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From Crisis to Connection: How to Build a Social Media Crisis Management Strategy

Crises of all kinds could hit your brand at any moment. In a fast-paced digital world, having a social media crisis management strategy is crucial.

The past few years have been a wake-up call for many brands. At the start of the pandemic, only 23% of US organizations reported having a dedicated crisis response team in place, according to PwC’s 2021 Global Crisis Survey. Yet 62% of organizations used a crisis response plan during the pandemic.

Planning for the worst and being able to adapt quickly no matter what you’re facing is critical—and social media is a fundamental piece of crisis communication and management. In fact, more than half of investor relations officers say social media makes it easy to communicate with their audience and restore trust after a crisis.

Social media professionals are already well-equipped to deal with communication in difficult situations. Leading with empathy and flexibility is at the core of what you do. Your experience will help you collaborate across functions to develop an effective social media crisis communications plan and support your community.

This comprehensive guide to social media crisis communications will give you actionable best practices to:

  • Understand the level of crisis you may be experiencing
  • Create content that directly speaks to your customers’ needs during a crisis
  • Prepare an evergreen crisis communications plan so you’re ready when needed
  • Set up your social media operations to see your team through a crisis scenario
  • Use social media to make actionable recommendations on business next steps, and more

While we hope you never have to use your social crisis management plan, it’s important to have one ready—whether it’s specific to your brand or a global crisis that changes the way you, and the world, work.

The basics of crisis communications

First, it’s important to distinguish between crisis communications and communications in a crisis.

Crisis communications is a form of brand communication meant to mitigate damage to a brand’s reputation during a negative action or event caused by that brand. Think Chanel’s controversial advent calendar or Tesla not responding to media requests during a lawsuit.

A tiktok video of an influencer holding the Chanel advent calendar that earned the company negative press.

Communications during a crisis refer to communications from a brand during a widespread crisis situation that is bigger than the brand itself. These events are not caused by the brand, but they are likely to have an impact on the brand’s business, operations and community. According to a recent Twitter report, 61% of people said brands should acknowledge moments of crisis in their advertising and communications as they happen.

Not every negative exchange on social is a crisis. However, the practices you put into place can inform how you handle everyday issues and negative feedback—and vice versa. The way you approach controversies can even help curb a crisis or improve your brand by taking in feedback from your community to right a wrong.

You may not be able to predict every crisis that comes your way. But by crafting an evergreen crisis communications plan and team that can be adjusted based on the scenario, you set yourself up for less of a scramble.

Prefer to listen to insight? Don’t miss Get Baked’s unique approach to managing a social media crisis on Sprout Social’s own Podcast Social Creatures.

What to share and when to pause

During a crisis, we cannot proceed as if it’s business as usual. As a social media professional, it’s crucial that you are well-informed about your organization’s operations, plans and policies so that, even when things may change hour-to-hour, you are providing clear, empathetic information to your audience.

Typically, information that an organization shares during a crisis may include any effect on business (such as hours of operation, new cleaning procedures or refund policies) and how the brand intends to support those affected by a crisis (such as donating goods, providing physical space for relief efforts or waiving delivery fees).

As you adjust your social crisis management approach, look at any planned content and ad campaigns for the next few weeks. At a minimum, review everything you had planned while asking yourself:

“Does this feel relevant to our audience right now?”

Know your audience. Are they primarily customers? Students? Employees? Local community members? Think about what their questions, concerns and needs are right now. Providing content that speaks directly to these considerations ensures your social presence remains relevant and valuable during a difficult time.

A reel on sprout social's instagram encouraging marketing professionals to unplug and relax.

You may need to postpone campaigns or pause scheduled content altogether. Using Sprout Social, you can pause all outgoing content by going to Pause All in your Publishing Settings.

Sprout social's pause all feature

How to use social insights to inform decision-making

Social media is a powerful source of inspiration and data that can inform the best approach for your business during a crisis—both in terms of new ideas to serve customers and strategic discussions to have within your organization. While social can certainly fuel a crisis, it can also be used to manage one.

