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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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