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Incorporate Social Media into Your Crisis Management Plan

May 10, 2009

We live in very interesting times in terms of corporate communication and crisis communication. Wouldn’t you agree? I’ve been following the recent Domino’s PR crisis rising from two employees posting a video that joked showing unsanitary food preparation in one of Domino’s kitchen. Totally dumb, I agree, but it resulted in colossal PR nightmare for the brand and was promptly followed by 11% decline in Domino’s stock price. Scary. After consumers stopped talking about that incident another crisis is unfolding as I write this post. This time it is KFC whose corporate office developed an online coupon promotion for a free Kentucky Grilled Chicken meal and advertised their offer through the “Oprah Winfrey Show” The result: KFCs around the country are now inundated with customers, bloggers and tweeters who complain real time about long lines, and KFC stores that refuse to honor coupons or run out of chicken trying to catch up with the demand. Add to the mix angry restaurant owners worrying about revenue losses as the expense of the free meal offer is not being reimbursed by the franchiser. Anticipated result: over 100 customers lost for every one turned away – not the result KFC hoped for. To make the matter worse El Pollo Loco. KFC’s competitor announced they will honor the “Oprah 2 Piece Meal” coupon on Mother’s Day, a day excluded in the KFC’s coupon’s time window. Embarrassing for the brand and touch to handle from the PR standpoint.

Yes, crisis management can be scary and it can invoke a lasting damage to your brand. On another hand crisis can turn out to be your company’s shining moment, strengthening your relationship with your customers and resulting in renewed trust and mutual respect. How to ensure that? You must have a plan in place ahead of time that incorporates social media channels as outlets for getting your messages across . If you have a crisis communication plan in place that includes only traditional media (issuing press releases, emailing reporters and television networks with official statements, etc.) it’s time to dust off your plans and update them to reflect the new communication landscape where there are no news cycles, timed press releases and scripted media interviews. Think about it. People no longer relay on reading the news in the daily paper printed once a day. They turn to the internet where information is created, consumed and commented on in real time by citizen journalists with a mobile phone cameras, twitter accounts and thousands of followers ready and eager to amplify the message. The same immediacy is expected and frankly required from the brand when dealing with crisis management.

What do you do? Here is a set of activities you need to engage in BEFORE THE CRISIS UNFOLDS to make sure your team is ready and well informed and you have established the right social media channels ahead of time to help you get your message across quickly and efficiently. Once the crisis starts there are some tried and true methodology for crisis communication that needs to be applied to social media communication to ensure staying “on message” and activating others to spread your message virally.

Before the crisis

In order to prepare for a crisis you must add the following social media components to your existing crisis communication plan well BEFORE the crisis unfolds

  • Social media staff. You need a group of social media enthusiasts who continuously engage with influencers across your industry and who maintain visibility across all social media channels where conversations about your brand take place. Chris Kenton from SocialRep explains that this should be a distributed practice, rather than one- or two-people team coming from your PR group. All this to help your company develop social media relevant relationships on every operational front. Your engineers, your customer service reps, your legal team should be engaged with relevant communities: engineering, customer support, etc. in order to activate these relationships in the time of crisis and help you carry your message across all operational disciplines. You don’t have to go to extremes (the way Dell, IBM or Oracle do) and make social media interaction one of the job functions of virtually every employee unless you have strong controls in place and highly trained workforce in terms of dos and don’ts of social media engagement. But don’t think that Milennials in your company are already engaged and making social media connections for you and you don’t need to get involved further. Develop a formal plan that includes specific reps from all business units and corporate functions and make social media outreach part of their job responsibilities to ensure you have these valuable social media connections in time of crisis.
  • Social media channel monitoring. One of the big advantages of being socially connected is gathering real-time intelligence. If you’re tracking social media channels – even by using basic free tools like Google alerts–you’re likely to discover a problem in early stages giving you a bit more time to gather as much intelligence as possible and to formulate your response strategy. Chances are that if you are a medium to large brand there is a formalized social media monitoring activity going on in your company that includes subscriptions to social media monitoring software such as Radian6, Buzz Logic or Relevant Noise and you can tap into that process to save time and make your monitoring activity more formalized. Find out who is responsible for that in your company, what reports are generated and how you can participate in this process. Finally you want to know the formal process of activating your crisis response team once you spot a problem. This process should be well publicized in your company so that every employee who discovers a potential problem knows what to do and who to alert.
  • Rapid response team. If you have a crisis management plan in place it surely includes a rapid response team set up to manage response and make decisions which includes a communications expert responsible for gathering, framing and distributing information, a senior executive who is able to make decisions in real time and is accountable for them and additional reps from legal, HR and marketing teams. Please make sure that this team includes a member of or has close coordination with your social media outreach and monitoring team to make sure social media channels are closely monitored in the time of crisis and used along with traditional channels to get crisis information out quickly and efficiently.
  • Social media channels. The time of crisis is NOT the best time to worry about opening a twitter account, starting a corporate blog or setting up a YouTube channel. The time to establish these channels is BEFORE the crisis occurs. Why? First, because they require a fair amount of logistical forethought including identifying channel maintenance procedures . During crisis you don’t have time to worry about best practices associated with channel set up and maintenance. You need your channel to be ready to receive content and have a team in place ready to engage in two-way dialog. Secondly, you need some time for your channel to mature and attract followship in order to be most effective in the time of crisis. Having said that there are plenty of companies including Domino’s who ended up opening a social media channel during the crisis simply because they did not think of it before. Better late than never, but remember to “advertise” your new social media channels as much as possible using your traditional media channels (add a blog link to your press release, provide link to your Twitter account on the home page of your corporate website, etc.). All this to make sure users are aware of these new communication and engagement channels.
    Here is the bare minimum in terms of specific social media channels you should consider maintaining for crisis communications

