Employing social media in times of crisis is akin to fighting a battle in a jungle. There are lots of uncertainties, some of which threaten your wellbeing and even your survivability. In essence, every step you take is fraught with risks that can undermine or damage your organization's reputation and severely impact its bottom line. The trick to using social media effectively during a crisis lies in your willingness to learn how to fight a seemingly invincible enemy.
Fighting a seemingly invincible enemy is tough enough. But when you add the element of a jungle, crisis induced time constraints, and other limiting factors, emerging from the crisis intact appears to be even more challenging. Take for instance last year ‘s BP oil crisis. Not only did BP have to work with stakeholders including impacted locals, regulators, municipal, state and federal authorities, the company also had to manage angry bloggers and citizen journalists who used social media to openly criticize BP and continuously fed traditional mass media with damaging information.
In order to deal with a myriad of stakeholders who increasingly turn to the Internet in order to be heard, every organization must understand potential and existing financial, managerial, operational, and reputational risks it faces, how its stakeholders impact and view these risks, and how social media can be utilized to interact with stakeholders in order to minimize the risks. By developing a thorough understanding of how stakeholders consume and utilize social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, it is possible to devise social media strategies and tactics that can be used to effectively communicate with stakeholders in times of crisis in order to educate, influence attitudes, and bring about behavioral change.
The social media jungle.
However, without the necessary assessment you will be fighting an enemy you know little about. Just like you cannot successfully fight an enemy without knowing what it is capable of, an organization cannot wait until the last minute to learn about the tools its stakeholders are using to mobilize and share critical information during a crisis. In social media terms, this results in the following conclusion: it is critically important to continuously listen, monitor, capture, analyze, and disseminate stakeholder specific information through the use of social media before, during and after a crisis.
Not every organization has the ability or the agility to fight in the social media jungle. Years ago, it was comparatively easy to work with and if needed engage in a fight specific mass media outlets, because the media world was less complex and more predictable. With social media in the mix, today's communication is instant, global, unfiltered and nearly anyone can participate as both the recipient as well as the producer of online content. Indeed, if citizen journalists beat you to the line, your organization may very well be in trouble. In order to effectively use social media in engaging stakeholders your organization must hence answer the following five questions:
1. What are your rules of engagement?
In the social media jungle, there are hardly any rules of engagement. However, as an organization you need to have guidelines that define what your employees are permitted to do regarding the use of and interaction with both social media and traditional media. Furthermore, you must keep in mind that citizen journalists are guided by their unique motives and moral conscience. You will therefore be lucky if the blogger commenting on your organization's services or products is a supporter rather than a detractor. And remember, if your company‘s truck is involved in an accident and the scene is captured on video by a citizen journalist, the respective footage which prominently features your company logo on the side of the truck may end up on YouTube and other social media in no time and eventually find its way into traditional print and broadcast media coverage..
Externally, your organization has very limited control over what a particular citizen journalist will do with potentially damaging information. Internally, you can at least count on your organization's Social Media Policy which provides the necessary framework of rules of engagement for your employees. However, without a Social Media Policy in place, the consequences may be dire. In addition to implementing a Social Media Policy, employees need to be trained to handle particular tasks and outside vendors that provide important services should be retained well before a crisis occurs. The Social Media Policy must be inclusive enough to let employees use available tools, yet exclusive enough to prevent abusing tools such as Facebook, folksonomies like Digg, and microblogging sites like Twitter and Tumblr.
2. Where are your stakeholders?
In a jungle, survival of the fittest is the rule. That notwithstanding, you can mobilize and deploy friends, fans, followers links, and syndication techniques to spread your carefully crafted messages. In fact, through constant communication and engagement you can become a very influential voice of authority amongst your friends and fans. With an army of friends, followers and fans behind you, someone will likely come to your aid when you are in need. But the key to ensuring that social media based help will be given during a crisis lies in your ability to build trust - or social capital generated and sustained over a long period of time - with your friends and followers. Therefore, your organization's goal must be to build healthy relationships with stakeholders on critical networks such as Twitter, Facebook, tumblr, digg, YouTube, etc. long before a crisis hits. It is also crucial to understand that different stakeholders use different tools. For example, if you deal a lot with musicians, it will be wise to seek them out on MySpace, although MySpace is no longer that popular among other groups. Other important places where you can build precious pre-crisis social media based relationships include hyper-local communities on Twitter, meetup, yelp, and foursquare.
