A communications crisis can strike at any time. It could be a faulty product, a lousy campaign, or a slip of the tongue from someone higher up.

It doesn’t matter the industry you’re in, or how popular you’ve been to this point. Sometimes, it just happens.

Whatever the case, you need to be prepared. If you’re going to put out a fire, you need a good hose:

Get the tools to extinguish a social media crisis

So we’ve put together this 10-step guide to get you ready. Make sure you’ve done everything you need to before disaster strikes.

We’ve also put these steps into a crisis management workbook. Download and share this with your team, to be sure you’re ready to respond effectively.

Want to skip straight to the workbook? Download it here.

Before the event

1. Get your crew together

While every staff member is important, they can’t all be part of your crisis management team. Put together a group of responsible responders, each with their dedicated role.

You need a good mix of executive personnel (to enforce decisions), management (to coordinate), and creatives (to craft the right message).

Oh, and a lawyer probably helps.

As you build your team, answer the following questions:

  • Who will take ownership for the overall strategy – assigning tasks and ensuring the team stays on target?
  • Who is responsible for identifying and monitoring potential crises?
  • Who’s going to inform management and/or key stakeholders?
  • Who will manage social media and respond to questions?
  • And who will be handling messages that come in through other channels?
  • Which executive will act as a spokesperson for the media?

Get these roles straightened out while you have time to plan. Next, it’s time to think about what sorts of crisis you might possibly face.

2. Define “a crisis”

You need to decide the kinds of events that will kick your new plan into action. Not every piece of bad news or negative headline should force you to go “code red.”

For this, you’ll need a working definition of a crisis.

According to Jay Baer, a social media crisis has three characteristics:

  • Information asymmetry: When you don’t know any more than the public about what’s going on.
  • A change from the norm: Everyday criticism of your products is not a crisis. When your products explode at random – that’s a crisis.
  • Serious risk to your company: It seems obvious, but the scope of the issue is important. For something to be a crisis, it needs to have a truly negative effect.

With your new team, set benchmarks and find real examples of what qualifies as a crisis. An added benefit of this is that you’ll identify potential weaknesses you otherwise might not have thought about.

Since every company is different, it’s a matter of creating a definition that works for you. Once you’ve done that, you can begin thinking about key steps to take during an event.

3. Identify your key message

How you react publicly during a crisis is likely to define your success. You could have a great plan and a smart team, but if the message is wrong you’ve got no chance.

You can’t plan your specific response yet, since you don’t know what the crisis is. Instead, establish your core values as a company, and your main value proposition to customers. Whatever your response during the tough times, these should be central.

Why is this important?

Things will be moving at a mile a minute. Despite your best intentions, you can’t monitor everything every spokesperson or social media manager says and posts.

What you can ensure is that they convey the most important information. If you remind customers why they came to you in the first place, you have a far better chance of keeping them around.

4. Create communication guidelines

Once you’re clear on the basic message, you need to decide how to deliver it. That means creating guidelines so that anyone writing a social media post knows what’s expected of them.

To get ready for a crisis, do the following:

  • Determine rules for communicating with key stakeholders and executives.
  • Set network-specific guidelines for communicating on social media (since you’ll have different content and format considerations for each).
  • Decide on a process for communicating updates via your website and other online company channels not covered by social media.
  • Create guidelines for employees outside of the crisis communications team advising how to respond to inquiries.

To ensure you’re even more prepared, craft some basic templates. The first of these should be a brief, general statement of the company’s position. You also need sample answers to the obvious questions you know you’ll receive.

This is your best opportunity to set the tone you’ll use as a company. There may be even room for jokes and light-hearted apologies, as long as they suit your usual social media style.

By preparing these now, you’re more likely to be effective when a crisis breaks, rather than making the situation worse.

5. Monitor for updates

Or in Jay Baer’s words, “buy some binoculars.” Get a monitoring tool that’ll help you figure out what’s being said about you, and where.

Build a crisis management plan

If you’re trying to see everything happening on social media without a listening tool, good luck. You’re going to need something that gives you real-time updates and lets you analyze large amounts of data to draw conclusions.

Naturally, we suggest Mention. It lets you track social media, forums, blogs, and news, and respond to social media posts directly from the app.

Plus, Mention will tip you off if a serious crisis is about to hit. Pulse alerts tell you when your keywords explode online, meaning that everybody is talking about your brand. You’ll be notified first, so you’re able to respond quickly.

Find out how monitoring can save your brand in a crisis.

Whether or not you use Mention, you need to be clear on three matters:

  • What tool(s) will you use to monitor for brand crises?
  • Who is responsible for the management of the tool?
  • What is the ongoing process for crisis monitoring?