    • Corporate blog – a definite must-have mainly because of it’s useful crisis management features including real time content publishing, commenting function (to allow for two way dialog), comment moderation (to control the message), RSS feed to enhance the stickiness of the channel and finally rapid search engine indexing to make sure your news hits Google search as quickly as possible.
    • Twitter account – nothing beats the speed of Twitter when it comes to information distribution and particularly in the time of crisis. Both Domino’s and KFC relied on their Twitter accounts for crisis management communication during their recent PR nightmares. You should have a corporate channel set up ahead of time to develop followship and establish itself on Twitter as a reliable source of information. You must have a branded account for your crisis communication rather than relying on indirect accounts of your employees. Remember though that maintaining a Twitter account is a commitment and that once established Twitter channel needs to be continuously maintained. See my previous post about Twitter for brand communications.
    • YouTube – you should consider developing a crisis management video during which your CEO or other senior leader is able to succinctly explain your side of the story. That’s where your previously established YouTube account comes in handy along with all the other corporate videos users will be exposed to while watching your crisis communication piece.
    • Others – Your social media monitoring efforts will dictate what channels to develop and how they can be used for crisis communication. The general rule is to participate wherever others are talking about your brand. This may be a private social network/forum you set up for your customers or an informal group of brand enthusiasts on Facebook. Just keep in mind that every channel has its netiquette and not all communications are suitable for all channels. The number one mistake you can avoid is to copy and paste your press release on your Facebook or MySpace page. DON’T DO IT! Revise your messaging to make it appropriate for that channel without corporate jargon and keeping in mind that transparency is the most effective tool for crisis management

During the Crisis


If you’re monitoring social media, and you suspect a crisis is emerging that you don’t already know about, take a deep breath and definitely don’t panic. You have (hopefully) prepared for this day making it easier to manage what’s to come. Begin by gathering as much information as possible before launching your rapid response team. Chris Kenton suggests initially gathering info. to answering the following two questions:

  • What the source and content of the crisis? Is it a customer complaint on a blog or a post by an influential analyst getting picked up on Twitter? Is it an opinion: someone hates your company, or a fact: your product blew up and hurt someone? You don’t want to go into crisis mode on every customer complaint that can be managed by engagement, but be able to recognize major crisis quickly.
  • What’s the severity of the crisis? Is it one person shouting out to the universe, a percolating dialog, or a raging fire?

Consider asking the source of the post for more information if the story is unclear.
However, don’t try to dismiss or hide the crisis situation. Remember that transparency is the most effective tool for crisis management. Don’t shut up or shout out but participate and make meaningful connections.


Present timely, accurate and candid info. Holtz & Havens in their “Tactical Transparency” book advise that your message should include:

  • Honest and authentic explanation of what happened while maintaining positive image of the organization
  • Explanation of steps taken to address the issue
  • Plans to prevent this situation from happening again

Once again, while the underlining premise of your message should be the same for all channels traditional and new/social, remember that the way the message is worded really makes a difference. While Twitter message has to be succinct (only 140 characters) and could include a link to more detailed info, your blog post can elaborate and invite your constituents to submit comments while your user forum can invite public to more freely discuss the issues. None of these channels include blatantly copying and pasting portions of your press release which has been put together to appeal to a one type of audience and not to everybody. Don’t forget about common sense issues such as avoiding industry jargon, explaining acronyms, removing any legalese or marketing spin from your crisis communication messaging.


