Social Media Has Changed Crisis Communication

I was talking with someone currently pursuing a master’s in public relations and working on a final project regarding crisis communication plans. I loved the chance to put my PR degree to work and use my knowledge of the social media landscape to think through some of the questions they posed. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that social doesn’t follow some of the standard crisis communication rules. Yes, you may be able to think through your different worse-case scenarios based on potential threats your business or industry faces. You can also learn from the mistakes of others, but there are so many complicated undertones within social media that you really have to be able to think on your feet. Social, political and environmental factors utterly unrelated to the crisis you were initially trying to address can quickly make you seem out of touch as a brand. You also still have to meet the needs of the platform. To this point, if you have seen the comment section of any TikTok in the past few months, you may have seen something along the lines of “apology video with tears right now” among the other still seemingly strange comments. This definitely stems from the fact that one too many TikTok-ers and YouTubers have done apology videos to avoid getting canceled where they don’t actually apologize and have to think about dead puppies to get a single tear down their face. Speaking to the greater trend that crisis communication, whether from a personal or corporate brand, is not taken seriously unless it is what people want to hear. It is overanalyzed and critiqued, so it is that much more crucial that you get it right. 

Unlike other forms of corporate communication through media relations and third-party reporting, social media gives you access to your audience and vice versa. It has been increasingly common that social media drives the narrative of the crisis rather than traditional media. I truly believe that people are more likely to look to social media for a company’s response after a scandal or the comment section of their posts to see how people really feel than to read third-party news articles. Trust in the media is low, and public relations has such an underlying connotation of being masters of spin, which in reality is not encompassing of the industry for the most part. Social media has become an unfiltered marketplace of ideas where like-minded individuals’ singular voices can multiply as they join together for a specific shared belief or cause. This can be exemplified by the use of trending hashtags created by users to be able to openly discuss the crisis and find those who also want to share their opinions. 

In our conversation, I described social as the wild Wild West. Your followers and other users who have caught wind of whatever is going on get a public forum to voice their grievances and opinions. They often morph into the creature of social media nightmares, more commonly known as the internet troll, which makes you question, “will this audience listen to my message and is it worth engaging with people on social?” Often, there is no winning this social media battle with those specific users, but your customers will be watching to see how you handle things. 

Good crisis communication, as I see it, is the perfect combination of knowing the entirety of the issue before deciding how to address it, knowing your consumer, knowing your brand and understanding the sentiments surrounding the crisis and your company.

To exemplify how social changes the landscape, let’s examine what my PR Campaigns textbook said about the conflict management life cycle. There are four stages or phases of conflict management: the proactive phase, strategic phase, reactive phase and recovery phase. The proactive phase focuses on assessing possible risks associated with your company or industry. The strategic phase then has you prepare various messages as responses to threats you have identified. Parts of this phase could include collecting supporting evidence, securing credible third-party experts, identifying an organizational spokesperson and developing a media center or place where information about your business is stored for external parties to access. 

Now, crisis strikes, and you are in the reactive phase. In this phase, you are thinking through what you will use from your plan and pick a specific approach to your response. The strategies generally can be summarized as preemptive, offensive, defensive, diversionary, vocal commiseration, rectifying or strategic inaction. Once this is determined, it is best not to change your strategy unless you are potentially facing more considerable backlash from your response than the crisis itself. Picking the wrong approach for your situation is how you end up in textbooks because things happen, and people know that, but if you cannot produce the response the public is looking for, they will call you out for it. Generally speaking, it is best to put your audience first, take responsibility, be honest but don’t speculate on things that aren’t fact, frequently and transparently communicate and have consistent messaging. The thing about social is that these conversations take time and involve senior leaders and strategists. The thing you don’t have during a crisis is time. Especially on social media, because people expect almost instantaneous responses. It is also super important that your company understands that social media is a powerful tool. It should be considered while planning responses to crises because you must be consistent with your position across all channels. Finally, the last phase is recovery. Social media plays a significant role in this kind of image repair because you want to rebuild relationships with your consumers. This is where the two-way communication directly to the eyes and ears of your audience can be beneficial because it is on your terms. 

Crisis communication is a balancing act of appealing to your consumer while still protecting the interest of your company. When done right, you may not even remember what happened. When done wrong, your brand and reputation can be tarnished for as long as consumers want to hold a grudge.

More About The Author

Lia Esposito is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pursuing a degree in Media and Journalism concentrating in Advertising and Public Relations with an English Minor. She is currently a social media strategist in the fintech industry.

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