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Companies must prepare in advance how to use social media in a crisis or risk making things worse, says Cindy Bodenstein…

Thanks to smartphones and tablets, the use of social media has exploded. For many people, social media platforms are now much more than a way to keep in touch with friends and family, or to find out what's hot – they are also a way to be alerted to events that could impact their lives. From load-shedding and traffic delays to mall robberies or industrial accidents, growing numbers of people are getting real-time information from social media.

"This means that when a company experiences a crisis of whatever nature, news of it is likely to break on social media, and people will be looking for information there," says Cindy Bodenstein, marketing manager at ContinuitySA.

"By its nature, it's a fast-moving medium so companies have to be prepared in advance for how to use it if they are to avoid looking like the classic ‘rabbit in the headlights' and risk making things worse. Social media are now an indispensable part of the communications mix – particularly in a crisis – so it is critical that companies understand what to do."

Based on international best practice and on its experience in helping leading companies develop crisis management protocols, ContinuitySA has identified the following best practices for using social media effectively in a crisis situation:

  •  Make sure you have a plan in place before the crisis occurs, and build a relationship with key audiences. In particular, understand which audiences you want to reach and which social media tactics are most appropriate. Says Bodenstein: "It's obviously better to have open channels with your key stakeholders so that when you need to reach them, they are primed to trust you."
  • Listen, listen, listen. Social media offers an invaluable way to understand what people are saying about your brand, and the issues that are important to it. Monitoring social media has to be ongoing.
  • Communicate authentically – and offer solutions. Corporate speak, or any attempt to fudge an issue, usually won't wash on social media – and getting called out publicly can really harm the brand. "Somebody senior, who can read the general tenor of what is going on and who, critically, understands the communication guidelines, has to be involved," Bodenstein advises. "And, when a crisis does occur, it's important to acknowledge the concerns that people have, and go from there." In particular, provide information to the public if the crisis will directly affect them, for example, if there is a fire or a product recall."

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