  • Once your message has been formulated remember to update it once more information becomes available. But remember to stick to the facts in a crisis and never speculate on the causes or resolution of a crisis unless you have all the facts. Stick to what is known regardless how much pressure you are under from traditional or new media folks.
  • Deliver your message across all channels (traditional and new) while paying attention to the ones where conversations about the crisis are particularly lively. Remember now is not a good time to create social channels. This should have been done ahead of time.
  • Make sure that there is an up-to-date web site/blog entry with all pertinent information regarding the crisis easily accessible to everybody. That website needs to be kept up to date 24/7. It’s best if there is a link to it from your website’s home page.
  • Depending on the severity of the crisis respond appropriately. Chris Kenton suggests separating these crisis into the following types and responding accordingly:
    • SMALL PROBLEMS NEED TO BE ADDRESSED BEFORE THEY BECOME BIG PROBLEMS. Customer complaints on blogs can often be solved by engaging early. The crisis and the resulting online buzz can often be stopped by expediting a connection with customer service. If it’s a problem you can’t solve–an opinion, or a bad experience that can’t be resolved–a note of regret can often have a defusing impact. In the heat of a crisis it is easy to admit wrong-doing or discuss internal problem on a public forum. Don’t do that since you may unleash unintended consequences you’ll regret.
    • AN ISOLATED CUSTOMER PROBLEM IS GAINING TRACTION ONLINE. Consider telling the company’s side of the story to defuse a crisis. Remember to proceed with caution and give yourself time to formulate the message. Sprint handled a classic customer service issue that resulted from red tape and miscommunication within 24 hours by submitting a comment to a blog post about the issue by simply explaining their side of the story, offering to help and NOT asking to remove the damaging post (more here)
    • THE CRISIS IS IN FULL SWING AND INVOLVES MULTIPLE CHANNELS. Admit it, it’s close to impossible to address every blog post and every Twitter post, but this is where your crisis communication planning really shines. Activate your entire social media team and ask them to activate their social media contacts to spread the message across virally. While you alone cannot carry your response to everybody, brand ambassadors can and will. Among those who discuss your brand in connection with the crisis find the ones who are the most influential (through Technorati ranking for blogs or Twittelizer for Twitter influence measuring). Reach to these folks first since their messaging carries a greater impact.
    • INTERNAL CRISIS THAT HAS NOT YET GONE PUBLIC. Consider yourself lucky. You have time to think about your response ahead of time. But don’t procrastinate thinking the issue will go away without hitting the social media channels. Chances of that happening are close to zero if you are a large brand. Your first step should include a traditional pre-emptive disclosure, that should be set and ready to go live when time comes. Don’t activate your social media channels yet, but do it as soon as the buzz starts.


Remember to opt for short, continuing bursts of information rather than infrequent posts and remain accessible and engaged (yes, that includes doing it past 5pm and on weekends if necessary). I remember watching @Scott Monty on Twitter explaining Ford’s point of view continuously into the wee hours of the morning for several days when the issue government bailout for automotive industry was center stage. What he achieved during these hours on Twitter was priceless in terms of crisis management for Ford.


Remember that this crisis just like all the others will not last forever and sun will come out.

Do you have any words of wisdom in terms of handling crisis with the help of social media? Share it here.

Additional Resources

Photo attribution: chanchan222’s on Flickr

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 11, 2009 1:54 pm

    Great post, Aneta. You added a lot of depth to an important topic. Thanks for the link. 🙂

  2. May 11, 2009 4:21 pm


    What a fantastic, comprehensive post. As the social web moves ever faster and information is shared at a breakneck pace, the planning part of communication is as important as the communication itself. I’m so glad you outlined a plan for addressing crises *before* they happen (and that kind of preparation I’m convinced can help stem a crisis in the first place).

    But with so much information moving so fast, missteps are inevitable. Having a solid, calm and methodical approach to responding to these issues is key to protecting and even galvanizing your brand in the face of a crisis. Thanks for sharing a well thought out approach, and for the mention of Radian6 to help in the planning and monitoring process.

    Amber Naslund
    Director of Community, Radian6


  1. Have you incorporate social media into your crisis communication plan? « The EXPOSURE!

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