Crisis Communications Planning in the Social Media Age

In the age of social media, is your business equipped to manage a potential crisis? We’ve heard it over and over again: social media is a double-edged sword. The thoughtful use of social media can foster relationships but, when mismanaged, it can destroy them— in just 140 characters or one awkward photo! Companies have been advised to monitor and track potential issues in social media. But businesses large and small are too often engaging in social media without a plan. In a world where social media is part of everyday operations and an integral part of reputation management, that’s a big risk.

If your company was trying to penetrate a new niche market, you would conduct extensive research and financial analyses on every inch of that market to ensure your company was best-positioned to leverage the untapped benefits. Why then is it so often such a different story when it comes to the social media “market?”

Most companies are aware that customers, partners, shareholders— many, if not all, of our audiences—are online, talking about the good, the bad and the ugly of their brand. In the eyes of many businesses, social media platforms are the low-hanging fruit of communication mediums. The lure of instant, low-cost technologies is so tempting that we often end up biting off a lot more than we can chew.

So, with good intentions and little context, many companies are telling their PR teams to engage with their audience through the use of social media. And, in a rush to catch up and keep up with the emergence of new channels, not everyone is taking the necessary steps to prepare their companies for the consequences. When it comes to managing their reputations, many companies fall flat because they don’t truly understand how to properly use social media strategically and to their advantage. Not surprisingly, the onus falls on PR teams to do the work up front.

In an age where social media can amplify the severity of a reputational crisis (and, in some cases, create one), PR teams are tasked with positioning their company’s brand intelligently in the social media stratosphere before things go wrong.

Communications and PR teams are tasked with positioning their companies intelligently in the social media sphere before issues arise.

How much impact does social media have on the way we live and communicate?

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, SlideShare, Instagram, LinkedIn the blogosphere, Pinterest, Google+— ring any bells? Did you stop caring after Facebook and Twitter? A recent U.S. survey of social media usage by Pew Research Center, suggests that may not be the best approach.

The study revealed that there is now a closer spread throughout social network platforms than in the past. Facebook continued to dominate overall usage in 2014 with 71% of adults using their network, but Twitter (23%), Instagram (26%), Pinterest (28%) and LinkedIn (28%) now seem to be on a level playing field. It’s no secret people continue to spend more time on social networks than any other category of sites. When using a computer or laptop, social media consumers spends 20% of their time on social networks, and 30% of their time when using a mobile device.

Something else to consider: 80% of Facebook users in 2014 prefer to connect with brands or companies to voice their questions, praises, issues and complaints. If we know where our audiences are talking about us—and even promoting us—why not go to them to engage in conversation? If our followers ‘like’ us on Facebook, it only makes sense to go to Facebook to engage with them.

Although activity on social networks shifts rapidly, PR pros are tasked with navigating these ever-changing and increasingly turbulent waters. We’ve got to stay current, and it’s tough to do.

If we’re not already listening to our audiences on social media, now’s the time to start. A crisis or reputational threat can be overwhelming and attempts to gain presence on social media platforms during a crisis won’t have much traction. We can make it easier on ourselves by starting before the crisis strikes.

Communicators can make it easier on their brands by starting to plan before a crisis strikes.

When it comes to brand management and crisis communication, this approach will help make social media part of every phase of your communications: Before, During and After.



Social media can be a tool to engage audiences, anticipate crises and even help you prevent them. If you can engage in conversations early, you may be able to position yourself to better measure whether or not you were effective in managing the crisis.



Depending on the type of company you work for, social media can be used to reinforce more formal communication in an urgent situation and may even help reduce the severity of a crisis or potential crisis. Assess the situation and decide whether it is appropriate to keep two-way lines of communication open. Keeping them open will express better transparency to your audiences and can help re-establish your company as trustworthy, but you could be in a situation where dialogue will only amplify the issue and your communication efforts should be concentrated in other channels.



