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With the social web now starting to mature and more and more internet users becoming accustomed to updating, sharing, tweeting and liking via their smartphones and tablets, the job of a crisis manager has become increasingly more challenging.

Organisations simply don’t have as much control over their marketing messages as they once did and as a result a crisis can happen anywhere and travel across the globe in seconds. 

The rise of citizen journalism and the smartphone has made it feel like everyone now has a voice no matter how small. The scariest prospect is that your story can already be trending before you have even got out of bed.

The landscape of today’s media is very different to that of just 10 years ago. News spreads instantly but often isn’t checked as properly, as it once was, and it often doesn’t abide by the rules that the traditional media has to. 

A proper crisis can quickly result in damage to stakeholders, losses or, even worse, the end of the organisation altogether. So handling the communication around a crisis professionally and effectively is critical and as crisis managers we should form an integral part of the broader comms and marketing team.

An online crisis typically creates an enormous spike in comments, shares and engagement and the conversations are usually negative. The modern crisis manager needs to learn how to monitor a brand’s reputation effectively, so they can see the problems before they occur, track what is being said and respond immediately. 

22 top tips for online crisis management 

  1. Create a carefully thought out crisis plan and run lots of test exercises. 
  2. Use communication tools like SMS, Skype, Yammer, blogs and private groups to liaise and share information with your crisis team.
  3. Create a terms of use policy. This will outline how people can and can’t behave across your social channels. This should sit in your ‘About Us’ section and be clearly labelled. If you have a policy, you can then direct people to it and warn them if they breach it before taking things further.
  4. Add a digital Twitter wall to your press room so all of the team can see the latest tweets. This could help as an early warning system as often what appears on Twitter is a story an hour or so later.
  5. Use social media monitoring tools and track the sources of comments and check who is influencing whom. These tools such as Radar, Sysomos or Radian6 can all help you listen to any antagonists and identify who is the real source of the chatter.
  6. Have a dark site built in preparation so it can be activated when the crisis breaks. A dark site is an online hub which remains unpublished or ‘dark’ until a crisis erupts. 
  7. Create a response strategy for any negative comments with a clear graphic showing what happens when a comment is left and who deals with it.
  8. Moderate commenting on your channels. If your blog or social channels are being overrun with negativity, you could consider changing your pages to only allow approved comments only - turning off the ability for everyone to comment gives you back a small element of control. After all, these are your spaces, so try and control them.
  9. Try to get your client or brand to re-think the definition of transparency. It’s not just about providing the information these days, consider embedding journalists in your crisis zone so they can see what your team are doing to rectify the problem.

    Pepco recently did this when Hurricane Sandy hit and to great effect. Instead of you telling people what was going on reporters could get their own live reports on what individuals were doing.

  10. Try to ensure you get your story out first even if you don’t have much to say. This forces the media and consumers to focus on your organisation rather than other (less reliable) sources for updates on the crisis and it shows you are in control – it is much more reassuring.
  11. Be ready to acknowledge any issues and be prepared for negative responses no matter what you do. Remember these people are not criticising you personally just the organisation, sometimes you have to take it on the chin.
  12. Always assume people are intelligent. Use strategic PPC advertisements to direct people to your own content and help combat negative websites to get your message across.

    In June 2010, following the Deepwater Horizon Catastrophe, BP used huge amounts of PPC advertising to try and control which search results were delivered for searches such as 'Oil Spill'. Although it was a campaign tactic, the execution was clumsy as the BP dark site felt like it had been written by robots rather than human beings. 

  13. Don’t be afraid of the #hashtag: If a crisis does actually go viral, a crisis #hashtag can create a genuine opportunity. If all of the conversations are using it you may as well use it.

    If you use the #hashtag to reply you will reach more people and you can start to steer the conversation and direct people to your dark site or hub explaining what you are doing to rectify the situation.

  14. Use repetition (remember the power of three) to ensure people remember the positive work you are doing to combat the problem.
  15. Make sure you have a friendly network of online influencers who know you well, to help you disseminate messages.
  16. Always listen, but don’t engage everybody as this could spread your activity too thinly. Make sure you target the influencers (use Klout, Kred or PeerIndex to see who these are) and keep a clear record of who you engaged with.
  17. Using video content is more authentic than written statements. This has become the de facto response in the digital age but try and shy away from the nasty scripted CEO interviews.
  18. Never become involved in arguments. You will never win as we all like the underdog.
  19. Always be ready to prepare multiple spokespeople. The media want multiple angles these days so compile a list of potential spokespeople with differing views and activate them when a particular crisis happens. 
  20. Even when there is temptation to minimalize things, don’t! If you show more concern than most people your organisation will look much less guilty.
  21. Scoop up those negative domain and user names.  Make sure you have considered all of the domain names that could be created to attack your company and buy as many of the negative versions as you can e.g.: http://www.ihatestarbucks.com.

    Try to guess the usernames that could be used against you. Use a free tool such as http://namechk.com/  to check which names are available. Make sure your team have registered as many of these as possible. 

  22. If the crisis is minor, sometimes the best place to deal with it can be within your online newsroom, as here you can actually control the statements, tone and offer materials.

    However, you should be cautious - if the crisis is likely to be protracted you don’t want it to take over your newsroom because where possible you want to portray an external image of 'business as usual'.

Finally, when the crisis has abated you can appoint an evaluation team to analyse your handling of the crisis and recommend any key changes in procedure.

The evaluation team should always be different from the original crisis team as this will provide a fresh view. 

Chris Norton

Published 3 January, 2014 by Chris Norton

Chris Norton is Managing Director at Prohibition and a contributor to Econsultancy.

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Comments (1)

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Another point to consider here is that, unless the initial reason for the crisis is dealt with, then it's going to be pretty difficult to recover from the crisis, however smart the recovery plan.

For example, in the case of the Lysses House Hotel, which refused to refund a veteran for an anniversary party after the death of his wife, the only thing that was ever going to solve the crisis was to return the money. Now that it has refunded the money, it can work on recovering its reputation.

almost 3 years ago

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