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Social media can be a valuable tool in companies' crisis management efforts.
“Particularly if you're a consumer products company, social media allow you to get to a lot of people very quickly,” said Larry Walsh, vice chairman at Alexandria, Va.-based strategic communications consultant Hawthorn Group L.C.
For example, a compelling video of a company executive or spokesperson speaking genuinely that is shared via social media networks is a powerful tool in responding to a crisis, said Shannon M. Wilkinson founder and president of New York-based Reputation Communications Ltd.
Videos of General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra responding to the automaker's recent ignition switch recall are examples of an effective response during a crisis, Ms. Wilkinson said.
“The public wants company decisions during crises explained to them,” Ms. Wilkinson said. “Social media allows companies to do that.”
Ms. Barra faced tough questioning in early April by panels in the U.S. House and Senate concerning GM delaying for years the recall of vehicles affected by the ignition switch problem that has been tied to 13 deaths.
“In some cases you have no choice” but use social media to respond to a corporate crisis, 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.
“The problem is you're really not controlling the channels anymore,” Mr. Diermeier said. “In many cases, that means you have to act together,” to effectively respond to a crisis.
“You have to create your social media capability before you face one of these developments,” he said.
But many companies are uncomfortable with the transparency needed to adequately respond via social media during a corporate crisis, Mr. Walsh said.
“Also, you're providing a platform for some of the critics and some of the craziness that goes on in social media. To play the game, you have to be in the middle of it,” he said.
Despite the challenges, “companies can head off potential future issues and gain credibility online by engaging in online dialogue and participating in social media,” said Cindy Ta, senior director of corporate communications at Juniper Networks Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif. “Companies should encourage conversations to occur on their own properties rather than somewhere else.”
“When consumers don't have a place to go to online that is created by the company, they go elsewhere online. They create their own communities and vent,” Ms. Wilkinson said. “And if the company is not on that (social media) platform, they can't be part of that conversation.”
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.