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Social media in a time of crisis

A“crisis” is defined as being a time of intense difficulty or danger: a global pandemic, months of roaring bushfires or a new-to-market product that’s tanking. These examples are all crises that need active monitoring by a brand.  

When we use social media on average for 144 minutes per day, as Statista reports, it’s only natural that’s where you’ll find us during times of crisis, reading articles, sharing, commenting and tagging our friends.  

When a brand is planning its social media strategy, one thing that is always discussed is which organic posts are going to resonate best with followers and get high positive engagements.

For example, if a cyber security brand publishes a post with a PSA letting people know about the latest Facebook hoax doing the rounds, it’ll perform very well because people will love the value being provided by the brand and want to share it with their own friends. On the other hand, if there’s a post with a video of a punch-up over toilet paper in a supermarket, it could go viral, and the related supermarket brand will not be happy with the immensely negative social media mentions. The brand will need to quickly switch social conversations to being more favourable overall.

Whether it’s a global, Australian or brand-specific problem, the brand needs to maintain as much control as possible of the online conversations taking place, respond quickly and to be clear with communications. As we’ve all seen at different times, it’s very easy for misinformed and untrue conversations to quickly fly around on social media – and that’s what needs to be avoided.

This is where a comprehensive social media crisis management plan is imperative. Every brand should have one – to be ready, proactive and organised.

An important starting point is that brands use social media listening tools all the time. These tools provide the opportunity to track the different social channels where the brand is active, and to follow conversations taking place that include any type of mention about the brand and its products. This means the organisation can quickly react if conversations are heading into negative territory; if untrue stories are being shared, these can be put out via an official response.

Three documents brands should have approved and ready to roll out if they’re impacted by any kind of social media crisis are:

1) Social media crisis escalation process: The primary objective of this process document is to ensure anyone who reads it immediately understands how the brand and its teams are going to manage any kind of social-related crisis, timelines and the chain of command in approving important brand responses, media releases or customer resolutions required.

A brand crisis escalation process should include:

What: The plan should start by defining exactly what the brand considers to be a crisis, potential risk to the organisation, the different levels, and examples of each.

How: Escalation models should be developed for each type of crisis, from the starting point to resolution, including all necessary actions that will be taken, clarity on social channels that are involved, response times, key brand messages to communicate and the brand tone of voice. Responsibilities should be clearly defined for every team member who will be part of the escalation process.

Who: The chain of responsibility for handling, being advised of and approving any responses and resolutions. This can be shown in a diagram or org chart, with each team member’s contact details and job title.

Where: How each different type of crisis resolution and action will be communicated and on which brand channels (including social media, website, EDMs), the responses to be used (from the community management response plan), time between responses as the crisis potentially escalates or slows, and where internal employee communications should kick in explaining the situation and what actions the brand is taking to resolve it.

Important considerations:

When it comes to highly engaging, topical newsworthy crises, a brand should not take part unless it has a genuine reason to or if it relates to the business and its industry sector.

Review all brand social media channels, and update passwords and people who have admin access. The last thing any brand wants is a rogue ex-employee or hacker publishing sensationalist spam and stories.  

Immediately review the upcoming social media calendar and delete/postpone any posts that could be misunderstood or create negativity.  

Reach out to all media agencies that the brand works with to advise on what is happening, and then update regularly, plus ask them to pause any live campaigns that could be detrimental to the brand at that time.

Check live and upcoming paid social campaigns and pause/reschedule.

Review the e-commerce trading calendar and pause any upcoming promotions (again if potentially sensitive), plus pause supporting EDMs, Google Ads, native content, programmatic campaigns, digital OOH and paid social ads.

Make sure there aren’t any live or upcoming competitions on brand social channels. These again may be perceived in the wrong way or seen as being disrespectful, depending on the issue.

Check in with any influencers that you’re collaborating with. Ask them to postpone any upcoming posts if they’re potentially sensitive, and if needed share the brand response plan. If posts are already live, and users are commenting negatively, plan for the social media team to assist the influencer in responding, with brand-approved messaging.

Create a basic template that can be used as a PR media release if needed.

2) Community management response plan: This plan should be used by brand social media and customer service teams, or essentially those who are responsible for social community management all the time. It’s a document that isn’t specific to a crisis situation, however it’s the brand-approved responses for any type of social media interaction. This therefore illustrates a list of positive, neutral or negative situations and the approved example responses to be used. Key is ensuring that the responses fit the overall brand tone of voice. Consistency is imperative, and responses should be easy to understand and authentic. Social media is a form of two-way communication, and users really don’t like it when the brand response they receive seems robotic, and without any human empathy or actual support.

In addition, the document should outline response times for any type of social engagement. The team who monitors social needs to be proactive and regularly checking all social media channels to stay on top of user feedback. In a crisis, if the brand is too slow to react, the issue will potentially grow quickly and attract a lot of attention.

3) Employee Social Media Policy: This document should form part of a new employee induction pack, and clearly set expectations around what employees can and can’t say about the brand on social media. It’s not meant to create a perception of a “big brother” mentality, rather it should create a framework of best practises and ultimately to protect the social reputation of the brand. If, for example an employee is publishing a post from their own Twitter account about the brand, it’s a good idea that they identify the relationship and that the opinion is their own, not of the brand. Another is that employees don’t answer customer questions or comments on feedback from their own personal social accounts, as disgruntled customers may easily take the opportunity to stalk or attack employees.   

This document should be regularly updated as needed, plus include contact details for key members of the organisation who manage its social media channels and customer care teams, so employees are aware of authorised custodians who can comment and respond on behalf of the brand.

Following any kind of social media crisis, a brand should take a look at the overall situation and resolutions taken, and report on important learnings and any impacts felt by the business. Social media crisis process documents should be updated and redistributed, any internal training required should be rolled out, and key stakeholders should discuss the need to make any changes to products or business strategy to future proof and thereby lower the chance of anything similar happening again.

Ultimately, no brand wants to face a high-risk social media crisis. It could take a lot of time to rebuild market credibility, sales, consumer trust and positive social sentiment about the brand.

But if the organisation is ready and has plans in place, hopefully any type of crisis can be resolved quickly – or better still, not even be regarded as such by social followers.

Deb Mundell has been working in digital media marketing for the past 13 years, both agency and brand side. She has worked in Italy, the UK and at home in Australia, and has expertise in all online media marketing channels in various business sectors including beauty, travel, finance, tech, fashion, retail and luxury.

This story first ran in Inside Retail Weekly. Given the current crisis, we have decided to unlock all premium content related to COVID-19. If you would like to support Inside Retail, please consider subscribing here.

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