or even a day, with a solution.
“That doesn’t mean you can say ‘oh, we’ve acknowledged it, they’ll be happy to sit and wait for two days while we get everything together.’ It means continuing the communication. Saying ‘look, this is a complex issue, we’re working on it.’”
“It’s about authenticity and trust,” added Puxty. “Don’t tell me something to appease me, tell me something that is true, that I can believe.”
While there remains a certain amount of cynicism about brands on social media there is still the opportunity for organisations to build a reputation for transparency and credibility if they handle difficult situations well.
An example which impressed Nicola Good, head of brand & external relations – marine & offshore at Lloyd’s Register, was the seizure of the oil tanker Strait of Hormuz, earlier this year and the way ship’s owner used their social media – which before barely used prior to the incident – to share chronological statement to communicate with stakeholders and the wider world during the incident.
“The twitter account really started being actively used that Friday night and engagement grew quickly,” said Good. “There was trust because people knew the company was sharing what they knew as quickly as possible. That is one of the best examples I’ve seen of that type of crisis management – where there are multiple stakeholders and trust is so important.”
Building a reputation for transparency and honesty should play a key part in the planning for potential crises and your social output should reflect that. “You’ve got to build your allies in times of calm,” said Bremner. “They will become spokespeople for you and advocates when times are tough. Crises can come when people don’t trust an organisation because they only ever hear the negatives.”
Building that good will means sharing the good work that you are proud of, making sure that your side of the story is always heard. An example being the ambulance service where the life saving work of every day might be overshadowed by the occasional newsworthy tragedy if it wasn’t for the efforts of the social team.
As a combined effort, spreading good news should be coupled with using social as an intelligence gathering tool – as it is increasingly hard to second guess where issues might arise. As Monks observed: “When it comes to planning I always think you need paranoia ten layers deep. These days incidents are increasingly born out of tangential things the public pick up on.”
So, are today’s social media crises tomorrow’s chip paper? They can be if you have the correct planning and intelligence tools in place – and focus on the positives during the good times.
If this sounds familiar it’s that the fundamentals of crisis management have not changed, but the platforms have led to a need to adapt – both tactically and strategically.
I would just like to thank Crisp and all of our guests for the thoroughly interesting discussion. My notes ran in to thousands of words and it was particularly challenging to fit in as much as possible!