Social Media Meltdown: Tweeting Your Way Into and Out of a Crisis

Crisis communications was never black and white, but the proliferation of social media platforms has caused the shades of gray to get even hazier—so much so, in fact, that it can be difficult to distinguish between a tiny flame that will extinguish itself and a full-blown forest fire. Twitter —by no means new to the scene, but having taken center stage only recently—makes it even harder to define “crisis,” as a less-than-140-character complaint can slide under the radar just as easily as it can prompt a reputation meltdown.

It’s a lesson companies like Comcast learned the hard way, but one that’s led to marked improvements on the online crisis management front. After falling victim to a Twitter tirade by unhappy customers, Comcast pioneered a new customer service strategy by tweeting back. And why not? After all, social media platforms like Twitter enable instantaneous responses from communications executives, and “instantaneous” is key when it comes to squashing rumors or correcting erroneous information.

Traditional media across the board are also acknowledging the power of these platforms. According to a recent New York Times article, “The stream of messages can turn Twitter into a surprisingly useful tool for solving problems and providing insights into the digital mood...researchers of all kinds have found that if they make the effort to dig through the mundane comments, the live conversations offer an early glimpse into public sentiment—and even help them shape it.”

But this one advantage doesn’t negate the many disadvantages associated with online crisis management. Since so much of this new discipline is uncharted territory, the best approach to mitigating risks is to learn from the mistakes of others—mistakes that produced these best practices:

â–¶ Define what “crisis” means to you. Crises are organization- and industry-specific, especially when they happen in social media channels. For Catherine Mathis, senior vice president of corporate communications at the New York Times Co., a crisis is something that occurs suddenly and unexpectedly, demands attention and has a negative impact on your reputation. James Donnelly, senior vice president of crisis management at Ketchum, casts the definition in a social-media light, saying it’s “an event that thrusts us into a fishbowl of scrutiny—a very large fishbowl.”

It helps to identify the characteristics that would describe a hypothetical crisis for your organization, and use that as a litmus test when an issue erupts. That way you will be less inclined to jump the gun and over-communicate unnecessarily.

“Learn when to do nothing,” says D’Arcy Rudnay, senior vice president of corporate communications for Comcast. “Negative commentary is part of engagement, so [sometimes you must] decide to disagree or disengage.”

â–¶ Make honesty and authenticity your best weapons. “Tell the truth and tell it fast,” Rudnay says when describing her go-to online crisis strategy. Donnelly agrees with this approach, noting that complete transparency by nature is almost impossible to achieve, but authentic responses when a company does encounter a bump in the road are essential.

In the same vein, the old adage of “actions speak louder than words” applies to crisis communications in the digital age. “It’s not about the right thing to say,” says Marcia Horowitz, senior executive vice president of Rubenstein Associates. “It’s about what you do.”

The Comcast Twitter example illustrates this, as Frank Eliason, the employee who began responding to customer complaints via his own Twitter account (ComcastCares), took a deliberate action to not just apologize for the problem, but to fix it.

â–¶ Trust employees to be brand ambassadors online, even during a crisis. Information overload is a very real challenge in today’s ever-expanding media universe, which makes it impossible for a team of communications executives to have the bandwidth to monitor every blip in cyberspace.

That’s where your employees can step in as a de facto army of ambassadors, as Comcast’s Eliason did. (Rudnay jokes that Eliason has a job at Comcast for life thanks to his quick thinking.) Now he uses Twitter as a standard customer service tool, as well as a vehicle for communicating updates about the company.

However, Rudnay does underscore the importance of having a policy in place for employees who enter the Wild West of social media crisis management. Eliason has a close relationship with the corporate communications department, and he only speaks on agreed-upon topics. He never makes assumptions when deciding what to say or not say; rather, his strategy is based on listening to his audience and engaging them accordingly.

â–¶ Don’t overlook traditional media during an online crisis. True, these days more and more crises begin and end online, but that doesn’t give communications execs permission to ignore traditional media. It’s a matter of speaking to the audiences that are most affected by a given crisis.

“You have to have the right strategy before you choose the tactic, which often involves figuring out which audience is the most important to reach,” Donnelly says. “Once you have chosen the audience, you can figure out which media outlets are the most appropriate for this form of communication.”

Ultimately, the biggest advantage is the ability to gauge a could-be crisis in the earliest stages. Social media platforms like Twitter help communicators keep their ears to the ground, but they also help individuals wax vitriolic to an audience of millions.

Donnelly sums up this reality by quoting Winston Churchill: “A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on in the morning.” PRN


James Donnelly, [email protected]; D’Arcy Rudnay, [email protected]; Marcia Horowitz, [email protected]