Maintaining a consistent presence on social media platforms might be your most valuable opportunity to regain the trust of your audiences. You can’t afford to stick your head in the sand; you need to be part of the conversation and, when the opportunity arises, lead it.

What does this all mean?

Communicators are using social networking sites more frequently and it’s become the preferred method for users to connect with brands and organizations. The more we, as PR pros, have our brand’s engaged in social media from the beginning, the better positioned we’ll be to anticipate, communicate and regain trust in order to help manage and reduce the severity of a crisis.

We need to be smart about our use of social media, and planning is an essential approach to using it to our advantage. Let’s look at the positive. As stated earlier, social media can help reduce the severity of a crisis or potential crisis. A good example is the Red Cross, they deal with tens of thousands of disasters and requests for help each year. The Red Cross is in the business of crisis management on a large scale for other people. By issuing a crisis response program through social media and quickly reacting to individuals concerns or requests for information about a recent disaster, the Red Cross takes a proactive approach and prove that they are always prepared for any situation and offer a quick solution for those directly affected.

The important thing to note is that social networking sites have brought significant changes to the ways our audiences receive and share information. We have to be mindful of the diverse ways our audiences communicate and the platforms they use most frequently. While social media is only one of those platforms, it certainly can’t be ignored.

BEFORE: Plan Your Crisis Strategy on a Clear Sunny Day


Dealing with a crisis is never easy but it’s always more manageable when there’s plan in place. If you’re not facing a reputational crisis right now, it’s a good time for preparation and planning. There are several items to consider before implementing a plan, the most import, getting buy-in from your team. Here are a few exercises to consider before finalizing a plan:

Display risk vs. benefit— Use data and examples to show the company why the team’s plan is worth the risk.

Before moving forward with a company crisis communication plan, most public relations teams want to know if the risk of the plan is worth the benefit. A great way to approach this obstacle is to map out all of the “what ifs” associated with the crisis plan. Along with each “what if,” ways that the potential issue can be avoided or handled should also be included. Then, an alternative “no reaction” plan should be mapped out, showing exactly what will happenif the plan is not implemented. Using a visual chart to show these reactions can help present the information in a clear and concise way.

However, focus should not be solely on the negative. Digging up examples of companies who have used similar crisis reaction methods in the past with success is an excellent way to provide evidence of potential benefit. Pulling data, graphs and screen shots of these methods, as well as how the company itself plans to replicate them, can be very convincing to those who may question a crisis plan.

Be mindful of the diverse ways your audiences communicate and the platforms they use most frequently.

Why this plan is the best plan— Map out alternatives to showcase the best crisis reaction plan.

Sometimes, in order to show that the best plan is the one at hand, it’s important for coworkers to see predicted outcomes of alternative crisis plan options. The crisis management team can brainstorm other options and map out charts, just as they did to show the risk versus benefit. When they’re mapped out, the graphics (and numbers) should show that the original plan offers the most reward with the least amount of risk, as that’s what makes it the best plan. It’s also important for crisis management teams to highlight both the cost of the plan and predicted cost of each of the outcomes, as well as worst-case scenarios. Often, when a company needs convincing, the best arguments are in the money. For an extra boost, the team can use real-world examples of ineffective crisis plans, when one of the alternative options was chosen by other companies.

How to avoid confusion the first time around— Planning ahead avoids confusion

The best way to avoid confusion, chaos and last-minute convincing and decision making is to have a crisis plan agreed upon before a crisis ever arises. To do this, the management team can devise the top 10 worst scenarios that are most likely to happen and create, using data, graphs and real-world examples, how the team would prefer to handle each situation. A section on how to avoid the crisis in the first place should also be included in each of these 10 mini-plans. Mapping out a timeline is an excellent way to make sure that all of the crisis reaction (or even crisis prevention) steps are taken to reduce potential damage and increase effectiveness of each plan. The key to avoiding a confused or fragmented response to an issue is preparation.

