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Social media as a crisis communications tool

05Mar Posted by Sara Benwell

When it comes to social media and crisis communications, there are two main things to consider, the first is the way in which social media can either cause an issue or crisis, or allow one to grow bigger and play out, while the second is the way in which social media strategies can be used to mitigate an existing crisis.

The Pitfalls

Over the past few years, social media has become mainstream for businesses rather than the play park of the tech-savvy, forward thinking few, and while many have piled in, very few have stopped to consider what the ramifications of doing so might be. One of the commonly perceived issues around social media, from a business point of view, is the lack of control. When you engage with social media you are opening yourself up to a two-way conversation, where you have little or no control over one side of the debate.

A good example of this was the recent McDonald’s hashtag saga. For those who missed this, McDonald’s bought some Twitter hashtags to promote its use of fresh produce, initially promoting tweets with the hashtag #MeetTheFarmers. The initial strategy was actually well-thought out and successful, but then McDonald’s updated the hashtag to #McDStories. Disgruntled ex-customers used this opportunity hijacking the hashtag and using it to tell the world their own personal McDonald’s horror stories. What had started as a marketing function intended to promote fresh produce, had ended up with anyone who had a past scare story sharing it with the Twitterverse, and of course this was picked up widely in the media.

The McDonald’s example illustrates what can happen when a crisis starts as a result of social media engagement, but another problem can occur when social media perpetuates an already existing problem. This happens regularly when companies fail to engage properly. One of the most basic tenets of crisis management is to communicate and provide stakeholders with information they require, yet this is so regularly ignored by corporations. If a brand has a social media presence, then when something goes wrong it needs to make sure that it is communicating effectively with its key audiences. One of the biggest gripes when the BlackBerry outage happened back in October was a combination of a lack of information coupled with the fact that much of the information people were given was incorrect.

The opportunities

With every perceived threat comes opportunities, and social media can be one of the greatest tools for brand engagement available.


One of the basic benefits of social media for business is as a tool for aggregation of public opinion, comments and sentiment. In terms of evaluating both traditional and digital media campaigns as well as brand engagement, social media provides a much needed insight into the stakeholder mind. Even when just used as a listening tool, social media can provide a great deal of value for both big and small businesses wishing to gauge the public mood.


One of the biggest problems that corporations have when it comes to social media is a tendency to panic and delete. What businesses need to understand is that the framework for corporate communications has changed. Today’s media landscape is about two-way conversations, and social media allows businesses to listen and engage in a way that just wasn’t possible before. Social media offers companies a method by which they can humanise their brands and respond to their stakeholders’ needs. When managed well, a good social media strategy will allow businesses to communicate with their audiences, both listening and responding, creating trust and a stronger brand identity in the process.

Mitigating crisis

We’ve already seen that social media used badly can create or amplify crises, but when used well social media can control and even prevent a disaster from happening. The key differentiator between businesses that use social media well and those that don’t is listening, if a brand or company is listening to its audiences then it can spot a situation before it turns into a crisis.

Often those companies that have the best reputations in terms of social media often aren’t those that make big splashes or spend lots of money on advertising, instead they are those that monitor their Facebook, Twitter and other social networks and respond in a timely fashion to questions or complaints from consumers / stakeholders. It’s a sensible communications strategy - nobody wants to be the company that ignores a customer comment for it then to turn into a viral PR nightmare!

When something goes wrong, people are going to talk about your company whatever you do, but if you use social media strategies effectively you can respond to an issue in a timely fashion, putting the responses and messages you want out there and helping to make sure that what starts off as an issue, never becomes a full-blown communications crisis.


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Comments (2)

James Thompson posted 16th March 2012
A very interesting insight... I completely agree. Working for an Open Source software company with limited marketing budgets, I see social media as absolutely critical to our business succeeding. Positive word of mouth is an incredibly powerful tool, however negative word of mouth can be even more powerful when handled correctly. If you listen to your customers, you can work with them to fix what's not right, and that creates a very loyal customer who is far more likely to post positive things about you in the future.
Geordie Clarke posted 22nd March 2012
What employers need to realise is that social media isn't simply a toy where staff members post silly comments and converse with their friends. Much of social media has become a professional tool where people engage with clients, companies engage with customers and journalists and media professionals engage with their audience and even people who turn into news sources.

A senior editor where I work once questioned the value of Twitter and suggested to me that we spend too much time on it that we should be spending at work, writing and researching articles. It didn't dawn on this person that if we ignored Twitter, we'd be left behind. Just like ignoring digital media was a death-sentence for media outlets and other businesses in the past 15 years, ignoring Twitter and other social networks can have a similar effect.

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