Twitterstorms, Facebook meltdowns, Instagram explosions – how do you handle a crisis on social media?

Close up photo of social media app icons on mobile

What are the golden rules for managing social media in a crisis? Our MD Chris Taylor takes a look at how the UK public sector is leading the way and picks out his five top tips for using social media in a crisis.  This article first appeared in ESPO’s Spotlight magazine. 

If you work in the public sector, one thing you can guarantee is that ‘stuff happens’ (other words are available).

Another certainty is that when it happens, there’ll be a whole load of people queueing up only too ready to put the boot in and give the local council, NHS trust or emergency services a good kicking and a heavy dollop of blame.

It was ever thus, and always will be. Today though, we have the added joy and immediacy of social media. So where do you start when it comes to managing social media in a crisis?

Five golden rules

Here’s our five golden rules for engaging with your communities on social media when that ‘stuff’ hits the fan.

  • Plan in advance– if you’re stepping blinking into the sunlight without a pre-prepared and tested plan of what to do in a crisis then you’ve already lost. Think about involving your stakeholders and building and solidifying your key partnerships offline so you can all respond effectively and consistently online. You should also think about the channels that you will be publishing information on and who your audience is on each of these – carrying out an audit of your social media and keeping a handle on analytics on an ongoing basis is a good way of doing this.
  • Be accurate– when it comes to reputation, being right is more important than being fast (though that helps too). Rushing to publish before you are sure of the facts or guidance won’t just make you look foolish – it can actually make a real crisis situation much worse if you give out the wrong information or guidance. A steady hand is needed on the ‘publish’ button. It’s also critical to be proactive in identifying sources of inaccurate information and responding appropriately to avoid miscommunication and confusion.
  • Take ownership– if it’s your crisis, then you need to position your organisation as the key source of information – please follow us and share latest updates as we have them – the police in particular do a great job at this – but it’s a lesson we can all learn. It doesn’t mean you have to respond to every question – you can say we’re posting updates as and when we can confirm new information– it is a crisis after all. But do make sure the person heading up your communications is at the top table and informed at all times so the updates you do give out are accurate and consistent, and whoever is publishing that information follows an approvals protocol.
  • Be authentic– don’t just live in a social media echo chamber. What you do and say on social media needs to link with your actions in the real world – it’s no good just saying you care for example – you need to do something that shows you care (and video and share it so the world can see you mean it).
  • Be practical– think about what you’d like people to do and ask them (politely) to do it – people love to share and if your messages are simple and succinct (which they will be) you’ll find your online communities will be a massive help in spreading the word.

Remember, there is a silver lining. If you’re dealing with a major crisis or a challenging situation then you can guarantee your audience and community will have grown, which will give you greater reach and potentially greater influence when the smoother waters return.

DTW is an ESPO accredited supplier under Lot 9b of the 664 Consultancy Services Framework.

Chris is a Chartered PR Practitioner and a member of the national Council of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). He has provided community engagement and PR support to transport projects like Mersey Gateway, Northern Spire and numerous energy-from-waste and other treatment facilities.