Thought Leadership

Crisis Communications & Social Media When “It” Hits the Fan

It’s time to face the music. To be an expert in crisis communications you have to move your organization at the speed of Twitter when “it” hits the fan.

@shroomy0021 was riding down the highway when he noticed flames from a natural gas explosion in California. Within minutes he posted a video to the web. In short order, it was followed a barrage of requests from media asking to use the footage. Do you really want someone known as @shroomy0021 managing your corporate communications? Until the company fills the void with accurate information, @shroomy0021 is currently the spokesperson for the event.

Meanwhile, near my home, a massive chemical plant explosion killed two and injured 114. As employees ran for safety, one stopped to take a photo of the fireball, then sat in his Ford F150 and created a Facebook page. The page had more than 4,000 likes within three hours and thirty-eight minutes. I know because it was that long before the company issued its first public statement via their website.

Social media is your competition. Who is winning that competition? Are you even in the game?

Take a quick test. How long does it take your organization to send out your first official public statement or news release when a crisis happens?

What is your answer? One hour, two hours, three hours? Is it longer than that?

If you still live in the dark ages in which you write a news release from scratch, then send it up the chain of command for approvals and changes, then take it back for re-writes, then send it for a final approval, then you disseminate the information to the world, you have a lot of work to do. That traditional process usually takes several hours. By then, eyewitnesses on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other sites have been telling their version of your story. With greater frequency, they are also broadcasting your crisis live on Facebook or Periscope.

During a recent shooting in which three police officers were killed in Baton Rouge by a sniper on a Sunday morning, one person was broadcasting the event on Facebook Live while another eyewitness was live on Periscope. It was five and a half hours before a news conference was held. In what world is this acceptable? Meanwhile, social media posts from the affected police agencies were weak and sporadic, as were any attempts to simply post statements to their official websites.

What are the tasks you need to accomplish to leave the dark ages?

First, you need to make sure your executives know more about social media than just the name of the platforms. If your leaders have never spent time on social media, they are ill-prepared to comprehend its speed, nuance, and complexities. Hence, any decision they make regarding the crisis and the communications around it, is a flawed decision. At a minimum, put all of your leaders on Facebook for a week and require them to be active and engaged for 30 minutes a day for seven days. After that, they can shut down their profiles, but at least they will have experienced it, which will lead to better decision making.

Secondly, review your crisis communications plan and make sure it states specific time goals for getting messages to the world. The crisis communications plans I write most frequently give a company one hour or less from the flashpoint of the crisis before a public statement must be made, with the understanding that in a world of social media, this is fifty-nine minutes too slow.

Thirdly, spend time on a clear sunny day writing the bones of the news releases you will need. I have hundreds of pre-written news releases on my computer at all times. Each is written with multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank options. On average, it takes 10 minutes to make the edits and issue the release. Best of all, the leadership and legal team can read the language on a sunny day, long before the documents will ever get used. That way, on the day of the crisis, they only need to approve it for accuracy and not for language.

Fourth, put your public relations and leadership team through the paces with a realistic, anxiety rich, drill at least once a year. Leaders can make decisions in a tabletop format, but force the communications team to follow and test their crisis communications plan in real time. Then force the leadership team to conduct several news conferences during the drill to test their ability as spokespeople.

The bottom line is that your reputation and revenue erodes more with each passing second that your organization remains silent. Don’t let an eyewitness with a mobile phone destroy your organization when “it” hits the fan.


Join crisis communications expert, Gerard Braud in New York City on March 31, 2017 for Crisis Social Media When “It” Hits the Fan. Braud is the go-to crisis and media expert for organizations on five continents. He spent 15 years as a frontline journalist, with reports seen on CNN, NBC, CBS, The BBC and The Weather Channel. Since 1994 he has specialized in writing crisis communications plans and media training.

17 Comments

  • Social media and crisis communications go hand in hand. I found it interesting that this blog pointed out that the executives of a company need to be just as well versed in social media and the employees posting content. Being quick and accurate with social media posts is crucial in a time of crisis communications.

  • It would be helpful to learn the processes of military drills, then translate said processes into a corporate crisis framework. The key is receiving buy-in, from time-strapped business leaders, to rehearse something that may never occur.

  • I like the idea of leaders being compelled to engage on Facebook for a short period to familiarise themselves with the platform. I think they should do that for Twitter as well.

    This post is absolutely spot on! In fact, the ‘crisis-mode plan’ is the final of six essential components I formulated for an effective communications strategy, (the first five being ‘the what’, ‘the why’, ‘the who’, ‘the how’ and ‘the when/how long’.

  • I am presently watching a situation develop where an organizations defective product may have resulted in two deaths and put hundreds of thousands of other people in danger. Should the organization respond in less than an hour? Will executives know all the facts in one hour? Are there legal considerations? Is there a danger of losing credibility by having to retract an initial inaccurate statement? Social media has changed the speed with which we must communicate but there are many other significant considerations depending on the situation your client faces. One size fits all recommendations and unrealistic or possibly dangerous deadlines for a response are not a strategy for success. I can point to situations where not responding at all has been highly effective and other situations where the strategy outlined above has been effective. We aren’t selling news releases or tweets. The value crisis management professions add to the equation is strategic thinking as part of a team.

    • In a case like this you don’t have to say all you know, however you should take ownership of investigating the issue and you should let the world know what you are doing. A good statement is, “We will investigate to find out what happened, how it happened, and how we can keep it from happening again.” Also, in no way do I advocate “one size fits all.” Best practices call for having a crisis communications plan with a decision tree to help you decide what to release and when. Yes, sometimes no response is the correct response. A good crisis communications plan with a decision tree should guide you to deciding if a release will go out or not. But if a release needs to go out, speed is important.