Recently, Weber Grill got ahead of a potential PR issue when they realized a pre-scheduled email highlighting a recipe for meatloaf was sent the morning of the passing of music artist Marvin Lee Aday—better known as Meat Loaf.

While this scenario occurred via email, using trending topics on social—in this case, the passing of a celebrity—could be a great tool to inform your strategy and shape a response.

What challenges are top of mind for your brand right now? Use social to look at:

  • What your target audience has to say about related topics
  • How competitors are responding
  • What the local community is searching for

You can use social listening tools to evaluate a wide spectrum of global social media messages, or you can simply search for keywords or hashtags to find examples to inspire your next steps.

Listening can help you mitigate a crisis by catching it early. When a popular Twitter account unearthed insensitive Tweets written by a tenured Indiana University professor, IU used Sprout’s Listening tools to monitor the topic. Within almost 24 hours of the conversation escalating, IU was able to present their listening data, quickly put out a statement from the provost condemning the professor’s Tweets and get ahead of a potential PR nightmare.

Package these insights into a report that you can share with the rest of your team. Include high-level takeaways about the social conversation as well as examples of messages so your team members who aren’t on the social front lines can hear from people in their own words. Make sure to share this report along with your own recommendations.

The role of social in best-in-class crisis communications

Most crises brands face start and pick up steam online. With that in mind, it’s important that every level and function of your organization understands the primacy and power of social media for managing a crisis.

Why are social media crisis communications so critical?

  • It’s fast. The rapid spread of information on social media is both an opportunity and a challenge for your brand in times of crisis.
  • It’s direct. In a Sprout survey of 1,000 US adults, 89% said a business could regain their trust if it admitted to a mistake and was transparent about how it would work toward a resolution. Transparency is huge—social gives you a direct channel to share your brand’s position with your customers and community.
  • It’s a powerful data source. Brands can aggregate data from millions of social messages and derive actionable intelligence with social listening tools. This gives communicators a real-time way to assess a crisis, understand its timeline and inform appropriate next steps for the business, online and off.
  • It’s a first touchpoint. According to Pew Research, 67% of Americans get news from social media often or at least some of the time. It is often the first place people hear about a crisis and where they watch it play out in real-time.
  • It’s everywhere. Internet users worldwide spend, on average, 142 minutes per day on social media, and in 2021 over 4.2 billion people used social media worldwide.

It can also catch crises or controversies before they grow. This Prose example never made headlines—the company was quick to respond with a transparent, collaborative and apologetic reply, and put words into action by taking down an ad that was called out for being offensive.

It is imperative that social media professionals are part of planning a brand’s crisis response. Whether you’re the leader of a social team, a solo social media manager or a communications professional wearing many hats, your understanding of this important channel will inform an integrated, customer-centric communications plan.

Develop an integrated crisis communications plan

Documenting your organization’s best social media crisis communications practices, response roles and policies will ensure that when something goes awry, your team can swiftly leap into action.

You’ll notice that the crisis management plan template below isn’t limited to social media issues. In the event of a brand crisis, it’s impossible to separate social media from other communications channels like public relations, internal communications, owned content and investor relations (when applicable). The elements of your communications plan can be scaled up or down to apply to your team and your company’s unique communications approach.

As you work through every possible scenario, consider incorporating these elements into your integrated crisis communications plan.

Create a crisis communications team

Confusion only serves to exacerbate an emergency. Eliminate as much uncertainty as possible by determining in advance who tackles what, who their backups are and who will handle elements of your social media response.

While some crises can be tackled more easily than others—a Tweet from the wrong account may be less severe than a nationwide product recall—having a robust team in place will allow you to scale your response down if the crisis is less severe.