Remembering the human side of the issue— people are at the root of the crisis, so they should be included in the solution.

Sometimes it’s easy to get so wrapped up in trying to protect a brand’s reputation that the human side of the issue gets forgotten. A crisis is happening because people are upset by something the brand has or has not done. Because people are at the root of the issue, people are also at the root of the solution in many cases. First, brands should inform their customers by providing a response, perhaps on the brand’s website or blog. Social channels can be used to point clients and consumers to the information. Dealing with a company crisis is never easy, but with a bit of planning and the whole company on board, many crises can be avoided, and most fires can be extinguished.

The key to avoiding a confused or fragmented response to an issue is preparation.


The core of the crisis communications team should be made up of Communications staff, leadership and key representatives from across the company. Rally these troops as soon as possible.


Although you should have a list of potential spokespeople on hand, once the crisis strikes identify one and only one. During a crisis, your company needs to have a singular voice (online and offline). This person will be the face of your company, so if the President or CEO is not available, make sure the person you choose has the credibility to be able to lead the response. Bonus if your spokesperson is already media-trained.


Media monitoring tools allow companies to keep an eye on news and trends, giving them opportunities to spot any potential problems related to their brand. Utilizing these monitoring tools to avoid possible problems could greatly benefit a brand’s reputation. Here’s how any company can use media monitoring tools to ferret out potential issues:

  • Buzz—Buzz can be a great forecaster when it comes to a potential crisis. If there’s a spike in social mentions, it could be an alert to a positive trend or a warning sign to keep an eye on the topic. It’s important to remember that where there’s buzz in one social platform, there is generally buzz in the others. So, if a spike in brand mentions is spotted on Twitter, there’s a good chance other social channels have seen an increase in activity as well.

  • Categorize by topic—A good way to keep tabs on buzz surrounding a brand is to divide social conversations into common topics, based on keywords. Dividing a brand’s mentions into categories makes it easier to spot a spike in activity. When a spike happens, it could be a sign of a potential crisis

  • Hashtags—Mentions of a brand aren’t the only way to detect a potential crisis. Hashtags offer insight into the overall tone of the buzz. They can show whether the hype is negative or positive. This is where tools like Trendsmap, a real-time Twitter mapping tool, may come in handy. However, a company name may appear in hashtags in Tweets and posts that are not directly connected by the @ symbol to the company. Media monitoring tools can help scan and spot these hashtags that include or mention a company, even if the brand’s account is not directly tagged.

During a crisis, your company needs to have a singular voice—online and offline.
  • Industry news—With a bit of forecasting, industry news is one of the best places to look for a potential crisis. One way to keep an eye on the industry news is to create an alert, not only for the company itself, but also for industry keywords. That means a brand must look beyond its own bad press. Instead, it must look for bad press about its general business. For example, a specific cosmetic company may want to keep an eye on any news surrounding its products’ ingredients. If one should be reported as linked to a disease or illness, this is a huge red flag for a potential crisis. Spotting industry news that may affect a brand can help companies prepare for how they’ll deal with problems, staying one step ahead of any crisis.

  • Competitors—Since competitors work within the same industry, they can sometimes provide solid insight into what may happen next with the brand at hand. This can be thought of as the “what if” situation. So, companies should scan social sites, as well as news channels, not only with their own brand in mind, but also keeping an eye on their competitors’ buzz. It’s important to remember that, while crises can be upsetting, they should be expected with any company. By keeping tabs on news and social activity with media monitoring tools, it’s easier to catch the situation early giving the company time to plan its reaction, or maybe even prevent the crisis from happening in the first place.

DURING: Taking Action in the Midst of the Storm


During a crisis, more than ever is an important time to gauge what audiences are saying about your company. Being able to measure the tone of coverage and collect all of the media intelligence available will allow you to craft strategic messaging to arm your front lines when you are in the trenches.


