Hey, social media marketers: we see you. We know that on any given day, you’re putting a ton of care, attention and tact into your social media messages. But we also know that when a major crisis or emergency hits, the pressure you face is even higher. Social media crisis communication requires a steady hand and an empathetic ear.
In this post, we’re looking at social media best practices during a real-world crisis or emergency. To be clear, these are tactics for challenging times. That means things like earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, massacres, pandemics, and economic collapse. If you’re looking for information on social media PR crisis management, find that info here.
Today, real-world catastrophes play out on social media in real time. Social media professionals help audiences and communities come through hardship together. But 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?
It sounds complicated, we know. But it actually comes down to one simple question: How can you help?
Read on for our complete guide to social media crisis communication.
We live in a world where 53% of Americans get their news from social media. It’s where many of us (particularly the under-30 set) expect to find breaking news first. These platforms also deliver accounts that shape narratives and impact perceptions — for better or for worse.
These days, social media channels have become an important information source. The average person spends 147 minutes a day on apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Social media has even shaped where traditional news journalists get their information.
So, when the world’s in a tailspin, what role does social media play in a crisis communications plan?
During a crisis, social media can help brands:
- Communicate updates to your audience;
- Support people who need help or information;
- Listen and learn about current events and what people need from your brand.
Social media is an important channel for sharing urgent news and updates. If you need to reassure your audience or explain your response to a crisis, you use social.
Social media isn’t only for those in the heart of a crisis, though. It allows people to connect and make sense of tragedy. It’s also where you find out how you can help and, often, roll up your sleeves and get to work.
In other words: brands can’t ignore these conversations. But participation must be approached with care.
Whenever we face a crisis, we hope that after it passes, we’ll come out changed for the better. On social media, that means building long-term trust and connection with our audience.
What does that look like? Here are our tips.
Have a social media policy in place for employees
We can’t predict crises, but we can be prepared for them. An official social media policy can help you know the best, most effective way to respond.
Document your communication strategies and outline an approach to handling a social media crisis.
A good policy will provide a solid but flexible response process. It will also compile all the crucial internal information you need to move forward.
It’s a helpful document to have if the crisis is particularly close to home. If some of your team members are affected by the crisis, they’ll be able 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. Where is that information, and how can someone find it?
- 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.
- An approval process for your response strategy.
Review—and possibly pause—your upcoming social calendar
Context shifts fast in a crisis, and brands are right to be cautious.
For instance, “finger-lickin’ good” may not be appropriate to say 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.
With Hootsuite, pausing your scheduled social media content is simple. Just click the pause symbol on your organization’s profile and enter a reason for the suspension.
This will keep all posts from publishing until you decide it is safe to resume. It’ll also warn users that a publishing suspension is in effect.
Have a tiger team in place
What’s a tiger team? A pack of ferocious specialists that assemble to work on a specific problem or goal. In the middle of an emergency or crisis, your existing social team might adjust or call in extra support.
Identify the people who are best suited for these roles. Then, outline their responsibilities so that everyone can own their mission and act. Tasks to assign to your response team include:
- Posting updates
- Answering questions and handling customer support
- Monitoring the wider conversation, and flagging important developments
- Fact-checking information and/or correcting rumors
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. This can include external stakeholders and the rest of the organization.
Communicate with honesty, openness, and compassion
At the end of the day, honesty, compassion and humanity will win out. Build trust by being transparent about issues you’re struggling with — or responsible for.
Make sure employees are aware of your position
Communications begin at home. When your organization moves forward, you’ll need your employees on board.
If you’re announcing relief efforts or donations, 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. (Make sure you’ve included any crisis-specific amendments)
Your brand may be in a tense position because of the crisis (layoffs, backlash, etc.), too. Be ready for employees to express their feelings on social.
Sometimes it’s impossible to get everyone pulling towards the same goal. In this case, social listening can help you understand your employees’ concerns better.
Cite only credible sources
Platforms, governments, and brands have doubled down on resisting misinformation on social. In a crisis, it’s even more important to be vigilant about the truth. In times like these, bad information doesn’t just damage reputations. It can be outright dangerous.
Social platforms may implement broader protective policies during a crisis, but don’t rely on that alone. Check your facts before sharing false claims with your audience.
And if, in the heat of the moment, you erroneously share misinformation, own the mistake right away. Most likely, your audience will tell you.
