Crises of all kinds could hit your brand at any moment.
In the past, communications leaders worried about fairly standard possible crises—those centered around your brand’s reputation, operations, leadership or employees. However, as we’ve all learned lately, there’s no established playbook for brands when the crisis is a global pandemic.
Planning for the worst, and being able to adapt quickly no matter what you’re facing, has become critical—and social media plays a major role in your crisis communications efforts. A Pentland Analytics study found that the impact of brand crises on shareholder value has doubled since the emergence of social media. Furthermore, they found that companies that respond well to this type of crisis see a 20% increase in value on average; those that respond poorly see a 30% decrease.
To ensure the longevity and success of your brand, your organization must think through its strategy from the top down, solidifying social’s role as fundamental to crisis management, developing a holistic plan that involves the right team members, activating your plan as needed and managing the aftermath to mitigate residual effects.
While we hope you never have to use your crisis communications plan when the world is business as usual, we’ll also address what to do right now amid the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic—when the playbook has gone out the window entirely.
You’re likely experiencing a lot of the same emotions your audience might be: concern, fear, uncertainty or even some work-from-home cabin fever. Now is the time to lead with empathy. 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 port in the storm—a leader, a pillar of support and a source of helpful information.
When Glossier, a cosmetics brand with both ecommerce and physical locations, chose to close all of its stores, their team published a note from their CEO on Instagram that specifically called out social media as a way for the Glossier community to stay connected with the brand.
We’ve heard from brands in almost every industry who are receiving an unprecedented volume of messages. For small social teams and solo practitioners, revising your entire strategy, creating new and relevant content, and responding to hundreds or thousands of questions is an enormous challenge.
If you are receiving a high volume of similar questions, consider implementing a social media chatbot to help get your community answers and resources as quickly as possible. Being able to route your customers to information on your website, tips to self-diagnose and resolve common customer support issues or information about your company’s current charitable efforts will give your team hours back to spend on more complex or unique queries.
When it comes to crisis communications, the best plan is one you never have to use. But we can’t all be so fortunate, so it’s best to proactively take the necessary time to prepare. Documenting your organization’s best practices, crisis response team 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. That’s because, in the event of a brand crisis, it’s impossible to separate social media from other communications channels like public relations, internal communications, 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.
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 which 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. Make sure your plan 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 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 message protocol.
- IT and/or security: This person will coordinate any technology needed to manage the situation and lead investigation of any security issues.
Of course, add other roles or executives from other functions as 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.
Identify what types of scenarios might emerge that could adversely impact your business. List the types of happenings 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 chief 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
- And so on.
While listing out these types of scenarios may not be a pleasant exercise, thinking about them when your business isn’t at risk will give you one less worry in the event of a crisis.
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 in place, you can begin any crisis communications response planning by gathering the following information, and your crisis team leader can quickly identify the right level and adequate response.
- What happened and where?
- When did it happen?
- Who is involved?
- How did it happen?
- What has happened and/or 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.
Communication and notification steps
In this section of your plan, lay out what the 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 and start with them notifying 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 Facebook Workplace Group that you’ll use for real-time communication.
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?
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.
When it becomes necessary 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.
A social 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 plan you’ve laid out.
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. 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 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.
Whether you just went through a small hiccup or a major snafu, you should analyze your wholesale 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 enable 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 see your brand’s baseline performance at a normal time, then how data points changed at the beginning, middle and end of a problem.
The big signs 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 leverage 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.
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.
If you’d like a PDF version of this guide, you can download one here.
Looking to dive deeper into this topic? Check out our on-demand Sprout Sessions Digital event, which includes the session New World, New Strategy: Social Media Lessons from a Global Crisis.
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.