Crisis management and social media

by / Wednesday, 10 November 2010 / Published in Blog

It may not always be possible to avoid a crisis, but damage limitation is feasible once you have two elements in place: awareness of the problem, and a willingness to make a rapid response.

Crisis management has always been a part of the PR remit, but it has become a lot more complex with the introduction of social media to the established marketing mix. Where once brands were set to only transmit, companies who go online are now expected to respond, interact and even entertain their customers.

If some kind of PR fumble occurs, the word will spread online faster than you can say ‘free cheese’. Minor incidents can quickly develop into a full-blown media frenzy; escalating from a few people sharing opinions online to headline-making television news within a few short hours. (More on this later.)

Choosing to ignore social media is no solution; it’s better to be part of the conversation than to be on the outside looking in or, worse, oblivious to what others are saying about you.

When it comes to crisis management, timing is crucial. Being aware there is a potential problem with your brand is a good start. How to achieve that? By listening, and monitoring what people are saying online about your company. Then, if a crisis does occur, dealing with the problem head on, in a timely manner, will go a long way to putting you back in control of the situation.

A couple of years ago at a Measure It! event in Dublin — an informal gathering to discuss social media — Stephen O’Leary from O’Leary Analytics presented a timeline of the development of the biggest news story of the day: the now-infamous ‘is he drunk?’ interview with Taoiseach Brian Cowen on RTE’s Morning Ireland radio show.

O’Leary traced how ‘traditional’ media quickly seized hold of a story that first sprang to life on online forums and then found its legs on Twitter (you can see stats on the story’s progress on The news then went global as ‘Cowengate’ started hitting headlines on this side of the Atlantic just as the US media was waking up and looking for a nice light story to go with its cornflakes.

Why did the story get so big, so fast? O’Leary put it down to the lack of immediate response from the Irish government on the issue, which showed, he said, that Fianna Fail were not monitoring social media and therefore were not aware of the simmering brouhaha that was about to boil over. A delay in satisfactorily addressing the accusations allowed speculation to build and the story just ran and ran.

Turning a negative into a positive

Sometimes a slip-up is an opportunity to show your willingness to engage with customers.

Earlier the same year, Vodafone UK suffered a minor PR incident on Twitter that could have easily escalated to a full-on disaster. Catastrophe was avoided and the story soon became a non-story, as Vodafone moved swiftly to acknowledge the problem, admit it messed up, and announce what action was being taken.

The company spoke to users directly on Twitter, spending hours replying to everyone who got in touch to ask if their account had been hacked. By that evening the Twitterati, having got to the bottom of the issue, shrugged their collective shoulders and moved on to hashtags new, satisfied with Vodafone’s transparency and contrition, and almost keen to forgive what turned out to be all-too-human error.

Full disclosure, coupled with fast action, were key in turning the situation around.

Image by Pedro Stephano on Flickr


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