How Social Media Transforms Crisis Communications

The hyper-interconnectivity of social media networks means that information is being shared among online users at viral speed. When a crisis hits, it no longer takes days for the media to pick it up and distribute it in print. We are now looking at hour by hour escalation of a crisis and how it can potentially become detrimental to a brand within a short span of 24-hours. Within the first 8 hours of the information leakage, we expect to see micromedia sites such as twitter starting to post one-liner statements about it. Bloggers will also begin to post short articles and some mainstream media may have picked it up. Following that you will see viral-like spreading of the information. People will be retwitting and sharing the information with their 24-Hour Crisis Breakdownfollowers, videos and photos will be shared on forums, and Facebook users will be updating their walls and sharing the information with their friends. Within 16 hours, you can already expect a huge community of online users to have heard about the crisis, and reacted to it by posting some form of an opinion. Next you will begin to see editorialising of the material. Influential bloggers would have harvested opinions from various sources and compiled a ‘case-study’ article on it. Search engines like google would have also picked up on the vast amount activity surrounding keyword searches. Jumping in and responding immediately to a crisis or choosing not to react impulsively and waiting to see how it develops is an important decision that your crisis communication team has to make. A decision that should be made promptly and with the support from company leadership. Considering that you already have a crisis communications strategy plan in place, your best weapon in your fight against time would be to leverage on social media tools – setting up a simple web portal for updates, replying to tweets and encouraging people to retweet the response, and updating your followers on what steps the company is taking. However, this is assuming that you have already been diligently cultivating an active group of loyal followers and supporters through social media networking. Trying to garner support when you have not taken the time and effort to build up an online presence will not yield any positive results. How did FoMoCo (Ford Motor Company) do it?The Ranger Station is a popular website set up by Jim Oaks, for Ford Ranger vehicle enthusiasts. On 9 December 2008, he received a letter from Ford Motor Company demanding that he close down his website and reimburse the company with US$5000. At 6:00pm that day, Jim Oaks made an entry in the TRS forums and also sent an email to the website’s member list urging fellow enthusiasts for cooperative support. That was when the crisis broke out and spread like wildfire overnight. In an effort to contain the communications nightmare that was happening, Scott Monty, head of social media at Ford, leverage his 5,600 twitter followers for help and although only 19 of his followers retweet-ed his message, it reach a total of 13,400 people. After discussion with Ford’s legal department, Scott Monty clarified to the public that they are not seizing TRS’s website but simply encourage TRS and other fan sites bearing Ford’s logo and trade marks “to contact Ford to request a license to continue using the domain name”. Once again, Scott Monty disseminated Ford’s official statement on twitter and reached over 21,000 users through retweet-ing. The crisis was thus effectively squelched in a matter of 22 hours. Had Ford taken the traditional route of orgainising a committee and setting up a press conference, this crisis would probably have developed into the following day’s news headline, which would have made things a lot more difficult to handle. What can we learn from this? The importance of developing a good crisis communications strategy, and setting aside a dedicated team to handle a crisis, should not be taken lightly. With new media, it takes time and effort to build up support and a group of followers, and without the relevant support, social media tools will not produce any effective results. Unlike traditional paradigms where control is governed by only a few exclusive influencers who have the ability to publish, today anyone can become a publisher and have significant influence through their social media networks. In order to effectively manage a crisis, you will need to consider the impact of social media in your crisis communications strategy plan and shift your focus from a linear rigid pipeline, to a more dynamic web-like network of influencers.

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