On a regular day, connecting with your audience on social media requires tact, care, and forethought. In the epicenter of a major crisis, the pressure skyrockets. What should your brand say when the facts and the future are uncertain? And how should you say it when new developments are coming in by the hour or minute?
In this post, we’re taking a look at social media best practices during a real-world crisis or emergency. That is strategy and tactics for challenging times—earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, massacres, pandemics, economic collapse.
More than ever, real-world catastrophes play out on social media in real-time. As social media professionals, our job is to help our audiences and communities come through hardship together. So, here’s our guide to social media crisis communication.
The role of social media in crisis communications
In a crisis, social media’s role is much larger and more complex than simply checking Facebook’s Crisis Response tool. 55% of Americans get their news from social media. Meanwhile, first-person accounts and opinions from regular people break news, shape narratives, and influence opinion.
For teams working at the center of a crisis, social platforms are one of the top ways to get authoritative information to the population, fast.
And for those of us operating farther from the crisis, social media is how people connect and make sense of tragedy. Brands can’t ignore these conversations, but participation must be approached with care.
So, when the world’s in a tailspin, what role does social media play in a crisis communications plan?
- Rapid, direct communication of updates to your audience;
- Support for people who need help or information;
- Social listening to learn more broadly about what’s happening in the world and your industry, as well as what people need from your brand.
In short, social media isn’t just where you say you’re helping, but it’s also where you find out how you can help, and, in many cases, roll up your sleeves and get to work.
Whatever crisis we face—as both professionals and regular people—we all hope that after it passes, we’ll come out changed for the better. On social media, that means strengthening trust and connections with our audience for the long term.
What does that look like? Here are our tips.
8 tips for communicating on social media during a crisis or emergency
1. Review—and possibly pause—your upcoming social calendar
Context shifts rapidly in a crisis, and brands (especially ones who already worry about brand safety) are right to wonder if, for instance, “finger-lickin good” is an appropriate thing to be saying in the middle of a pandemic. At best, you might seem insensitive, at worst, inappropriate messaging could endanger lives.
If you’re using a social media scheduler, you’ll want to press pause on any upcoming posts. Have faith that all the hard work that went into your perfect National Donut Day post isn’t wasted, it’s just postponed.
This will keep all posts from being published until you decide it is safe to resume, and warn anyone who tries to schedule new content that a publishing suspension is in effect.
2. Have a social media policy in place
We can’t predict crises, but we can be prepared for them. Especially for bigger teams, your organization’s official social media policy is your best asset in responding as rapidly and effectively as possible. A good policy will provide a solid, but flexible, response process, as well as compile all the crucial internal information you need to move forward.
It’s also a helpful document to have in the case that some of your team members are affected by the crisis and compelled to share duties with non-team members.
Make sure your social media policy includes the following:
- An up-to-date emergency contact list: not just your social media team, but legal advisors and executive decision-makers, too.
- Guidance on accessing social account credentials (i.e., where that information is, and how to go about getting it, if need be.)
- Guidelines for identifying the scope of the crisis (i.e., is it global or local, does it affect your operations, does it affect your customers, and to what extent?).
- An internal communication plan for employees (see #4).
- An approval process for your response strategy.
3. Know who’s on your “tiger” team
What’s a tiger team? A pack of ferocious specialists that assemble to work on a specific problem or goal. In this case, in the middle of an emergency or crisis, your existing social team might reconfigure, or call in additional firepower to handle the increased pressure.
Identify the people who are best suited for these roles, and delineate their responsibilities so that everyone can own their mission, and act. Tasks to assign include:
- Posting updates
- Answering questions and handling customer support
- Monitoring the wider conversation, and flagging important developments
- Fact-checking information, and/or correcting rumours
It’s also helpful to have people clearly responsible for:
- Strategizing for the medium-term (not just day-to-day)
- Coordinating/communicating with other teams, external stakeholders, and/or the rest of the organization
4. Make sure employees are aware of your organization’s position
Communications begin at home, and however your organization moves forward, you’re going to need your employees informed and onboard.
For instance, if you’re announcing relief efforts, donations, or other moves for the greater good, then proud employees can help spread the word through an employee advocacy program. This is also a good time to remind them of your organization’s social media guidelines for employees (including any crisis-specific amendments).
On the other hand, if your brand is in a tense position because of the crisis (layoffs, backlash, etc.), or emotions are running high, be prepared for employees to turn to social to express themselves.
Sometimes it’s impossible to get everyone pulling towards the same goal. In this case, social listening (see #7) can help you understand your employees’ concerns better. As well, your brand’s reaction in this scenario might be informed by your organization’s social media policy for employees. This leads us to our next point.
5. Communicate with honesty, openness, and compassion
This one is self-explanatory.
One of our favourite examples comes from Chiquita. This team obviously took the time to pause, re-orient and put in the work to fully integrate the #StayHome message into their social media plan during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the end of the day, honesty, compassion and humanity will win out. The brands who build trust during hard times are the ones who are transparent about the issues they’re struggling with—or responsible for.
6. Cite only credible sources
Resisting the spread of misinformation on social media has been a vital issue for platforms, government, and brands these past few years. But in a crisis, bad information doesn’t merely damage reputations, it can be outright dangerous.
While social platforms themselves may implement broader protective policies during a crisis, it’s absolutely necessary to have a fact-checking protocol in place before you share specious claims with your audience.
7. Use social media monitoring and listening to stay informed
Your social media team may well have been the first people in your organization to hear about the crisis, whether local or global. It’s just the nature of the job.
And if your social listening strategy is optimized, your team can continue to monitor audience sentiment around your brand, as well as track what’s happening with your competitors and industry at large. How are other, similar organizations responding to the emergency? And how are their customers responding to their response?
Do you need to craft content around your relief efforts, or new operational policies? Does your customer service team need to ramp up fast?
These are just a few of the questions social listening can help answer. It’s a direct line to what your audience needs from you, so tap in.
There are a number of social listening tools on the market that make it easy to track conversations, mentions, and search terms across different networks from a single dashboard.
8. Leave room for questions
People will have questions. Be clear on the best way for them to reach you. Even if you’re not faced with a deluge of panicked customer service inquiries, take the time to engage with your audience, answer their questions, and provide reassurance.
For instance, Clorox’s coronavirus customer response team was on the ball during the coronavirus pandemic, dispensing clear, accurate answers where they could.
While we hope you never have to use your social crisis management plan, it’s important to have one ready—whether it’s specific to your brand or a global crisis that changes the way you, and the world, work.