Every business should have a crisis management plan in place, one that has been rehearsed and practiced so that everyone knows precisely what they are supposed to do if it all kicks off – in theory at least.

What happens in practice though?

Will everyone run for the lifeboats at once, or start pointing the finger at everyone else?

This is where the quality of the plan, and of the management responsible for its implementation, will be most clearly demonstrated. None more so than when social media is factored into the crisis management equation.

When a business crisis breaks out, it’s important to react effectively. Pretending it will go away is not an option – at least, not if you want the business to have a long-term future. But trying to shift the blame or finding a scapegoat isn’t a good idea either. When a crisis strikes – especially if this has originated from your business’ social media activity – it can be easy to try and assign blame instead of proactively dealing with the event.

The maxim whenever a crisis hits – it should be written in big letters on the front of the crisis management plan – is “Don’t Panic”: because if you do panic, you’ll only make matters worse. It is, however, important to be practical, rather than just react to situations as they arise. As Steve Wilson,  President of crisis management consultants The Wilson Group says, “The worst thing is to wait too long to the point that you’ve given up taking the lead and are simply responding to someone else’s agenda.”

The importance of leadership

So leadership is important. It can be one person or – depending on the crisis – a team, but the role of the leader is to escalate responses as the situation changes. After taking any necessary emergency action such as making contact with the customer that has posted negative sentiments on a social network about your company’s goods or services, your business should then discover just how bad the problem is for your business.

For the crisis management team, and particularly for the team leader, this first meeting provides a baseline for future action. A draft statement should be prepared, approved by relevant staff and, as appropriate, by professional advisers such as lawyers, which sets out the company’s position. At the minimum, this should give the facts – as known – and an outline of what is anticipated in coming days/weeks/months.

If possible, it should also include a timeline for future statements. The team needs to agree who should issue this statement and there should be a source for follow-up questions. Don’t forget, in the social media environment personal connections are important. Try and assign one person to deal with the disgruntled customer, as bouncing them from one person to another will only compound their frustration.

However, it’s important to bear in mind that news travels very fast – and for some reason, bad news seems to travel even faster than good. Smart phones and social media mean that information including photographs and video of even a minor incident can be plastered all over the internet even before the first crisis meeting has been convened, and for this reason everyone in the company must understand clearly the importance of controlling the flow of information.

Community and media relations expert Judy Hoffman explains about dealing effectively with “ambush interviews” about a business crisis: this is where someone from the media demands answers to questions for which company executives are completely unprepared.

“No comment” is an admission of guilt

In fact, any executive likely to be asked questions should never be unprepared about how to answer them. As Judy Hoffman says, “No comment” can be construed, as an admission of guilt, while simply ignoring the question is, if anything, even worse.

However, these are the most likely reactions of someone who is caught unawares, so training on how to respond to the media should be an integral part of crisis management. A hastily constructed blog post, or tweet should be avoided.

Carrot Communications’ Kate Hartley says “there’s usually a way of saying something like ‘we’re aware of XX issue and are investigating; we’ll let you know as soon as we know more’ that at least lets people know you’re looking into the problem.” Unfortunately, refusing to comment, or ignoring the question, are the most likely reactions of someone who is caught unawares, so training on how to respond to the media should be an integral part of crisis management.

The recent debacle at FedEx that resulted in a video apology from the company’s CEO is a good example of how crisis management can be highly effective at defusing a sensitive situation. The furor  over a recent video posted by a customer of FedEx that showed their courier throwing a computer over the customer’s fence shows how corporations can turn what at first appears to be a PR disaster into a positive outcome for the company.

FedEx was quick to respond to the video that accumulated over two million hits with their own video apology from none other than Matthew Thornton III, Senior Vice President, US Operations at FedEx. The video was also accompanied by a blog post that read:

“Along with many of you, we’ve seen the video showing one of our couriers carelessly and improperly delivering a package the other day. As the leader of our pickup and delivery operations across America, I want you to know that I was upset, embarrassed, and very sorry for our customer’s poor experience. This goes directly against everything we have always taught our people and expect of them. It was just very disappointing.”

Most media training points to the importance of company executives being – guardedly at least – honest in dealings with the media when asked questions about a crisis. Saying “I can’t answer that question at the moment, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can” is, if you think about it, the same as “No comment”. But it implies helpfulness and openness: of course, it is important to follow this up, and give answers as soon as they are available.

It’s also vitally important not to deny that there is a problem if there is one. Customers, suppliers, employees and other stakeholders are not stupid, and they appreciate honesty – even when it is not necessarily to their immediate advantage. And, of course, a false denial will almost certainly be followed up by detailed evidence to the contrary posted on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube.

Social media can be positive in a crisis

The management of social media is one of the core elements in crisis response. Indeed, as has been well documented, social media has been the source of serious business crises for a number of organizations, and the widespread use of social media has changed totally the rules governing crisis management.

Kate Hartley of Carrot Communications says social media can have a positive influence by “[giving] you the kind of insight you need to avoid a crisis. If you have a product problem, you’re likely to hear about it on social media. If you hear about it early, you have a chance to put it right.” For this reason, social media channels should, if at all possible, be kept open during times of crisis, and only closed off if the company can’t handle the volume of posts. Even then, Kate Hartley suggests, questions should be redirected to another channel such as the company website or blog.

Having a team of people reviewing Twitter, Facebook and blog posts will indicate stakeholder reactions, and provide an opportunity to respond. The method of responding is beyond the scope of this article, other than to state categorically that a business should never react aggressively to critical posts: the rule has to be openness and engagement at all times.

The method of responding is clearly subjective and will be on a per incident basis, but it can be categorically stated that a business should never react aggressively to critical posts: the rule has to be openness and engagement at all times. It’s also important to ensure that employees understand the potentially devastating impact on unguarded social posts: as soon as a crisis erupts, they should be under orders to post nothing about it that has not been approved by the crisis management team.