Craft a plan that includes the following roles:

  • Crisis communications team leader (CCTL): Responsible for coordinating the team’s response, overseeing message development, scheduling crisis communications team meetings and facilitating approvals with senior leadership. This may be a senior communications leader within your organization.
  • Crisis communications coordinator (CCC): In the event of a larger crisis, this person will assist the CCTL with prioritizing the team’s responsibilities and project managing a response. They will liaise with all of the communications team leaders: social, PR, internal communication, investor relations, customer marketing, etc. This may be a communications manager from any discipline or your social team lead.
  • Final approver: This person is a high-ranking executive and will provide final approval on all publicly disseminated information. They will also act as a spokesperson when necessary, whether in media statements or social content that’s part of your response.
  • Legal counsel: This team member’s role is straightforward—they provide legal advice on communication strategies and the business impact of a given situation, and they approve formal company statements and/or the company’s messaging.
  • IT and/or security: This person will coordinate any technology needed to manage the situation and lead the investigation of any physical security issues.

Of course, add other roles or executives from other functions as it applies to your organization. Your plan should include each team member’s name, role, contact information (work and home/personal) and who will serve as a backup if they are unavailable.

Be sure to have a clear process when it comes to approving posts and flagging certain comments. Sprout’s Message Approval Workflow helps your team collaborate in one place. Just make sure the necessary permissions are granted to members of your crisis communications team.

Sprout Social's approval workflow tool

Be prepared for different crisis scenarios

It’s impossible to know exactly what crises may come up. The way every company had to handle communications over the last few years differed between industries, locations, products and more. That’s why it’s beneficial to you and your company to prepare for different potential crisis scenarios.

Identify what types of scenarios might emerge that could adversely impact your business. List the types of events that could cause each type of crisis, as well as the right member of your executive team to help your crisis communications team leader run point.

Here’s an example of how you might list this information.

Type of crisis: Business reputation

  • Major product recall, failure or safety issue
    • Point person: CEO, chief product officer or head of product development for that line of business
  • Leak of confidential information
    • Point person: CEO or officer responsible for the relevant area of the business
  • Controversial statements by leadership or employee (on social media or elsewhere)
    • Point person: CEO if C-level; CMO or head of communications otherwise
  • Offensive social media message posted from brand account
    • Point person: CMO or head of communications

Consider creating templates for social media posts you can use and adjust for each scenario. Speed is everything when it comes to communicating in a crisis. You don’t have to have all the information yet to put out a post that says, “We are currently investigating and will share more information as soon as we know more.” Brands that wait too long to respond to a crisis, or say nothing at all, appear indifferent or as if they have something to hide.

While crisis scenario planning may not be a pleasant exercise, doing it when your business isn’t at risk will give you one less worry in the event of an incident.

Develop your crisis assessment criteria

The first step in managing a crisis is understanding what happened and the severity of the issue. Include a list of crisis levels and characteristics in your plan to help your team quickly ascertain the appropriate level of response when a crisis arises.

You might assign crisis severity levels ranging from level one (something that attracts very little attention) to level five (something that disrupts business and/or is an international news story). With this guidance, you can begin any crisis communications response planning by gathering the following information. This allows your crisis team leader to quickly identify the appropriate level and response.

  • What happened and where?
  • When did it happen?
  • Who is involved?
  • How did it happen?
  • What is planned in response?
  • How many people does this affect?
  • How many people are aware?

An offensive Tweet may only rate a level one and require a smaller team with an appropriately scaled down response—but if social media alerts you to a dangerous product problem or food poisoning cases from one of your restaurants, you might be ringing the four- or five-alarm bell.

List communication and notification steps

In this section of your plan, lay out what the internal chain of communication looks like when you need to activate your plan. Generally this would begin when a member of your crisis communications team is first informed of a potential crisis. They would notify the crisis communications team leader, and it would continue from there, depending on the type and severity of the crisis.

This can also include best practices for how the crisis communications team will stay in touch while managing the situation. For example, establish a daily stand-up meeting and create a temporary Slack channel or Meta Workplace Group that you’ll use for real-time communication.

Get a gut check from your legal team to help you decide. “Some situations can be very sensitive and the way you communicate around the situation will be very important,” says Sprout Social’s Manager of Communications Kaitlyn Gronek.

