Social Media’s Role in a 21st Century Crisis: Lessons Learned

At the North Carolina Chamber’s Media Relations & Crisis Management Conference in November, our own Albert Eckel moderated a panel on “Social Media’s Role in a 21st Century Crisis.”

Social Media’s Role in a 21st Century Crisis: Lessons Learned

The panel included three unique perspectives: a news maker (Deborah Johnson, CEO of the North Carolina Pork Council), a news reporter (John Clark, executive producer of the Reese Felts Digital News Project at UNC-Chapel Hill), and a news tracker (Jeff Cohen, social strategist for Radian6).

Four important lessons on social media and crisis management that emerged from the discussion were echoed by each panelist.

1. Monitor, monitor, monitor.

Social media provide platforms for instant, dynamic conversation. One Facebook comment or tweet is all it takes for a conversation to begin. Organizations must monitor social media to see what is being said about them, their products and their services. When appropriate, a business must be prepared to take part and to help lead these conversations.

Mark Hubbard, vice president of strategic communications at McGuireWoods Consulting and another conference panelist, called social media “the water cooler, elevator and street corner of 10 years ago.”

The simple act of monitoring social media will provide you with the opportunity to engage directly with your customers, your partners, and even your detractors and potentially prevent a relatively small problem from mushrooming into a crisis.

2. Build your network now.

John Clark put it simply: “Noah didn’t start building the ark when it began to rain.” You must build a healthy network and become a trusted source of information, well before a crisis hits.

In 2009, when H1N1 (mistakenly referred to as “swine flu”) broke out, the North Carolina Pork Council did not have a social media presence. Looking back, CEO Deborah Johnson sees how beneficial it could have been to engage in the conversation, to ease public fears and to correct misconceptions. “You need to get in [social media], and you need to get in when there isn’t a crisis going on,” Johnson said.

Jeff Cohen stressed the importance of building relationships with credible sources that will advocate for you and your company’s message in a time of crisis. These relationships can become cornerstones of your crisis response.

3. Speed kills.

Social media is immediate. This means a crisis can hit your company faster than ever. On August 23rd, an earthquake originated in Virginia and shook much of the East Coast. Rick Amme of Amme & Associates noted that tweets regarding the quake went out at a rate of 5,500 per second and even reached New York 40 seconds before the tremors did.

If you aren’t equipped to manage the onslaught of questions, comments and allegations and reassure the public, social media will magnify both your missteps and the crisis itself.

“Social media is basically a virtual press conference,” John Clark said. In the midst of a crisis, when a press conference takes time to organize, social media can provide a channel for addressing the questions and concerns facing your business as they happen and in real time.

4. Social media might just be your biggest asset.

When used properly, social media might even enable you to prevent a crisis.

“Social media is a new way of listening,” Jeff Cohen said. It gives you an inside look at what your networks are saying and gives you the opportunity to track those conversations. If you keep your eyes and ears attuned to these conversations, you may be able to avoid a crisis before it has the chance to threaten your business.

Think of the dissatisfied customer who takes to Twitter to complain about your company. If you reach out to him and offer to resolve the problem offline, you may prevent the situation from worsening and possibly even restore your relationship with a once-loyal customer.

So where do I start?

All the panelists agreed that monitoring is the first critical step toward building a strong social media presence. That could be as simple as employing Google Alerts or more advanced monitoring platforms like Radian6.

There’s a conversation about your organization happening online right now. The question is: Are you going to be a part of that conversation?