Social Media, Crisis Communications and Blueberries
I spoke at a conference in the Vancouver area last week about the best ways to deal with the news media and social media in a crisis. It has become obvious to me that it's easier now to deal with traditional media than social media in a crisis situation.
With the news media, you get a better idea of what to expect and, to a certain degree, you can control the message. With social media still being like the wild west, you don't know if you're going to make things worse by what you do.
If your organization finds itself entering into a crisis situation, there are some moves you need to make in social media to survive.
Crisis Communications Evolution
The event I spoke at brought together farmers and food producers from BC, who produce everything from blueberries, to lettuce to dairy products. The conference included a number of experts to speak about the best ways to deal with a product being recalled, normally because it had become contaminated. It was a great way to bring growers and producers together to give them information on the best ways to deal with a recall if they find themselves in the middle of one.
Much of what I talked about on dealing with the news media in a crisis was based on what I speak about when I do media training workshops. For some of the highlights you can check out my Media Training Minute series on my YouTube channel. There are differences with dealing with the news media in a crisis than in a normal situation, but I find many of the fundamentals of good media relations are much the same.
Back to my earlier point though. When I was preparing for my presentation, I realized how the dangers lurking in social media are likely far more challenging than what traditional media poses. Today though, it’s hard to separate one from the other as videos from television newscasts end up on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. They’re more intertwined than people think.
The New Frontier
Last Saturday, Edmonton Journal reporter Keith Gerein had an interesting article about the Alberta government’s pandemic plan, in light of the coronavirus scare. He said the plan has a section on how to deal with the media and communications during a crisis, but noted there isn’t anything on social media, likely because the plan was written six years ago.
Today social media has to be a major part of any communications strategy during a crisis. In fact, social media may be more important in a crisis than media relations, but again there are major connections with traditional media.
During the big fire in Fort McMurray fire almost four years ago (was it really that long?) the news media got the latest information from the Twitter account of the Wood Buffalo municipality. As soon as news was posted on Twitter, the media picked it up and reported it. The muni’s number of Twitter followers soared as the public found out that’s where the media was getting the news from and that way, they didn’t need to wait for the news to be reported by the media.
Dangers Lurking in Social Media
That’s the good side of using social media in a crisis. There are lots of dangers lurking out there.
One message I gave everyone is that while it’s great for businesses to engage with customers in social media, there are obvious dangers during a crisis when feelings are running high and people are looking for somebody to blame. Social media has replaced the telephone, so companies need to make sure it’s being answered, just like they used to always have someone answering the phone.
Companies need to monitor social media closely during a crisis and respond as quickly as possible to questions. That’s always the case with social media, but it’s much more important during a crisis.
Perhaps even more important is they need to make sure their social media platforms aren’t hurting, more than helping them. If anyone on Twitter is making obnoxious and obscene comments, they need to be blocked immediately so those comments can’t sit there for hours being retweeted. Facebook settings may need to be adjusted so comments can be monitored before they’re posted and then addressed.
I also caution companies not to be too restrictive, because they’ll end up looking heavy handed. Even if somebody gets blocked on Twitter, they can still find ways to let others know about it, so if you’re going to restrict comments, it should be for a good reason.
It’s also good to have a policy to help you regulate your social media platforms should a crisis occur. That way you can refer to policy violations as the reason you made certain decisions. Create the policy now though before you have a crisis. Trying to make it up as you go along isn’t the best way to go.
The bottom line is, when you have a crisis, you need a plan to fall back on and execute to get your messages out properly in both traditional and social media. Regardless of how well you do, your brand will likely get damaged to a certain degree.
More than anything, you don’t want to make the situation worse. You’re really not trying to win. You just want to lose gracefully.