Don’t assume anything. You have to act fast, but it’s better to get your facts straight before you issue any statements. Do your research. If you haven’t already been monitoring your brand reputation, now’s the time to start.

You have to act fast, but it’s better to get your facts straight before you issue any statements.


Even if you don’t know every little detail, communication is key. Be honest. It’s better to issue an initial statement saying that you don’t have all the facts yet, but that you’re working to get them, than it is to remain silent. That silence can speak louder than words.


If you’ve done something wrong, own up to it and be sincere— audiences can usually see through forced empathy


It will be extremely important (if you haven’t already done so) to make a detailed list of your key audiences and how exactly you plan to reach those audiences.


Now that you and your team have assessed the situation and you’ve prepped your spokesperson, it’s time to speak up. And face-to-face communication is invaluable, especially when managing a major crisis. Holding a well-run and organized press conference can show media that even though you may have lost the reins on one situation, you can still handle the aftermath. Be prepared and have a seasoned PR pro run the show. If the issue does not warrant a press conference, compose a well-crafted statement to share on your website, via press release and through your organizations official social networks.

An organization shouldn’t wait to experience a crisis to prepare for one. Learn from the mistakes—and successes—of others.

AFTER: Getting the Sun to Shine Again


So it happened, and you were as prepared as you could be. You had the right plan in place and executed as best as you could. The truth of the matter is, a crisis more times than not will cast a negative light on your organization. Here are a few things to expect on the road to reputational recovery.

The road to reputational recovery is a long one, and it’s not without its speed bumps. When it comes to crisis management, the way companies re-earn stakeholder trust along that road is what separates the well-respected—and truly trusted—from the lesser voices in the industry After a serious crisis, risk appetites drop and sensitivities are heightened. Everyday operations can be scrutinized (maybe rightly so) in the months, and even years, following. And serious corporate mistakes create a lens through which many stakeholders will continue to see in the company despite even the sincerest attempts to make amends. In the post crisis phase there exists an opportunity to re-evaluate and reinforce your company’s promise. After all, this is how your customers and other stakeholders identify your company; it’s what sets your brand apart from the competition.


After some of the dust settles, start recording what went wrong, what you did well and what you handled poorly. This can help you and your team, and future teams, avoid repeating mistakes.


Gather and analyze all of the data around the topics and your efforts. Evaluating the trend sentiment over time will better position your company for a smarter future.


Social media has changed the way companies will communicate in the wake of a crisis. We’ve explored the role social media has on crisis communications, the importance of planning for a crisis ahead of time, monitoring for issues and steps to take to repair your reputation.

An organization shouldn’t wait to experience a crisis to be able to prepare for one. Learn from the mistakes— and successes—of others. You have a creative team on staff—use them. Come up with some worst-case scenarios and go through, in detail, how you’ll handle all aspects of a crisis. In the end, it’s all about trust—any communicator will tell you that. Doing the right thing and being transparent should always be at the core of your crisis strategy.


While each crisis response plan is a little different depending on the company,


  • Who’s at fault? Who’s taking responsibility?

  • When will the situation be resolved?

  • What are you doing for those affected by the crisis?

  • How does this affect me?

  • Why/how did this happen?

  • What are you doing to fix the problem?

  • How can you guarantee this kind of thing won’t happen again?


  • Who are your primary stakeholders?

  • How will you reach them?

  • What information will they want and need?

  • What are your short and long-term goals?

  • What are the financial and legal considerations?


  • Display leadership

  • Lead with the facts

  • Keep your business goals and vision in mind

  • Make amends

  • Be prepared to put practices in place to reaffirm your commitments

  • Communicate progress and roadblocks


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    • Configuration, implementation and roll-out of media monitoring solutions.

    • Ongoing monitoring and in-depth reporting on your brand and key topics.

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BBC News World Edition, “Gap and Nike: No Sweat?”

Pew Research Center, “Social Networking Fact Sheet”

AdWeek, “Social Media Business Statistics, Facts, Figures & Trends 2014”