Similarly, it helps to map out how you’re going to communicate the situation internally outside of your crisis communication team. Kaitlyn laid out several types of common internal communication buckets:

  • Informational communications: These give employees context and insight into what is happening.
  • Actionable communications:. These share next steps needed from employees, from reminders to keep information confidential to reaching out to customers.
  • Status update: These give employees an ongoing debrief on what is happening, as the situation unfolds.

Having a point person for employees helps keep conversations focused and reduces the risk of people turning to others or share information they shouldn’t.

Determine account access, policies and procedures

Who has the password to your organization’s Twitter account? What’s the two-step verification code for accessing your Instagram natively? Where do you respond if your main communications channels are compromised?

As part of your social media governance model, you want to make sure others can securely have access to your core channels if you’re not able to assist. Build a central repository of policies, procedures and other documentation for an extra layer of security. That way you aren’t relying only on somebody’s memory in a high-pressure situation and you aren’t stalled if a team member can’t be reached.

Get team and leadership buy-in for your plan

The final step of creating a plan is making sure that the right people are aware and on board for their roles in managing a crisis. Share your plan with your direct manager and determine the best way to share with your organization’s leadership. Provide a window for feedback and, from there, make sure the plan is housed in an easy-to-access digital location like the policies and procedures section of your company’s intranet, central server or Wiki. Finally, review this plan on an annual basis to ensure your protocols and contact information remain up-to-date.

Activate your social media plan

When it’s time to activate your plan, take a deep breath. Remember, you’re prepared for this—which gives you a strong foundation and clear sense of next steps.

Now, your job is to find a resolution and put your audience at ease. Here’s how to reach that goal.

Remain flexible

A social media crisis communications plan, of course, should cover the most crucial steps, but your team should also feel empowered to take actions that best suit the challenge at hand. Just keep all stakeholders in the loop if you deviate from the established plan.

This flexibility extends to how you handle your scheduled social messages. Many brands have their social posts queued several days or weeks in advance to promote an ongoing campaign or to provide a signal boost to evergreen content. When an emergency hits, turn off any scheduled messages. It doesn’t reflect well on a business to share serious information about a product recall, then have a funny Tweet go out an hour later.

Develop a message protocol document

As you work with other communications stakeholders or the rest of your social team to plan your response, an agreed-upon message protocol document will be an invaluable resource.

Focus your social approach on responding to your community’s questions and fostering a sense of connection. Through this approach, you can position your brand as a leader, a pillar of support and source of helpful information—especially for larger, non-brand-specific crises.

This document should outline:

  • Your brand’s position, stance or formal response
  • Your brand’s messaging strategy
  • Approved social media copy to publish
  • Approved social media messaging or 1:1 responses

This document should be approved by the crisis communications team leader as well as your company’s legal team as needed. With your message protocol in place, you’ll be ready to communicate with your audience as soon as you get the green light.

Pro tip: Having pre-approved social media copy for FAQs you receive during a crisis—even if a response just includes a snippet of copy and a link to a page that offers more information—is crucial. In Sprout, the Asset Library simplifies collaborative publishing by making all of your pre-approved, go-to answers easy to find.

Set up your social media crisis communications operations

Next, you’ll want to establish your social media management plan and processes. On social, you’ll need to consider several factors:

  • How you will publish information and which platforms to prioritize
  • Communications going out on other channels (e.g. customer emails) and timing
  • How you will manage and respond to inbound messages
  • What language you will use in outbound communications
  • Whether you will monitor any specific influencers amid the conversation
  • How you will assess the situation (at the outset and through the end) and provide insights to the rest of your crisis communications team

Choose the right platforms

Depending on the crisis at hand and the field you’re in, different social platforms may be better for distributing your messages. Know where your core audience is—and it may not just be on the biggest platforms.

The social platforms of choice should also make sense for the situation: a fire at one of your facilities may require immediate notification on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, whereas a response to an insensitive public comment about an employee might require messaging on LinkedIn and Facebook.

