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The basic dynamics of dealing with a crisis stemming from social media communication are largely the same as those confronting a company via traditional media, but a social media crisis demands quick corporate response after careful consideration about who and what warrants a response.
When a crisis occurs and critics, for example, turn to social media to call for a boycott of an organization, the company's response almost always benefits from advance planning so the crisis is not unintentionally worsened.
“There's not a single company on the planet right now that I know of that isn't worried about social media to a very significant degree,” said Daniel Diermeier, IBM professor of regulation and competitive practice in the department of managerial economics and decision sciences at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. “That rises to the level of boards and C-level executives.”
“Social media, like any media, are windows into behavior,” said Nir Kossov-sky, CEO and director of Steel City Re, a Pittsburgh-based broker and adviser specializing in corporate reputation management and risk transfer. “What social media have done is magnify the noise around an event and accelerate the pace at which we discover events.”
For firms facing a crisis playing out on social media networks, it's necessary to distinguish between incidents limited to social media and those picked up by traditional media, Mr. Diermeier said. “There's very often the reinforcement between social media and traditional media,” he said. “Then it really becomes big.”
“I think the most important thing is acknowledging legitimate customer complaints and concerns very, very quickly, particularly if there's a crisis,” said Shannon M. Wilkinson, founder and president of New York-based Reputation Communications Ltd.
Given the premium on a speedy response to a social media crisis, “it's essential to involve the legal department in creating a plan before you need a plan,” Ms. Wilkinson said. Because many companies' legal departments are the reason for a delayed response in a crisis, it's important to involve them in devising a crisis response plan before a crisis occurs, she said.
It's also critical for companies in a crisis to monitor comments on social media.
“Monitoring is an imperative and one of the most fundamental components of crisis management,” said Cindy Ta, senior director of corporate communications at Juniper Networks Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif. “Monitoring not only helps identify issues as they arise, but can help spot misinformation that may need to be corrected before they turn into a full-blown crisis.”
Such monitoring can help a company shape its response based on actual conversations and current trends, identify key online influencers and possibly gain insight into future issues, Ms. Ta said.
“I think it's always important to correct the record” when false statements are made about a company in social media, said Larry Walsh, vice chairman of Alexandria, Va.-based consultant Hawthorn Group L.C. But opinions from unidentified cranks don't always merit a response, and the company often can find ways to address the issue with confronting the individual directly. “You need to filter your responses somewhat,” he said. “You don't need to respond to everything.”
Because social media networks provide an effective way for customers to organize boycotts and other actions, companies need to respond to social media crises quickly, Mr. Diermeier said. At the same, time, however, “there's a tremendous amount of volume you have to deal with.”
“The art here is that white space is a problem, because social media definitely need to be filled,” Mr. Kossovsky said. “The authenticity of a message helps drive its replication, and an authentic message replicated fills the need of the media for content,” he said.
“Authentic communication in the media that is then replicated through the social media channels is the heart of any strategy.”
Experts routinely recommend that businesses and organizations teach their employees how to safely and effectively use social media due to their potential risks when misused and rewards when used appropriately, but few companies provide such training.