Use social media monitoring/listening
Your social media team may have been the first to hear about the crisis, whether local or global. It’s just the nature of the job.
If your social listening strategy is optimized, your team can watch audience sentiment around your brand. They can also track what’s happening with your competitors and industry at large. How are 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.
Social listening tools like Hootsuite make it easy to track conversations on social. Check out the video below for an overview of the platform’s listening capabilities.
Avoid “trend-jacking” or activities that appear profit-driven
Whatever you do: don’t attempt to “spin” a crisis.
This can be a tough line to pin down. If a post seems showy or calculated, it can damage your relationship with your customers.
We’ve seen so many brands burned by being opportunistic or even appearing opportunistic. Coy teaser strategies just don’t work in an emergency situation. Neither does bragging.
Avoid damaging your brand’s reputation on social media when a crisis occurs. Do what’s right and do it with humility.
Leave room for questions
People will have questions. Be clear on the best way for them to reach you. You don’t have to be facing a flood of panicked inquiries. Just take the time to engage, answer questions, and provide reassurance.
A pause may be necessary while you strategize. But — and this goes triple if your brand is close to the crisis — radio silence is not a long-term strategy.
Social media crisis communication examples
Need a little inspiration? We’ve collected some prime examples of how brands have dealt with crises and emergencies on social media.
When the markets crashed, WealthSimple stepped in. They provided a calm explainer (via carousel) to help ease followers’ financial worries.
Reproductive care brand MyOvry obviously couldn’t ignore the Roe v. Wade discussion. They jumped into the conversation and made their position on the issue clear.
After the latest school shooting in the U.S., business magazine Fast Company took to social media. They helped direct readers to opportunities to support gun control.
Live From Snacktime usually posts hilarious quotes from kids. They used their platform to share a minimalist but powerful message in the wake of this tragedy.
The Bank of Queensland jumped onto social in the wake of severe flooding. In crystal-clear language, they shared how they would support clients in the days to come.
It’s not just big brands, either. The role of social media in local government crisis communications is just as important. When heavy rains took out a highway in British Columbia, the local government used social media to share updates on road conditions.
After wildfires devastated Flagstaff, the Museum of Northern Arizona pivoted its usual content. They shared a somber sympathy message and offered the organization’s support for the victims.
Art for your #Sundaymorning. Sending sympathy & support to our colleagues at SunsetCrater National Monument as they deal with the terrible consequences of the #TunnelFire. Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, Sunset Crater, 1930, Oil on Canvas, #Collection of MNA. #Flagstaff #painting pic.twitter.com/7KW429GvWn
— MuseumOfNorthernAZ (@museumofnaz) May 1, 2022
Comic artist Clarice Tudor used her Instagram to weigh in with her support for Ukraine. She also shared her fundraising efforts.
Each of these examples communicates an urgent message with tact and efficiency. Remember, the most important question to ask yourself is still: how can you help?
Social media crisis communications plan template
Get a social media crisis communications plan in place while everything is business-as-usual. That way, you’ll be able to jump into action ASAP when life goes sideways. We’re here to help you get started with a crisis communication plan template for social media.
Assess potential crises
Time for a (dark) brainstorm. What possible situations could impact the world and your business? This could mean anything from a new wave of the pandemic to a tragic violent event in your community. Think about any potential disasters you may need to comment on.
Potential questions and responses
What will your followers need to know in a crisis? You can’t predict every angle, but brainstorming responses will give you a head start.
Posting outlets and schedules
When something awful or unexpected occurs, where will you respond… and when? Make a list of all your relevant social media platforms. Include how quickly (or how often) to post to each in the event of a global or community emergency. It may also be helpful to share login information here or who has access to these accounts.
Who handles what? Is one person handling everything from content creation to social listening? Or are you going to divvy the work up among a few key players?
Consider this your emergency contact sheet. Jot down the names, positions and contact info of everyone who needs to be in the loop regarding your social media content during a crisis.
Guidelines for social media
Do you have any rules or best practices for your posts during a crisis? What’s the right tone? Are emojis appropriate or a no-no? What is your policy on responding to negative comments or feedback? Deciding on best practices before a crisis will help your team know how to proceed.
Use Hootsuite to respond quickly to any emergency situation on all your social media accounts. Pause upcoming content, monitor the conversation, and analyze your efforts from one dashboard. Try it free today.
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