Managing a social media crisis

Social Media CrisisWe teamed up with eModeration, Kemp Little and Insignia Communications this week to host a social media crisis event at the Cabinet War Rooms. Around 50 people (mostly from brands, but there were one or two agency representatives as well) took part in a simulated social media crisis, using the software that Carrot and eModeration have built together. We use a combination of simulation software and a team of community managers behind the scenes mimicking the ‘angry public’, to make the experience the closest thing possible to a real crisis.

We had a great panel Q&A session after the simulation, and it was good to see a lot of discussion among attendees about what they’d learnt from the experience, and from previous experiences of managing real crises.

One of the issues that came up a few times was when to respond to a social media issue, and when to walk away. The Waitrose / Greenpeace / Shell issue provoked some debate: if Waitrose has made a business decision to use Shell, should they engage with Greenpeace on the issue? Does communication make it worse, if Waitrose has no plans to change supplier? (And this begs the question: to whom? Most of the mainstream fuel suppliers have felt the wrath of Greenpeace at some point.)

It’s an interesting question, and I’d summarise our conclusions as:

  1.  If you have a business reason for doing something, and that’s not going to change, then you just have to ‘staff up and ride it out’ (an expression that I found myself using more than once during the day)
  2. Don’t take on someone else’s issue. Under no circumstances should Waitrose have found itself defending Shell on an issue over which it (Waitrose) has no control
  3. Review your business decisions to make sure they’re the right ones. You don’t want to face a storm you could have avoided by taking the right business action (Nestle and Sinar Mas comes to mind)

I break crises broadly into two categories: those you can’t avoid, and those you can, if you take the appropriate action.

Unavoidable crises are, of course, the most serious– natural disasters, transport crashes, illness and so on – for the most part can’t be avoided. You can prepare for them, but you can’t control them.

But if you sit down and work out what crisis scenarios that you might face, you might find that there are some situations you could avoid by taking the right business action.  We often talk about crisis management as a communications issue, but of course it’s a business issue. No amount of good communications will make an issue go away (it might help to manage it, of course).

Sometimes you might just need to accept you’re going to have a hard time: staff up, and ride it out.

If you’re interested, the bones of the talk that I gave ahead of the simulation is below. There are also links below to the presentations that the other speakers gave:

Tamara Littleton from eModeration on managing communities through a crisis

Jonathan Hemus from Insignia on the principles of crisis communication

Suzy Schmitz and Paul Garland from Kemp Little on social media and the law

November in brand #fail: from major PR crises to thoughtless tweeting
December’s social media highlights (and lowlights)

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