Do companies need a crisis plan or social media crisis plan? (Part 2)

In this part 2 of a series, Justin Goldsborough examines whether a company needs a crisis plan or a social media crisis plan? Part 1 of the series can be found here.

Kai MacMahon

One of my specialties is social media crisis and issues management. In short, that means I develop and execute plans to help organizations navigate crisis situations online. I don’t have a traditional PR crisis background, all I do is social. Nowadays though, there’s more and more overlap between the two: they’re inexorably linked and you would be foolish in the extreme to do either in isolation. Come crunch time it’s unavoidable that they will impact one another, however I maintain that each is distinct and that each requires a different framework and approach. There are of course common elements, and each needs to be grounded in the same strategic pillars, but when the rubber meets the road there are very clear differences.

The most important thing for me is to get the lay of the land before starting. That means getting up to speed with the organization’s traditional crisis plan if one exists, or working with the traditional PR team to develop one if it doesn’t.  Once that plan is in place, I get to work on developing my social crisis plan, addressing issues like how to translate key messages to the many social channels; response times (my clients commit to a Social SLA, an agreement that commits them to responding within a certain period of time), who the various stakeholders are, who should be responding, which issues require escalation and so on. You can forget about any idea of a schedule when it comes to social: your issue will take on a life of its own. Crisis management in social media is as real-time as real-time gets… you need to be on the ball 24/7, and you need to have prepared for every eventuality so that you’re able to respond accordingly.

Your social media crisis response plan should absolutely not be a bolt-on to your traditional crisis plan. The channels are different, the potential impact of those channels is huge, and operating in them requires a deep understanding of the subtleties of the social space and how your online communities operate. That said your social plan shouldn’t be developed in a vacuum either: the key is to find the middle ground between the two and to develop plans that address every channel, online and off. Both are critical, and done right should be complimentary and perfectly aligned. Done wrong though (e.g a social plan that hasn’t been developed alongside the traditional plan or vice versa), and it’s all too easy to trip yourself up and compound your issues. Put simply: to succeed you have to work together.

Kai MacMahon specializes in helping organizations navigate online crisis situations. He has over ten years experience in the interactive space: part of the original wave of AOL UK staffers, he cut his teeth behind the walled gardens of the AOL Travel and Entertainment channels, helping to produce innovative and compelling content experiences. Being part of the explosive growth that AOL experienced in the 90s provided a unique insight as to the power of online communities that is more relevant than ever today. Since AOL he has led initiatives for clients like CBS, Comcast, QUALCOMM, Taylor-Made, adidas Golf, American Express, Lipton Tea, Bertolli and Slimfast. He is is a relentless advocate for the power of online community and word of mouth, and is as passionate about the field now as he was when he joined AOL in the 90s, though he’s not sure how he feels about his mom following him on Twitter.

Kathy Casciani

While I am no crisis expert (it was not a focus area for me during my agency years) I do have a couple of thoughts. Generally speaking, I have been hearing clients and brands ask for “social media crisis plans.” What they really need is a crisis plan, period….but I think it’s the social media part that tends to scare them, given the speed with which it tends to fuel the spread of bad news. Suddenly, everyone is feeling a lot more vulnerable. Anyway, these are general, but here are just a few things I would recommend to clients:

1. Assess your vulnerabilities in advance. Try to determine what your “soft spots” might be and be prepared to address them before they turn into problems. For example, Nestle hosted a mom blogger event promoted via the hashtag #nestlefamily. But when the hashtag surfaced on Twitter, it unleashed a barrage of anti-Nestle sentiment. Knowing the criticism they’d faced in the past about their baby formula marketing practices, Nestle might have anticipated some of these issues and been more prepared to address them in the relevant digital channels.

2. Know your stakeholders and monitor accordingly. Identify the groups and individuals that influence your business….for better or for worse. Use this information to decide which traditional and digital communication channels you monitor and/or establish a presence.

3. Be proactive. Many companies scramble to engage with their stakeholders only AFTER a crisis has emerged. How much easier would it be if those lines of communication had already been established? We all tend to give the benefit of the doubt to those we “know.” Invest some time in making personal connections with your stakeholders, from journalists who report on your industry to your Facebook fans.

Kathy is a native Southern Californian who began her career in the music industry and is a senior PR practitioner who spent the past seven years at consumer agencies on the east coast. Her last agency role was as a SVP at DeVries Public Relations working on P&G business. In July 2010, she relocated back to California and became a freelancer – and new mom :).



Justin joined Fleishman-Hillard Kansas City, where he specializes in digital strategy and education, in 2009. Before that, he was at Sprint for two years where he managed the company’s employee social network, Sprint Space, and led efforts to improve customer outreach via social media, specifically Twitter. He is in his fifth year on the Kansas City IABC board and is serving as president for the 2010-11 board year. Justin is a huge Bon Jovi fan and once won third place in a karaoke contest at Chicago’s John Barleycorn’s with a rousing rendition of Livin’ on a Prayer. He’s also a diehard Kansas City Royals fan, so go easy when talking baseball.

Check for more on SM and Crisis Comms on Tuesday February 15th, right here on PRBC

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