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Five social media rules to follow when handling a crisis, by CM Porter Novelli’s Angela Casey

1st February 2013

The debate continues about which department should take responsibility for social media. Spending this Christmas holiday on crisis call for a couple of clients confirmed for me how important it is that the PR function maintains an active watch and control on social media.

The business of managing, and hopefully containing, a crisis through traditional means has changed beyond recognition. Now, with the almost universal use of Twitter and Facebook (among many others), it is no longer the journalist who breaks the story. These days it is the public who are first on the scene as the crisis breaks. Smartphones enable pictures to be uploaded instantly that will be shared and picked up on the internet before the PRO has even lifted the phone to get the debrief on the incident. So being on the ball means more than just acting fast in this social-media-savvy world.

When assessing and creating a strategy for an incident it is no longer enough to see the issue of a statement to traditional media as the first step. The public has more often than not beaten you to it. People now have an insatiable appetite for instant answers – we all want and demand immediate gratification. Furthermore, the lack of a response within minutes is now publicly humiliated with a swift #fail. Obviously, the traditional method of agreeing a set of messages and sticking to them still rings true, as does being consistent and moderate in responding to a breaking issue. However, the PRO now has to be mindful that not only are immediate responses public property, but also, even if they are non-committal, they have to be timely to avoid mass hysteria. The recent handling by O2 of the social media fallout following signal problems has been highly praised as an example of excellence in containing social media mass hysteria.

So although the public like it, it is bad news for your holidays if you are on crisis call. It is no longer enough to keep a watching brief on the media and have an emergency phone number. The PRO has, in a way, become a public information officer too. Where in the past the media was the conduit for mass communication, it is now just one of many routes to reach a wide audience, with social media often being faster and more effective when news breaks.

This evolution of our industry means many things for the aspiring PRO – it means we all have to be social media experts and have the tools to hand all day and every day. Plus we potentially have to monitor and respond, as appropriate, at any time of the day or night. Clearly it is no longer enough to have an understanding of the media and knowledge of communications – having a canny understanding of social media must be a core skillset for us all.

So, when creating your crisis and issues plans with social media in mind, think of the following:

1. Listening and monitoring – if you know what people think of you already and how they expect you to behave, you are halfway to understanding what to do when it all goes wrong.

2. Planning – be ready with your plans and have agreed procedures in place. While you will have to change them as you go along, it is easier than starting from scratch.

3. Tone – know the tone in which your organisation speaks – does it have a sense of humour? Does it speak plain English or techno-jargon?

4. Total acceptance of social media – ensure the whole organisation supports and understands the value and necessity of being active in social media.

5. Finish what you start – if you have a Twitter feed you have to be ready to have it monitored all day every day and to have a suitable person prepared to engage with the world in an instant format.

In this world of opinions and perceptions being informed in a matter of minutes, and facts frequently misrepresented or blown out of proportion, it is only by understanding and preparation that we can hope to even begin to get the true picture across.

Angela Casey is managing director of CM Porter Novelli, Edinburgh

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