Thought Leadership

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

ceiling-fan-1333756_1280

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.

5 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.

Leave a Comment