The Impact of Social Media on Crisis Management

Traditional crisis management follows the strategy of “owning your story”; that is, moving quickly to maintain control over how the story of an issue or incident is shared and interpreted and, by doing so, shape how external audiences assess the performance of the organization.

In a social media world, it is very difficult to retain control of your own story and attempts to do so via traditional methods (controlling information access, deliberate and formal response protocols, etc.) can be counterproductive.

Social media has created a communication context where the most effective and valued communications have changed. People now value authenticity, human-ness, accessibility, dialogue, and engagement. The value speed, and as such, a new approach to crisis communications is required.

Here’s what’s been changing:

1. What Constitutes a Crisis Has Changed

The once-trivial is important. A single irate customer can get a large audience quickly. For example, e.g., David Carroll’s complaint about United Airlines’ handling of his luggage (“United breaks guitars”) became an Internet and traditional news sensation.

2. How People Express Dissatisfaction Has Changed

  • Web and social media provide consumers, activists, pranksters, competitors and others with many options for venting complaints or concerns. Some examples:
  • Twitter – easy and rapid dissemination of commentary or information; hash tags can link a problem to your brand instantly, e.g., #dellfail.
  • Facebook – in 2008, Ontario teens staged a massive and almost overnight Facebook-based protest against proposed changes to driver’s license laws that forced the government to abandon its proposals.
  • Web sites and blogs – an individual or organization can post a web site or blog or Facebook page that is as accessible as your official web site or blog(s). With effective search strategies they can ensure people searching for your organization or relevant topics get pointed to their site first.
  • Fake Sites – opposition groups or individuals can create web sites that appear to be an official site of your organization by copying graphics, using cleverly selected links, and so forth.
  • Discussion groups – there are many thousands of discussion groups and forums online. They can be fan sites (generally positive about your organization), critical sites (coalescing complaints and criticism), or neutral (such as a general topic discussion forums).
  • Official commentary and discussion channels – if your organization has channels for the public to comment or interact with your organization (e.g., Facebook page) they can easily become channels for complaint or criticism.

3. How People Obtain Information Has Changed

Stories can break from many directions well before traditional media engage or are able to assess and report. Traditional media also respond to stories or ideas that are moving quickly in interest in the social media world in order to capitalize on their popularity. Search tools, especially Google, define how the majority of people, including journalists, begin to find news and information. Third-party sources have emerged as go-to sources for information in specific categories, e.g., TripAdvisor for real-people commentary on travel experiences.

4. The Speed of Information Has Changed

With Internet and social media channels, information – truth, rumor and speculation – moves far more rapidly, in hours and minutes, not days. Consider the example of the bed bugs and the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF.) Just a few weeks in advance of the Festival, a patron tweeted she thought she was bitten by bed bugs at the theatre that would host all TIFF press screenings. Her post was retweeted by hundreds and stories ran in influential outlets like and The Hollywood Reporter. Even though both Cineplex, the theatre owner, and TIFF organizers responded almost immediately to her posting, the story spread like wildfire. In a crisis, organizations must move to a response strategy immediately and be diligent in chasing down and responding to spreading stories.

5. Who People Trust Has Changed Real

People are able to talk about organizations, brands, services, experiences and products with other real people in discussion groups, in comment feeds, on Facebook, on Twitter, and other social media platforms. These connections have authenticity and therefore are often afforded high trust levels even if the content is inaccurate or subjective. In addition, new “experts” have emerged as a result of social media, e.g., popular mommy bloggers dispense and aggregate advice on child-raising, health, food and myriad other issues.

6. Social Media and Traditional Media are Co-Dependents

Traditional media (i.e., professional journalists) turn to social media for story ideas, background information and commentary. Social media content producers use traditional media to provide credibility to their content and to spread the story, e.g., Wikileaks provided leaked U.S. military documents to traditional media outlets around the world in advance under embargo to ensure high-impact, reach and credibility.

7. Response Expectations Have Changed

Consumers, social media and traditional media now expect immediate responses from organizations. Today’s news cycle is measured in minutes, not hours. Social media vehicles facilitate rapid amplification of a message. You can see the grassfire effect on channels like Twitter when an item is repeatedly retweeted. Even as you are responding to the initial posting, hundreds of others could be spreading the original post to their networks.

8. Access Has Changed

Where once confidential memos, draft proposals, and off-the-cuff comments were generally protected from public exposure, now such items can be made public with the single click of the Send button. Leaked internal e-mails have become a particularly devastating source of embarrassment or worse for organizations. Where once investigative reporters needed to dig through the garbage for incriminating materials, they can now “digitally dumpster dive” through searches for comments, memos, documents and messages that have been put in the digital domain.

9. The Spotlight is On How You Handle the Crisis

As noted in a story by The New York Times Magazine (The Back Story, Upfront, July 25, 2010), the public and media are increasingly interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of news and developments, e.g., the orgy of interest in the Conan O’Brien/NBC/Jay Leno tussle over “The Tonight Show” that included debates about compensation packages, contracts terms, etc.; and during the BP Gulf Oil Crisis, interest in Tony Hayward’s effectiveness as a spokesperson rivalled or exceeded interest in the clean-up strategy.

Organizations need to recognize that media and others will not only be engaged in the content of the crisis, but will also be monitoring and assessing how the crisis is being handled – is the response appropriate? Are spokespeople compelling? Are the communications working?

It is typical now for the media to run stories rating the effectiveness of an organization’s crisis response, often by comparing it to past crises (e.g., Johnson & Johnson and Tylenol), and including commentary from third party experts.

While many of the core principles of crisis management remain valid, there are new crisis management principals to be considered. To read more on this topic, download our free guide: Understanding Crisis Management in a Social Media World. 

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