Get these straightened out before a problem strikes, and you’ll have a far easier time when you’re caught off-guard.

During a crisis

6. Get it under control

We’ve put together a checklist that’ll help you right the ship. It’s a step-by-step guide to use when the going gets tough.

For full instructions, you need the full checklist. For now, let’s take a look at the highlights:

Pause your scheduled posts

With a mad panic breaking out around you, it’s easy to forget that you’ve got a full social queue. As Charli Day explains, you can’t afford to accidentally post “‘Happy #ThrowbackThursday have a beautiful day’ when your product has just caused a serious injury or death.”

That’s a pretty extreme example, but still a great point.

Publicly acknowledge what’s going on

You’re not going to be able to hide for long – especially on social media. Your best bet is to make clear that you know there’s a problem, and you’re working to fix it. You’ll still get some angry responses, but it should buy you some time.

Inform your team

You didn’t put a crack squad together for nothing. Contact them quickly and send them to work. If you respond quickly enough, you may be able to lessen the harm overall.

Post a long-form response on your website

You’ll be sending plenty of small, individualized social media responses. But you also need one official place where reporters and blog writers can find your side of the story.

Posting this response will also buy you time. When people want answers fast, you’ll have a place to send them while you work on more important matters.

One final piece of advice: “do not lose your cool – ever.”

Once the dust settles, it’s time to figure out what went wrong.

After a social media crisis

7. Assess brand impact

This is where your monitoring tool comes in handy again. You should have data showing what a normal business week looks like, to compare with your “crisis week.” You’ll quickly know just how bad things became.

From a social media perspective, focus on factors like lost followers, specific complaints, and the amount of negative sentiment around your brand.

You’ll also be able to see where your response was most effective. You may have spent countless hours scouring Twitter and responding to individuals, and yet one Facebook post reached more people and was widely shared.

These kinds of insights help you understand how badly your reputation was hit, and you’ll be able to plan better for the future.

The key questions for this section of your plan are:

  • What will your KPIs for successful crisis management be?
  • How will you measure the negative conversations generated?
  • How will you measure impact on overall brand sentiment?
  • How will you measure overall brand impact of this over time?

Make sure you have a monitoring tool that lets you do all of this, and anything else you choose to include in your plan.

You also need to collect data before a crisis arises, to benchmark against. If you know what a “normal” week looks like, you’ll be able to accurately assess the bad times.

8. Reflect on your response

Once it looks like you’re out of the woods, it’s important to take stock of your response. Hopefully you had a great plan in place, and everyone knew exactly what was required from them.

As part of your plan, make time to regroup after the event, and discuss how it went. Key questions to work through include:

  • What were the strongest aspects of your brand’s crisis plan?
  • Where was the existing strategy unhelpful or less impactful?
  • Are there any processes or templates that need to be revised?
  • Do you need to create any new systems or guidelines?

Discuss the different experiences of management, administrative, and customer support staff. Did everyone feel ready to respond, and what other resources would have helped when things got hectic?

9. Prepare for the long-term

Unfortunately, negative news and complaints can linger far longer than a week or two.

You need to decide what your response will look like moving forward. It might not be best to act like everything is now fixed. Instead, you may want to be proactive, offering updates and solutions to help customers get through a tough time.

These are the big questions to ask yourself:

  • How will you manage or participate in the long-term conversation about this event?
  • Do you need to provide continual updates long-term to any of your audiences?

Again, your monitoring tool will be invaluable here. Not only will you hear if things quickly begin to spiral (again), but you’ll be able to show sentiment improving over time, and find positive feedback to share with your community.

10. Update your crisis management plan

The last step is to revisit the first nine steps. This may have been your first chance to test out your crisis management plan, so you need to figure out if it worked. Hopefully, you won’t get another opportunity for some time, so this is the time to make changes.

Move through each section of your plan and make any changes that need to be made. Make the necessary fixes to ensure your crisis management plan is as good as it needs to be.

And you’re done

You now have a crisis plan locked, loaded, and ready to test.

Hopefully you’ll never need to use it. But this way you’re prepared in case disaster strikes.

If you want more information for each step of the way, download our free workbook. It’s a detailed walkthrough to help you ask and answer the right questions.

With it, you’ll be ready for anything.

crisis communications

Patrick Whatman is Head of Content at Mention. He lives in Paris, loves music, and writes his own brand of cultural criticism for fun. Tweet him @mrwhatman where he mainly talks digital marketing, American sports and New Zealand trivia.

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