The role of social media in crisis communication
Organizations often confuse between two concepts: crisis management and crisis response. Many clients came to me asking to “manage” their crisis, but at that moment many problems had arised, therefore what they needed was to “respond”. An effective crisis management should be executed before the it booms. Especially when social media is a channel to perform effective pre-crisis management.
A key difference between social media and traditional media in crisis communication is that social media can be used in all three stages of such communication, which to review are pre-crisis, crisis response, and post-crisis; while traditional media often only cover the crisis response stage. Due to its flexibility, social media can be used for many purposes and stages. That’s why social media has become a key channel in crisis communications.
As mentioned, an advantage of social media is monitor social posts and conversations about a company to discover stakeholders’ insights, anticipate possible threats. In the early pre-crisis stage, social media provides an opportunity for organizations to scan for warning signs in real time using different social listening tools to closely monitor online conversations and the mentioning of brands. Many free and pay-to-use monitoring options are available for organizations to track discussions with their company’s or brand’s name, such as Google Trends or Social Mentions. However, social media monitoring, whether performed manually or with tools, is difficult for many organizations in Vietnam and elsewhere. One main challenge is that the amount of online data is often too large to effectively manage, integrate and interpret. Data available from social media channels are often incomprehensible and overwhelming, and contain much unneeded information. This state of social media information poses a need for crisis managers to skillfully interpret information and integrate it into meaningful monitoring reports.
Once a potential issue emerges, an organization can acknowledge it and explain to the wider online community that the issue will be fixed. At the same time, an organization can privately message those people who first mentioned the issue online and assure them that their input has been recognized. Since data collected from social media is tremendous, organizations need to determine who the key stakeholders are and prioritizing issues for proactive communication. Since social media channels empower anyone to make a widespread and impactful crisis, research on social media messages can help to determine who is shaping public opinion or drawing attention to topics. In regard to issue prioritization, this practice guides an organization to clearly define emerging issues and better prepare for them
During crisis, what the public and stakeholders expect is timely response from the organization. This is the where social media comes in handy. Many companies use social media in addition to traditional press releases to reach their stakeholders and may choose to contact these stakeholders individually. Social media therefore provide additional channels for reaching and communicating with stakeholders. We’ll look further into advises during crisis communications in the next section.
In post-crisis stage, social media allow organizations to stay in touch with interested stakeholders. As information lingers online long after the end of a crisis, social media provide an opportunity for an organization to revisit stakeholders’ responses and their opinions on crisis communication efforts. Social media can be used to answer questions, update stakeholders with an organization’s improvements and future plans, and monitor for follow-up queries. Social listening activities should remain active until the public shifts the attention toward a new subject.
General advice for crisis management
One main principle for maintaining an organization’s reputation during a crisis is to show that the organization is able to fully and tactfully manage the crisis. To demonstrate this ability, organizations need to provide stakeholders with accurate, timely, consistent, relevant and frequent information. This management aspect helps assure the public and avoid impractical expectations. As crises are information-driven, crisis communication centers on how to manage information flow and how to craft information to have positive effects on stakeholders. However, people’s ability to process information in stressful situations, such as in a crisis, may be reduced by up to 80%. Therefore, crisis communication must be handled with great care to produce clear and meaningful messages. This advice appears relevant to all types of crises both in the West and in Vietnam.
Clear response content is an important factor when conveying messages to stakeholders and accommodating these goals. There are three sequential categories of crisis response content: instructing information, adjusting information and reputation management. The first category, instructing information, is about telling stakeholders how to protect themselves. This response applies to both external crises (e.g., disaster situations) and internal crises, such as announcing product hazards and identifying products immediately before a product recall. Crisis managers need to anticipate stakeholders’ concerns for protection when developing instructing messages. The next category is adjusting information, which aims to reassure stakeholders that the organization is proactively addressing the crisis, which helps to rebuild stakeholder confidence, and expressing concern to those affected. Finally, the last category of crisis response is reputation management. Unlike the previous two stakeholder-oriented types of response, this type of response revolves around the organization, building upon previous empathic messages to attentively rebuild or promote corporate reputation.
Consistency is important to build credibility in messages communicated. Even though different stakeholder groups require different levels of responsiveness in crisis communication, the response content should be consistent across all groups and channels so the message appears more trustworthy. Being consistent does not mean providing only the single voice of a company spokesperson. Stakeholders may seek other unofficial spokespersons, such as employees, for information. A crisis communication team thus needs to ensure that a consistent message is delivered throughout the organization.
Stay calm in the storm
Everyday, organizations face a lot of pressure, and they should not let the negativity or crisis increase the work burden. Hopefully, these information and advice can help you handle the situation before any damage is made to the businesses or theirs reputation. Remember, the most important thing is management, not response.
Dr. Clāra Ly-Le graduated from Bond University, Australia with her dissertation and many published articles on crisis communications and the role of social media. She is also a public relations (PR) & communications consulting expert with profound experience from many international and local PR campaigns. Clāra is currently the Managing Director at EloQ Communications.
A Vietnamese version of this article is published on GAM7, a Vietnam’s marketing and design magazine, in its November 2019 issue.