How to Use Social Media to Handle a Business Crisis

By Ric Shreves, Michelle Krasniak

Crisis detection is one thing that social media does extremely well. As they say, bad news spreads like wildfire. Social media is the tinder that fuels that fire. If you have your monitoring in place, you can be one of the first to know that a problem has occurred.

Establishing a crisis detection plan

The first and most critical key to dealing with a crisis is discovering in timely fashion that the crisis is occurring. Crisis detection enables you to triage the situation and respond before things spiral out of control. When you have a handle on the incident, you can implement the right escalation process.

Not listening reflects badly on your brand. Failure to detect things quickly and respond is the fastest way to generate criticism of your company’s professionalism and level of concern. You never want to be accused of being clueless or indifferent. With the existence of good social media monitoring tools, there’s no excuse for not knowing about a crisis in timely fashion.

Numerous social media monitoring tools can help you find mentions of your name, your brand, and your products. Some of the best tools are commercial and can be quite expensive, but some low‐cost alternatives work pretty well. One of the easiest‐to‐implement free solutions is Google Alerts, which enables you to set up an automatic notification for each time a particular set of words or phrases appears in Google search results.

You want a social media monitor with the broadest coverage possible. Don’t restrict yourself to a tool that can search only the big channels (Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn). The goal is to find out about a crisis as quickly as possible, which means monitoring multiple channels.

Following are a few commercial social media monitoring products:

When you have the monitoring tools in place, you need to establish a listening protocol that covers the following:

  • Who is primarily responsible for listening?

  • When is that person responsible for listening?

  • How will you cover listening on weekends, holidays, and off hours?

Characteristics of a crisis

A crisis has three characteristics:

  • Information asymmetry: Information asymmetry occurs when someone other than your company has more or superior information about a situation. The classic example is finding out about a problem from social media before internal processes bring the matter to the attention of the right people in the organization. Suppose that one of your company’s planes just went down in the Hudson River. How do you know?? Oh. . . there are multiple videos of it on YouTube!

  • A meaningful deviation from the norm: Look out for patterns that are different from the normal background noise generated by doing business. Some degree of criticism is par for the course. Be on the lookout for new issues that garner quick social media momentum.

  • Potential for negative effect on your business: A person complaining that he didn’t like the meal he was served at your restaurant isn’t a crisis. Multiple persons complaining that they became ill after eating at your establishment is a crisis that can cause significant harm to your company.

Managing responsiveness in a 24/7 world

A key piece of preparing for a crisis is creating a flowchart that defines your internal process in the event of a crisis, including trigger points and key personnel who will manage the crisis. Anyone who reads the flowchart needs to understand where to turn for assistance in various scenarios. Following are some matters that the flowchart needs to address:

  • Create tiers for various levels of severity.

  • Define who is contacted for each tier.

  • Define what steps should be taken automatically in each tier.

  • Provide contact information for all the key parties.

    If a crisis erupts, can you get a video statement from your chief executive officer online within 24 hours at any time, regardless of where she is? If you can’t, you’re not prepared.

  • Include contact details for emergency responders such as police, ­ambulance, and hospitals.

Get the flowchart approved by management, make sure that the document has an owner, and make sure that it winds up in the hands of all the right people. When a crisis strikes, go to the plan. Get the word out to all stakeholders, both on your internal team and outside the company. It’s essential to bring your company personnel in on the plan and let them know what’s happening; their friends and social media contacts are going to turn to them first for information.

In sensitive industries, any emergency response plan needs to be vetted by legal and corporate responsibility teams. In some industries, you need to go further by formulating preapproved preliminary messages. Crisis drills can also be helpful for identifying gaps in your planning and for helping to stave off criticism that your company didn’t do enough to be prepared for a foreseeable incident.

If you own a small business or work as a one‐man show, you can’t possibly deliver 24/7 coverage. That’s okay as long as you make it known that you are not responding 24/7. Manage expectations by telling people how long it will take you to get back to them. It’s okay to put something like “We try to respond to all feedback within 72 hours” on the About Us page on your website, or on your contact form. Be aware that a promise to respond within a certain timeframe creates a time‐based expectation and that you need to deliver on that expectation.