Manage and engage with inbound messages

Using the message protocol document you’ve developed, you’ll know what types of messages you can and should respond to. But in order to find all of the relevant messages, you’ll also need to be able to surface posts where people aren’t tagging your brand.

To mitigate major issues before or as they arise, have a solid monitoring process in place. Through active keyword monitoring, you will be alerted of social discussions directly or indirectly involving your organization. In Sprout, the Cases feature will also allow you to flag high-priority comments, questions and posts for other members of your crisis communications team.

In times of crisis, your brand’s inbound message volume will likely surge. Determine what kinds of tools can help you provide swift and appropriate responses to people reaching out. Consider implementing or updating a social media chatbot to help get your community answers and resources as quickly as possible. Just make sure your chatbot is updated to reflect the current situation and questions being asked.

Sprout social's customizable bot

Considering more than 75% of consumers expect a response from brands in less than 24 hours, speed matters. Routing your customers to information on your website, tips to self-diagnose and resolve common customer support issues or information about your company’s current efforts will give your team hours back to spend on more complex queries.

In Sprout Social, setting up Inbox Rules and Auto-Tagging can help you create a Tag-based Inbox View to manage all messages related to the crisis at hand in one place. This will also enable you to quickly pull a Tag Performance Report to share with your team or leadership to give them a sense of the conversation.

Pro tip: If there are specific influencers or accounts you want to flag in the Smart Inbox, configure a Custom VIP List in Sprout’s inbox features. A small icon will appear next to this user’s name and message in Sprout, as it will for accounts with a large audience size that engage with your brand.

Assess big picture insights for company leadership

Use social listening to get a bird’s eye view of the situation, understand the trajectory of the crisis and identify what specific issues are driving negative sentiment.

One of the first things to do is set up a Listening Topic in Sprout or your tool of choice to access insights from aggregate social data. This will enable you to see how fluctuations in the volume of messages and sentiment about the issue, what moments in the social conversation caused inflection points and what specific messaging is or isn’t resonating with your audience.

With social listening, you can quickly export these insights as a report to share with your team and leadership. Doing this at the beginning of a crisis can inform a customer-centric messaging strategy and continuously empower you to adapt as the situation unfolds.

“Understanding the overall conversation helps you better spot any concerning topics from the outset and will help your team move quickly should a crisis unfold,” says Kaitlyn. “This allows you to gauge sentiment faster and be more nimble in your response.”

A listening topic tracking conversation around COVID-19

Manage the aftermath 

Whether you just went through a small hiccup or a major emergency, you should analyze your long-term audience response and the reaction over time on social. A comprehensive report that shows you impressions, shares, comments and sentiment, as well as internal metrics like average response time to critical questions, will help you to measure your success and outline areas for improvement moving forward.

Ideally, you will want to set the dates for what you measure so that you can compare your brand’s baseline performance at a normal time against how data points changed at the beginning, middle and end of a problem.

Major impacts of how a crisis was handled might not show up until much later in the form of decreased revenue or customer loss. But a social savvy organization can track customer sentiment in real time and use analytics to show how well a situation was handled. Remember that your success isn’t just about the numbers—it’s how well you connected with your audience.

After your brand has hopefully mitigated the crisis, you’ll also be able to report on the lifecycle of the situation and how your brand’s response changed the tone of the conversation. These insights will give your crisis communications team information to improve or build on your plan for the future. Just in case.

Breathe easy

Crises may be overwhelming and worrying. But just as the best offense is a good defense, taking the time to prepare for emergencies can alleviate a good portion of the mental strain. With sound strategies in place and the right tools at your side, you are ready to fight any battle that comes your way.

Hopefully, you will never have to use your crisis communications plan. But if you ever do, it’s better to be ready. Download our brand crisis worksheet to prepare yourself to handle a crisis—before and after it happens.

If you’re ready to try social media management software that will help your team more effectively manage any kind of crisis, start a free 30-day trial of Sprout Social today.