Managing crisis communications is an enduring part of public relations work. As long as there are humans who make mistakes, there will be crises—and the need to get through them to the other side.
Social media platforms have changed crisis PR in a number of ways. It’s easier to make a mistake on social media, simply due to the immediacy of posting. Social also can make a crisis spread fast and wide. An errant tweet in Des Moines can be shared in Dubai in moments.
And, since social platforms are where many of these crises play out, it’s also frequently (but not always!) where they need to be addressed as well.
Here are some tips for PR professionals to consider when the next crisis hits.
Know your platforms
This means more than just knowing how or when to post on any given social platform, it means knowing about the audience of the platform. If a brand crisis emerges on Facebook, what age group is most likely to see it first? How about TikTok or Instagram? And Twitter? Of course, social platforms aren’t age-exclusive, and a brand crisis can hop from one platform to another. But knowing—and understanding—which audiences are most “at home” on a platform is an important step.
From trending topics to understanding what is typical for posting, keeping current is essential. It’s the social channel equivalent of reading the room—something that any communicator should be adept at doing.
Have a crisis plan
This sounds like really basic planning, and it is. And yet, a recent survey done by online vendor matching firm Capterra found that roughly half of the firms surveyed did not have a formal crisis communications plan, and just over a quarter had an “informal” plan in place. (I’m not sure what an informal crisis plan is, but suspect it might amount to “we’ve media trained the CEO and the PR person,” or something similar.)
Whether it’s because companies think a crisis will never happen to them or because crisis planning takes time and is there for “in case of emergency, break glass” situations, a lot of firms apparently don’t think it’s worth it to have a plan in place. They are wrong. The last thing you want to be dealing with in a crisis is figuring out details like who should be on camera, and who should be heading up your response team. Having a formal plan in place will save time when a crisis hits, which can go a long way in preventing things from getting worse.
Crisis plans must have a social component
In this day and age, it seems weird to have to say that, but no matter what your industry is, having a social media component to your crisis plan is essential. The extent of social media inclusion in a crisis plan will vary from one company to the next, and may be dependent on the specifics of the crisis—but it still needs to be in there.
Use your crisis plan
When a crisis hits, pull out your crisis plan. This seems obvious, but in a crisis—particularly an unexpected one—people forget the careful planning that has already been done. This can be especially true for lower-grade crises; the smaller issues that pop up that if not handled effectively can grow into much larger problems.
Identify your audiences
Crises vary. They vary in intensity, in duration, in severity, and more. One of the more surprising aspects of a crisis is understanding that the target audience for a brand’s products or services may not always be the same communications target in a crisis—and that a brand can have more, or different, audiences to consider when experiencing a crisis.
Monitoring media in a crisis is a given, both traditional and social. This is true even for firms that are less active on social platforms. Your online monitoring can be used to inform decision-making about the crisis, such as which messages are resonating and which ones aren’t, where the biggest impacts of the crisis are being felt, and tracking both volume and sentiment can be used as indicators as to when a crisis is beginning to wind down.
Think, then respond
Off-the-cuff comments can get companies in trouble. It’s hard, in the midst of a crisis, to be measured and thoughtful when everything seems to be going off the rails all around you. Review the draft statements in your crisis plan and update them to respond to the crisis you are experiencing. Take time to review notes, press statements, and any key messages. Be human, be empathetic, but don’t wander off of your messaging.
A recent example – TikTok’s crisis plays out on multiple fronts
TikTok has emerged as the preferred social platform for Gen Z. It has over a billion users worldwide, with over 100 million regular users in the U.S. alone. And, as the platform’s popularity has grown, so has criticism.
Along with charges that TikTok serves up harmful content to younger teens, is one of the underlying causes of a mental health crisis among young people, and that it is distractingly addictive, the platform has also been labeled by a number of U.S. lawmakers as a threat to national security.
To address some of the content concerns, TikTok has introduced a number of tools, measures, and controls. Users under the age of 18 are limited to an hour of screen time each day, and parental controls for accounts were expanded.
The allegation that TikTok represents a security risk is a very different challenge for the company to tackle. In March, CEO Shou Chew testified before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee for Energy and Commerce, where he was grilled by U.S. lawmakers on the app’s data collection and use, and the extent to which the app’s parent company, ByteDance, interacts with the Chinese government.
What is most interesting about these two situations is that together these represent a brand crisis for TikTok, but the brand’s core users are on the company’s side. During and after the Congressional hearing, users flooded TikTok to make fun of members of Congress. Calls to ban the app are met with derision by its many creators. It is a startlingly clear example of a brand crisis for which the primary audience for crisis communications is not the core user group.
So, it’s interesting to note that a key part of TikTok’s crisis response is decidedly old-school. The company has hired a few high-powered names to help out with Congress. Former Disney communications executive Zenia Mucha, and David Plouffe and Jim Messina—both of whom worked on campaigns for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, respectively—have been hired to help TikTok navigate its current legal and congressional woes.
The takeaway? To respond effectively, know which audience you need to speak to in a crisis.