3. How do you obtain the intelligence you need to employ social media effectively?
The key to obtaining the necessary intelligence is to capture relevant information about what is happening in the social media jungle. Without the proper scanning for relevant information you will not know who is a friend and who is a foe. But armed with good intelligence generated from the use of Web 2.0 tools, you can communicate key messages to your stakeholders via social media. By using google alert and socialmention.com you can for instance generate free e-mail alerts as designated search terms appear online. In addition, you can use analytics, keyword selectors and RSS to monitor what is going on around the social media jungle. By so doing you can identify and analyze crisis related information that may or may not demand a response. More sophisticated automated Internet search solutions are offered by commercial Internet monitoring service providers such as Cision and Ethority, which use so-called web crawlers to monitor the deep web.
In the evolving world of analytics, search engine optimization and social metrics, it is crucial to not only respond to, but also to anticipate challenges by utilizing Internet monitoring tools including Twitter alert, google alert, socialoomph, and touchgraph.
4. What tools can you use to engage your stakeholders?
To operate effectively in the social media jungle, it is crucial to understand which online tools you will need to reach your stakeholders. If most of your stakeholders are professional business people, you should be on LinkedIn. However, if most of them are kids, you should acquaint yourself with tools like for example ClubPenguin. And if your stakeholders are interested in health related information, a useful tool for you will be DailyStrength.com. In the face of a battle in the social media jungle, you should disseminate stakeholder specific information utilizing different tools and technologies. You can also reach customers through custom made applications like Southwest Airlines‘ Ding.
Alternatively, you can identify and link up with key influencers in your field that blog and tweet for a significant following. If you get relevant information to them in time, they can share it to their followers which will significantly increase the reach as well as the credibility of your message. Given that some of these key influencers are also information hubs, they may distribute messages through their own networks on Facebook, tubemogul, YouTube, Twitter, etc. By actively seeking and building relationships with carefully chosen key influencers you take advantage of their ability to communicate with stakeholders you would otherwise not be able to reach.
5. What if your current social media strategy is not working?
With a good strategy, the right tools, sufficient resources and a decent following, you can weather a multitude of adversarial situations that even bigger organizations have problems managing. But what if your strategy fails to deliver? Remember that to prevail in the social media jungle your organization must be alert, agile and responsive.
Developing a successful strategy requires careful planning, the use of skillful practitioners who understand Web 2.0 technologies such as search engine optimization (SEO), the use of social mashups to display information to stakeholders, and how to influence online communities. Last but not least, your organization must learn by doing and understand that truly resilient and social media savvy organizations take every setback as a springboard to future success. In other words, if one strategy fails, it is time to retool and engage again.
In conclusion, taming the social media jungle in times of crisis is to a large degree an exercise of flexibility, adaptability and survivability. Your organization's goal must not be to avoid engaging its adversaries, but rather to anticipate and then minimize the negative impact on your reputation and the bottom line through effectively employing social media wisely.
This article was written by Gideon F. For-mukwai, MA, CEM and a Senior Consultant at C4CS, LLC and Oliver S. Schmidt, Managing Partner of C4CS, LLC. In January, C4CS® will begin teaching an eLearning course on "Harnessing the Power of Social Media in Crisis Management" that is marketed and administered by the International Consortium for Organizational Resilience (ICOR). Successful completion of the eLearning course earns participants a Certificate in Social Media Crisis Management Planning accredited by ICOR. The course brochure can be downloaded at http://www.theicor.org/art/pdfs/courses/cmc3030.pdf.