Opinion: Social media – A problem or solution for crisis communications?

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IN the digital age, where individuals, organizations and the media can share updates with the public with the click of a button at any time and from any location, the management of crisis situations has never been so challenging, writes Sadhbh Sullivan. Organizations and brands who fail to invest appropriately in monitoring and managing social media before and during crisis situations risk reputational damage, poorly informed decision making and damaging the trust built with key stakeholders, including customers, the media and the communities in which they operate. 

The good

Social media plays an important role in society, with over 4.48 billion people, 57.6 per cent of the world’s population, actively using social media sites and applications. Although regularly criticized for the damage social media platforms cause to mental health and the spread of misinformation and disinformation, it can’t be denied that social media also acts as a force of good, connecting people across the world, democratizing the ability to communicate globally and allowing society to stay informed with the latest happenings. 

In preparation for crisis communications, social media also plays a positive and proactive role in allowing organizations to determine the concerns of key stakeholders. Organizations who monitor social media efficiently benefit from real-time insights into what their stakeholders are saying about them. This plays a role in enabling the identification of issues, allowing their mitigation before they escalate to crisis situations.

During crisis situations, businesses who monitor social media can also gauge changes to stakeholder sentiment based on the actions they take to mitigate organizational damage. When key decisions are made, monitoring social media ensures that organizations are informed about the potential impact this may have on their relationships with stakeholders and society. 

Having owned and up to date social media channels also provide brands with a platform to share their own message. This is particularly important where speculation arises from uninformed onlookers. Providing a factual source of information via verified channels ensures that the organization’s messaging is portrayed in a controlled and considered way. Where crises arise that require the organization to share their message with a specific group in a timely manner, social media advertising can be used in a hyper targeted way to reach key identified stakeholders in a quick and cost-effective way. 

The bad

Despite its many benefits, the prevalence of social media during crisis situations can be a double-edged sword, particularly when poorly managed or absent from crisis communications planning. 

While organizations can exert control over their own channels, it’s impossible to predict or even mitigate every negative message or post that has the potential to damage organizational reputation. Users also expect timely responses, which can be challenging to provide where situations are constantly evolving, or management of social media is poorly planned. 

When sharing difficult news with stakeholders, it’s also impossible to predict every response, both in person and online. To combat negative reactions from internal stakeholders, such as employees, consider including guidelines on social media posting related to the organization in contract negotiation. 

The pandemic of disinformation, coupled with the infodemic, also poses problems for organizations in crisis situations, particularly where social media users rely on inaccurate sources of information for news, or are hesitant to believe true sources of information as a result of a saturated media market. Combating these forces online would pose significant challenges. Instead, PR professionals should liaise with trusted media to share their message. 

So, what can you do?

For organizations who are serious about protecting their brand, reputation and relationships with stakeholders, appropriate social media planning must be implemented before issues or crises arise. Adopting a guide for responding to stakeholders online in these situations is key to ensuring that employees are aligned on what messages should be shared online, including when and how. Building guidelines for social media into employee contracts from the outset also ensures that problems don’t arise from within the organization. 

Adopting an appropriate mechanism for monitoring stakeholder sentiment towards the organization on social media can also enable early identification of issues, allowing communicators to manage these before they reach crisis level. 

Ensure your organization’s social media channels are updated regularly and begin to build an online rapport with stakeholders. Organizations with strong relationships with the people that matter are most likely to survive crisis situations. 

Social media will forever be an important part of society. Organizations that recognize its importance in predicting and mitigating issues protect their reputation and relationships. 

Sadhbh Sullivan is an account executive at The Reputations Agency based in Dublin, Ireland. She has experience in the public relations and digital media industries. An award-winning writer and blogger, she is a successful recipient of university and national awards for academic achievement, website and social media platforms and entrepreneurialism.