Social media in a crisis, the new news cycle

Posted on February 21, 2011

This article originally appeared in my Postmedia News column on social media.

Much has been written about crisis communications and social media. Pundits such as Brian Solis of, Maggie Fox of socialmediagroup. com, Scott Monty of and others have waxed eloquent on the new immediacy of crisis communications.

Crises such as the Motrin Moms incident, Nestle’s palm oil fracas, BP’s oil spill, Dominos’ staff misbehaviour, US Airways’ plane in the Hudson trick and United Airlines’ guitar-breaking escapades have created a furor on the social web.

The question is, to what effect? For all the Sturm und Drang from the digital masses, people still take Motrin, buy chocolate and make airline flights. Does a Twitter revolt or a Facebook mob even matter?

The trick is to separate digital signal from noise and to understand when the furor “crosses the chasm” from social to mainstream media, it’s getting serious. Why? Because it’s now reaching the masses, which affects brand and reputation, even stock price.

Ed. Note: Here’s Al Jazeera on BP and the oil spill with a snippet from communicatto near minute four

There’s an old saying in crisis communications – mess up, fess up, then dress up. This is especially true in social media. There seems to be nothing worse than silence to a digital lynch mob. Many companies are still geared to the old 24-hour news cycle and move so slowly it often looks like purposeful silence. By the time the committees and lawyers are consulted, the crowd has largely formed an (uninformed) opinion. If mainstream media grabs hold of it absent the company’s voice there is no do-over, the tone is set.

I often tell my clients the day of the crisis is not the day to learn how to do a YouTube video. Social media needs to be woven into crisis and emergency response plans, to be activated at a moment’s notice in a time of need.

What the mob is looking for, aside from basic information in a true emergency, is a sign the company is awake and cares. Holding statements will do to start, quickly followed by facts and empathy in almost equal proportions. The public has the capacity to forgive a lot, but being ignored -on purpose or not -is not something they take lightly. Now they have the tools in social media to protest unwanted silence.

US Airways crisis response timeline from Brendan Hodgson, Hill & Knowlton – menu in bottom left of slides has full screen option:

PR pro Brian Solis correctly details the traditional crisis response planning and workflow as:

  • Crisis planning
  • Negative groundswell
  • Crisis response
  • Public relations
  • Assessment/monitoring

Which more or less has an episodic focus of one and done. In other words, something explodes, company dusts off plan, public/ media make noise, emergency measures are taken, news releases and statements ensue and monitoring continues until the story dies.

Whereas Solis suggests the new crisis workflow is more like:

  • Active
  • Listening
  • Observation
  • Conversation
  • Learning
  • Planning
  • Continued adaptation and engagement

It starts long before the crisis, building social media communities and social equity by being active, listening closely to the buzz so when something bubbles up in your monitoring software you notice -imagine a picture on Facebook of company property exploding – reacting with fact and empathy, evolving and adapting throughout the crisis until such time as it has truly quieted to everyone’s satisfaction.

WestJet provided a great example of the new crisis methodology last November. On Nov. 14, an explosion occurred at a hotel in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, killing five Canadian tourists and two Mexican workers and injuring 17 others.

This had nothing to do with WestJet directly, but their various monitoring systems told them there was a problem and they knew many people had flown WestJet to get to this vacation hot spot.

Greg Hounslow, emerging media adviser for WestJet, and team swung into action on Facebook and Twitter, relaying whatever they could confirm via their people on the ground. By serving as both generators of information and aggregators of other’s information, Hounslow and team filled the silence. They gave concerned friends and family some way to know something about the plight of their loved ones. They used their existing social fan base to spread everything from government email addresses to booking hotlines for people needing to change their plans. It was a live and chaotic situation.

Hounslow and team report they generated more than 485,000 impressions, 213 comments and 367 Facebook “likes.” These are strong results by any measure (see slides 28 – 40 below).

Clearly, the team at WestJet gets the new crisis communications. Do you?

Grand Riviera Princess crisis, slides 28-40, menu in bottom left of slides has full screen option:

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