Sunday, October 21, 2012

Online Crisis Tips

Following my post on preparing for a brewing media crisis I was asked how I felt about scripted responses, specifically, prepared Twitter posts that can be shared across multiple satellite offices. Since you rarely know what form an online crisis will take, I prefer to follow a set procedure and then tailor each response to the specific issue.

Think of several crises that may befall your organization: a leaked YouTube video of an off the cuff comment made by your CEO, a racist comment made by a member of your staff to a client or customer, a product defect that injured or poisoned a consumer, or an ill advised post that went viral (see KitchenAid post). In any of these cases the response would be different based on the specific issue, the seriousness of the claim, or the staff members involved.

Here are 10 tips to help you through an online crisis when time counts and coordination of your message is key:

Smooth Approval Process

In a social media crisis you must have a smooth approval process for posting information. Depending on the structure of your organization you may have a multi-tiered process. Organizations with multiple locations and duplicate sub-departments may either choose to empower local staff members to make final decisions or await a strategy from headquarters. A lengthy system of checks and balances may make you feel safe however the minutes that turn to hours reviewing a single post can make your organization appear confused or in the midst of a cover up.

Raise a Flag

At the first hint of an online issue the designated crisis coordinator should be alerted. This staff member will then decide the severity of the issue and alert key staff members if need be. Be sure to cast a wide net to those who interact with the media or may encounter questions regarding this news. You never want your senior management to be caught unaware. I am frequently the crisis coordinator, since I oversee internal and external communications, allowing my organizations to feel comfortable with a process centralized by a trained spokesperson that underwent crisis training.

The Manual

To prevent an internal crisis within your process you need to have a manual dictating various scenarios. Who do you contact if the crisis coordinator was “hit by a bus”? What happens if the CEO is unavailable for a statement? How does your call center coordinate responses with your social media team? These inevitable questions need to be considered and planned for as far in advance as possible.

Move Quickly

Once a crisis coordinator has been alerted he or she can ensure that all key members of your staff as well as outside consultants are aware of the situation and begin to formulate a strategy and response. As a crisis coordinator I frequently use email only for consensus data at this point and begin having office discussions or call a quick meeting/teleconference. This helps the process move quickly and keeps everyone in the loop.


The staff member who originally raised the issue may be eager to post a response. In some cases you may decide that a response is necessary to let the public know that you are aware of the issue and to thank all involved for bringing it to your attention. In other cases you may wish to wait until you know a few more facts and post a response. In my experience I have found that an initial response thanking the poster works well. If you wait too long before your first post you may appear uncaring or out of touch.

Stay Positive

Many crises are elevated when an organization becomes defensive. Even if a person is attacking you I find that it is best to treat that person, publicly at least, as if they are being helpful in bringing a concern to your attention. Keep the dialogue positive. The crisis coordinator should have the authority to post an immediate response requesting further information before jumping in too early with a coordinated statement.

Stay Nimble

As additional information comes to light, draft appropriate responses and decide if you should spread your response to other media. Is a press conference necessary? Do you notify the board of directors? Depending of the crisis you may need to elevate the scope of the discussion to offer clarity to the general public before rumors begin to spread.


Operating multiple locations, your coordinated effort should require each location to post similar alerts tailored to their local audiences. However, as you coordinate your responses you should not use form statements that have been kept on file. All it takes is one investigative post to highlight that you responded the same way a few months ago when a separate crisis occurred. Remember that this is a social interaction and personalization can mean the difference between appearing caring or unconcerned. Need I say it: Appearances are everything in a crisis.


It is vital to review the events of each crisis. What worked and what broke down? Was there an event that was not accounted for in your manual? When was the issue solved and when did it get away from the response team? This is when accountability takes center stage and every staff member involved needs to be debriefed.


Now that you know what went well and where you failed, you need to update your manual. In fact you may need to remove a strategy rather than just adding to your response procedures. Once you have a new finalized version be sure to circulate it among your crisis response team and ask them to disregard prior manuals.

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