Applying Risk Communication Principles to Social Media Crisis

Behind the Keyboard

It may start with a tweet, or with a blog post somewhere and a few irate comments. You're monitoring the conversation that remains low key, until a pundit grabs hold of the information, sees it as an opportunity to show expertise — whether in theory or not — and all of a sudden your organization's Facebook page wall comes under attack.

The posts quickly gain momentum and possibly degenerate when fans become mob.

Your community manager, who is probably part of the digital media team, or an agency: 1) is unprepared to deal with the volume and tone of the posts; 2) has little to no authority to act on behalf of the organization; 3) has no direct line to decision makers.

Welcome to the real time Web

Listening is not enough.

Because social media makes connections visible and communication instantaneous, when people are upset or angry about an issue, escalation is fast and furious. And the implications to brands built over decades of careful messaging can be devastating.

Who are the key publics

We talk about personalization and the beauty of one to one communication in social media. Well, in social media you often have a here comes everybody situation, as Shirky would say. However, there are groups or publics with common perspectives. PR professionals call them stakeholders.

Borrowing a page from crisis communications manuals and adapting it to what we've seen happen in social media so far, they likely are, in this order:

  1. Concerned citizens — have shown a desire to get involved in the issue you are facing
  2. Employees and partners — how is the issue affecting them in the community?
  3. Activists — they have an agenda related to the issue
  4. Pundits — people who are seen as influential by the online community
  5. Experts — with specialized knowledge of this specific issue
  6. Industry — are other organizations getting lumped into the issue?
  7. Elected officials — we're seeing more examples of politics mixed in with business
  8. Regulators — think about health care, pharma, chemical, financial services
  9. Mainstream media — and the rest of the public not online/in social networks

What you need to figure out is: who are the key groups who have a stake in the particular issue you are facing?

Learning to listen better is central to risk communication

One of the best definitions of risk communication I've come across in my career is by Dr. Peter Sandman who explains is as it dealing with what might happen vs. crisis communication, which deals with what has happened or is happening.

As he writes at his site, he (emphasis mine)

coined the formula “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” to
reflect a growing body of research indicating that people assess risks
according to metrics other than their technical seriousness: that
factors such as trust, control, voluntariness, dread, and familiarity
are as important as mortality
or morbidity
in what we mean by risk. My clients tended to imagine that
their neighbors, employees, or customers were upset mostly because of
media sensationalism or activist distortions or their own ignorance;
helping them understand the dynamics of stakeholder outrage was a
prerequisite to helping them figure out how to reduce the outrage

mostly how to stop doing the things they were doing that provoked the

Of course reducing outrage is a socially valuable thing to do only if
the outrage is misplaced
– that is, if the hazard, the technical
risk, is genuinely small. (Similarly, increasing people’s outrage, as
activists do, is socially valuable only if the hazard is genuinely big.)

Indeed there are ethical issues with outrage management, as Dr. Sandman points out and has written extensively about. Applying risk communication thinking is useful especially in refocusing the organization on the nature of the risk and the key stakeholders involved (vs. shareholders).

The truth is that often you won't know what the issue is about until you ask and are prepared to listen.


[click on image to enlarge]

When the crisis strikes

What do you do when that happens? Borrowing from extensive commentary by Dr. Sandman about BP to the Daily Kos, when disaster strikes, tell the truth (emphasis mine):

In a crisis situation the principal communication task is to communicate
honestly about the situation and help people bear their justified
. Premature, dishonest, or disingenuous over-reassurance is a
cardinal crisis communication sin.  So is cavalier, unemphatic

That applies to a social crisis as well. Indeed, while you may think distress is not justified, your community begs to differ — and that's what counts. Tell the truth about what you're doing, not what you think about the situation. People want action.

So as you wonder how much a brand advocate is worth, think also about what their perspective would be in a crisis — would they be:

  • an employee anxious to explain and defend why they work at your company
  • a pundit eager to showcase what they know and possibly gain publicity in the process, while underestimating their own influence and potential reputational damage they are inflicting
  • a respected member of a community of concerned citizens 
  • etc.

The organizations that apply risk communication principles to social media crisis are those who don't stop in their tracks, they are prepared to act. Giving people something to do engages them not just for marketing purposes, it's also helpful when a crisis strikes.

Do these things

While having a social media policy and setting community guidelines help get everyone on board with how the organization is approaching social media, they don't guarantee your company will not have issues.

An integrated social media strategy requires a commitment to customer-centricity, conversation, and community. This means preparation, direct engagement, and real time communication to address any issues -– potential and unforeseen -– that may arise in social interactions.

Do these things:

  • be totally transparent about what's happening
  • get help to the teams on the front lines
  • provide timely updates — internally and externally (take care of your employees)
  • give people something to do — doing trumps talking
  • get leaders involved — a crisis involves change
  • collect and post information and updates in one central location
  • respond to and clear contradicting information aggressively

Set the tone and continue listening. Most of us are not qualified to speak to technical information, industry relations, regulatory issues, etc. That doesn't keep us from having opinions on any of those matters.

Company says potato — often experts think about the science behind something — publics say potato — they are concerned about things like control, fairness, and responsiveness. Address those concerns. Organizations that underestimate the power of community outrage,
combined with the ability to gain momentum online, risk potentially
costly crisis. 

What issues are you concerned about?

A few weeks back we discussed crisis communication in social media: are you ready? This is a deeper conversation than we can cover in a couple of posts. However, risk communication thinking needs to be part of your social media strategy.

So fire away with your questions in the comments. I'm working on a Webinar about this topic (stay tuned for dates and times), and you can help me address your concerns.

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0 responses to “Applying Risk Communication Principles to Social Media Crisis”

  1. Bravo to this topic! Listening and monitoring is not enough. A company has to be prepared to take action quickly and notify the right people (even those not on the SM team) to handle any issues that arise.
    A prime example of this is legal issues. “I fell and broke my leg, I’m going to sue you…” The attorney isn’t on the SM team but surely they should know what was said and document that comment. The bigger question is do you keep it up or remove it from the public view?
    How long does it take for action on a serious situation? Minutes, hours, days…how prepared is your business?
    Director of Enterprise Engagement

  2. Taking action is important to show intent. If you do a great job with your communications and feedback loops, customers may even trust you that a private message will be taken care of and never post about that issue publicly. Often, not always, an issue snowballs because nobody is willing to take ownership of the call, question, etc.
    However, I want to reiterate that taking action doesn’t mean reacting, or caving under pressure. We do more harm than good when we detach the communication in times of crisis from the company’s vision and values and do not take enough time to research the issue as necessary.

  3. Sorry about the negative flavor of my first comment, it wasn’t my intention…positive is just as powerful if not more. With our clients, we’ve seen less than 3% of the engagement containing negative connotations but it is the main fear I hear from executives who are not socially savvy.
    Empowering conversation around positive things or engaging with fans who have large friend/follower counts is even more important from a customer service stand point.
    Also, keeping the employees involved in the conversation is an internal morale booster and HR benefit for finding stars on the payroll.

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