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State of social emergency: Jennifer Duval-Smith on the importance of digital crisis management

In a communications crisis, speed kills and
nothing speeds like social media. It
acts as a vector, amplifying the scale and velocity of damage. Your preparedness to identify and deal
effectively with a reputational crisis online will determine the extent of the long
term damage sustained by your business. But 72 percent of companies rated their preparedness for social media criticism as
average or below average in a recent study by Ethical
Corporation
. So, what can you do to
come out the other side intact?

Traditional issues management doesn’t allow
for the public’s thirst for knowledge and impressive ability to self-inform via
social networks. But you do need to
allow for it and to be prepared to feed it. Put social communications planning first.

Remember the five key elements in digital
crisis management: 

1. Speed – the first 24 hours are critical

Gone
in 60 seconds:
Bad news spreads faster than ever as
it gets shared via our personal online profiles. It’s a short trip from Twitter to the Herald. When you are responding to an emerging crisis
you’ll need to act within hours not days. For this, you’ll need a pre-aligned team and approach with escalation
and approval processes in place.

Heed
warnings: 
Despite what your board may think, you
can’t communicate yourself out of an issue you have sleepwalked into. Crises can erupt without warning but rarely
do. Your personal alerts come from
multiple operational sources across the business. Common firestarters include poorly handled
customer service, social campaigns gone wrong, product failure, non-compliance,
natural events, ethical breaches and, lately, executive ‘memory loss’. 

Know
what the horizon looks like:
If you’ve got
comprehensive monitoring in place you’ll know if you’ve got a spike, a negative
trend, or ‘business as usual’. In crisis
you need a comprehensive picture of all consumer-generated media, not just
traditional media. This set-up takes time. 

Crises
happen on weekends:
Engagement happens after hours
and so do crises. The Counties Manukau Police
Facebook page was recently flooded with obscenity and outrage following the
injury of a young girl during a party gone wrong. Alerts, monitoring and moderation have to
happen after hours too, especially in an ‘issues rich’ environment.

2. Hypertransparency

Don’t
count on keeping a secret:
In our small and
hyperconnected environment, private
conversations are frequently made public and it always pays to ask yourself how
you would fancy your words appearing on the front page of stuff.co.nz or
whaleoil.co.nz before you click send.

Clean
up your act:
Fill the holes or be ready to explain why
you didn’t. If you’re a public
organisation whose entire reputation hinges on data security and you’ve been
warned about a gap in that fence, address this as a matter of priority before Public Address blogger Keith Ng
walks in to your kiosk with his USB stick. 

Address
negative perceptions directly:
If there is a
negative perception around your organisation, even a minor breach will be
amplified in view of your history. 
Address this perception in your wider communications programmes. Be ready to reconcile any contradictory
business practices and ensure that any corporate social responsibility
initiatives are sincere and defensible.

3.
Dialogue is as important as message delivery
 

Get
ready for two way dialogue: 
Many a community manager has sat watching
their feeds explode while executives dither on messaging and sign-off.  Scripted messages simply won’t fly. Your ability to respond comes down to
preparation, robust engagement and moderation guidelines and a pretty basic
process of identifying likely doomsday scenarios. It also relies on your organisation’s trust
and confidence in the individuals manning your social profiles.

@theboss
needs to get it:
Few chief executives are as comfortable taking
to Twitter themselves as Ford’s Scott
Monty
, but your senior executives
need to be sufficiently educated to understand the negative implications of
radio silence in social media.  

4. Your
reputation will be made or broken in search: 
80 percent of internet users start their session
at search. Search is very sensitive to
social media content. Once those results
are on your front page they can be very hard to dislodge, reminding potential customers
of your unfortunate event for months. 89 percent of us have decided not to make a purchase based on user generated content, so a
proactive content strategy is crucial to ensure positive, fresh and dynamic
content arrives in your natural search results regularly.

5. Your
opponents have the same tools you do: 
While well-resourced direct attacks or
‘hacktivism’ are not yet common in New Zealand, your detractors are increasingly
resourceful and just as able to harness social power as you are. Greenpeace’s ‘Let’s Go’ hoax hijacked Shell’s ‘Artic Ready’ campaign spectacularly, using all
the sharing power of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest. ‘Social campaigns gone wrong’ are an enthralling
modern spectator sport, fuelled by schadenfreude, and it pays to consider how
your campaigns could be used against you. 

Next
steps? 

  • Get buy-in at the top on the
    importance of social media in a crisis (there are many articles attesting to
    the impact of a PR crisis on stock price).
  • Set up adequate social media
    monitoring today.
  • Add a digital chapter to your
    crisis communications plan. 
  • Identify 2-3 likely crises and
    roleplay through the communication process. Plan how and where you will speak online. 
  • Identify the top online
    influencers for your business and start building relationships today. 
  • Jennifer Duval-Smith is executive director
    of Social@Ogilvy. @jduvalsmith.
  • This article originally appeared in the May/June edition of NZ Marketing. 

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