Double-Edged Sword: How Social Media Can Fuel & Extinguish Crises

Nowhere is time more of the essence than in crisis communications. But, as executives know all too well these days, time—at least in the context of business—no longer exists on a linear plane. Its dimensionality has been expanded and made more complex by digital platforms that enable instant communications and connections among audiences around the world, regardless of time zones.

“The pace of news waits for no one,” says David Albritton, vice president of communications for ITT Defense Electronics & Services. “In the old days, you had at least a half a day to prepare and share a response. Today, if it isn’t fast, it just isn’t.”

For those executives responsible for crisis planning (and all that goes with it), this new communications paradigm impacts every facet of their job, from informing employees and updating consumers, to correcting inaccuracies and responding to media inquiries.

“Without a timely response, the media information gap will still be filled,” Albritton says. “The public judge and jury make their own conclusions due to your absence.”

Thus, communications executives must not only monitor digital platforms during a crisis; they must also incorporate these online channels into the very DNA of their crisis plans before an issue ever arises. That way, digital channels can be a part of training, preparation and drills so that when a crisis does strike—and you know it will—everything is in place for a quick response.

“Social media tools are uniquely valuable before, during and after emergencies,” says Wendy Harman, social media manager of the American Red Cross. “The same social media tools you’re using for business can be a big part of your plan for staying afloat [during a crisis].”

Here’s how:

â–¶ Determine your organization’s vulnerabilities. “Personal and business preparedness is the first step,” says. “You want to increase your response abilities before a crisis happens.”

To do so, you and your team must have the clearest possible picture of what issues pose potential risks to the organization. And remember, there are different types of issues and they should be monitored and managed accordingly. For example:

Latent: Symptoms include disconnected comments in online conversations, expressions of underlying concern and/or emerging themes. Audiences either largely ignore these symptoms, or the issue remains stagnant due to a lack of supporting evidence.

Emerging: Symptoms include increased stakeholder awareness of and conversations surrounding the issue, as well as early opportunities for action. These issues should be closely monitored but, in most cases, no action on the part of the organization is required.

Consolidating: At this stage of an issue’s maturation, audiences will begin to form beliefs, take sides and initiate action. This is often the tipping point, when the organization must become proactive in assessing and addressing the situation.

Critical: Issues at this stage have reached critical mass and should therefore be considered full-blown crises. In social media, these issues have already become known to influential stakeholders whose reactions and responses can profoundly impact an organization’s reputation.

â–¶ Establish and maintain an online presence. People increasingly turn to online news sources and social media to get information, especially in the event of a crisis.

But because of social media’s nature, which hinges on authentic relationships strengthened over time, organizations can’t dive into digital channels in tumultuous times if their presence isn’t already established; otherwise, it won’t be seen by stakeholders as credible. But where to start?

“A blog is a prerequisite,” says Shel Holtz, principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. “Media follow them and your critical publics read them.”

When building a crisis plan, make sure to include the company blog as a first-response platform for media, consumers and even employees. It can also be the jumping-off point for disseminating other types of messages if and when a crisis hits. That is the time, Holtz says, “to release assets into the wild,” including:

• Core facts

• Photos on Flickr

• Videos on YouTube

• Documents on Scribd

• Presentations on SlideShare

â–¶ Don’t filter out negative information. Social media demands complete transparency in all communications. Couple that with a crisis situation and any evasiveness or miscommunication will be compounded exponentially.

Likewise, if you have negative commentary percolating on your own platforms that you filter out, the remaining positivity will debase your credibility tenfold.

To manage this negativity, have a crisis plan that spells out which audiences engage most actively in which channels.

That way, when a crisis does happen, you are already poised to “select the most appropriate channel to make a response and to make sure your response is heard,” says Dan Solomon, CEO of Virilion.

Harman stresses the need for up-front planning, but she also points out the value of being able to think on your feet.

“Before anything happens, figure out how you’ll get information, and how you’ll distribute it,” she says. “But be flexible in the tools you use. Be ready to offer real-time information in the right places.”

Ultimately, there is no way to foresee every possible crisis situation; in many cases, there also isn’t a way to prevent crisis situations. And, even though social media adds fuel to this fiery risk environment, these digital channels are also key parts of effective damage control.

“There is always risk, but that’s the cost of doing business,” Albritton says. “The translation for public relations professionals: Keep up or keep out.” PRN


David Albritton,; Dan Solomon,; Shel Holtz,; Wendy Harman,