      • Hopefully people in trouble will get real time advice from a crisis management expert. The decision process is much more nuanced than can be explained in a blog post. So hopefully, and I am sure this is your goal as well, the post will get people to have a crisis management expert on speed dial, a realistic crisis plan in place and a team that understands the importance of a timely and accurate response that doesn’t make the situation worse or tee the client up for legal issues latter.

        • I would hope the profession would dig deeper to recognize and teach nuances. Then the comms folks need to teach it to their leaders. A strong plan supported by a strong, realistic drill helps both leaders and communicators get on the same page before the crisis hits.

  • This is a great article. After recently delving into crisis management in my media relations course, I was looking for more content on the subject. I especially found the following points interesting in this article:

    1. “If your leaders have never spent time on social media, they are ill-prepared to comprehend its speed, nuance, and complexities. Hence, any decision they make regarding the crisis and the communications around it, is a flawed decision.”

    This is why it is so important to have crisis plans in place and to make sure the higher ups of the company are well versed in social media well before the crisis occurs. You’re already too late if you’re learning about social media while a crisis situation is hitting.

    2. I agree that it is important to react quickly, however setting a specific small time goal can lead to people giving misinformation. Accuracy is more important than speed in my eyes, but both are important. Your suggestion of posting within an hour after a crisis hits does seem reasonable though.

    3. I love how you mentioned writing the “bones” of press releases ahead of time. Oftentimes in crisis situations we are not thinking as clearly or as quickly as we would like, so any ahead of time preparation would be very helpful.

    • Thank you Anne. Regarding #3, yes, you can have multiple versions of a pre-written news release. In the crisis communications plan system I license to my clients, I have seven options for social media. One would have been perfect as the first statement from United Airlines. It was written and could have been edited and posted within 10 minutes. For events like workplace shootings, I have a draft document for during the event and one for after the event. For pandemics, I have one for the early stages of a health issue, one for during the full blown outbreak, and one for after.

    • Regarding #2 – There is a way to bridge the gap between speed and accuracy. State what you can confirm. State what you don’t know. Communicate in small amounts over time. For example, if you don’t know the cause of an event say, “At this time we do not know the cause. We will investigate to find out what happened, how it happened, and how we can keep it from happening again.” It is a harmless, evergreen statement that can go out quickly. United should have used a statement like this, rather than stating that their employees said the passenger dragged from the plane was unruly.

  • I think this is the perfect guide for anyone in the PR/Communications field to follow. It presents easy-to-follow steps for anyone having issues handling crises or anyone just settling into their new careers. My favorite idea presented here is writing the “bones,” of a news release ahead of time. I think this is genius, and never really thought this was a thing that was okay to do. I would add that having different versions written would also be extremely helpful, especially having one prepared for social media. With so many things happening these days, it is essential to stay up-to-date with news and to always be informed. I recognize that most leaders of PR firms are older and may not have the same experience with social media as the younger generations, so I also appreciate the idea to show your higher-ups the ropes when it comes to Twitter and Facebook. I definitely plan to keep these ideas in my head when starting in my new career, and I want to thank you for sharing these fantastic ideas. Dealing with crises is a very time sensitive and important task, and any help you can get is much needed.

    • Thank you Jera. Yes, you can have multiple versions of a pre-written news release. In the crisis communications plan system I license to my clients, I have seven options for social media. One would have been perfect as the first statement from United Airlines. It was written and could have been edited and posted within 10 minutes. For events like workplace shootings, I have a draft document for during the event and one for after the event. For pandemics, I have one for the early stages of a health issue, one for during the full blown outbreak, and one for after.

      • You are correct David.

        You can Tweet your way into a crisis, but it is hard to Tweet your way out of a crisis. i’ve done it, but using it as a tool within the strategy.

  • My eventual goal is to become a social media specialist so seeing this article about how to use social media as an effective crisis communication tool really sparked my interest.

    I agree with you that companies, agencies, and the like need to do a better job at quickly and efficiently getting out crisis communication. In a world of growing instant communication thanks to social media it’s too easy for people off the street to share, stream, and post about a crisis before companies are even aware of the situation.

    I agree that your first step to getting higher ups in a company to be on some form of social media for 30 minutes a day for a week just to get the idea of how quickly it can move, is a great idea. However, I would have loved to see an idea or even a separate article on how to explain to higher ups that being on social media will help them in the long run. If they aren’t already on it, I feel the chance of them trying it out will be less likely.

    Your third idea about preparing news releases is actually something that I feel many PR professionals will find useful. But the only downside I could see is that how do you know what kinds of disasters could happen? If you work for a power company I could see maybe power outages or something similar, but would you just write premade releases for the big events?

    • Amber – Per your final paragraph, predicting what type of disasters or crises can happen is a process known as a vulnerability assessment. You must identify sudden events, such as fires or explosions, as well as smoldering events, such as a corruption scandal or social media issue. If it can affect the reputation and revenue of an organization then it goes on the vulnerability list. Every company is subject to certain consistent types of crisis, such as fires, explosions, executive misbehavior, social media issues, weather and natural disasters, etc. Then each group of companies faces unique issues related to their business. You pointed out power companies with outages. Hospitals face surgeries gone wrong. Schools face cheating scandals…

      I have more than 300 pre-written news releases on my laptop at all times that I provide to my client. It takes time to do the writing, but it pays huge dividends in speed when you need it. Had United been my client, they would have had seven options for events that explode on social media.

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