Do companies need a crisis plan or social media crisis plan? (Part 1)

Without question, my favorite part about Twitter is crowdsourcing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a passionate POV or a question I couldn’t answer, shared it on Twitter, and been amazed at others’ perspectives and how much I learned from my industry peers.

A couple of weeks ago one of these situations came to life. In the past year, I have seen more and more agencies and companies advocating for a social media crisis plan. And to be completely honest, I don’t get it. Social media is a channel. A crisis often affects your brand far beyond Facebook, Twitter or the blogosphere. In the end, your reputation lies in the hands of your customers and influencers. And those people don’t just live in a social media bubble.

Sure, a brand can employ social media to communicate in near real-time when a crisis strikes. And for most, that tactic will make sense. But isn’t it just one or a few pieces of the overall crisis plan puzzle? If you ask me, our PR peers too often sell social media crisis planning as a scare tactic because they know the social response is the part brands worry they can’t control. But on the other hand, social media does play a significant role in crisis communications these days, so maybe it’s just semantics and I’m getting all worked up over nothing?

Those were the questions I set out to answer the other night when I tweeted the following: “Does a company need a crisis plan or a social media crisis plan?” And the answers, as usual, taught me a lot and forced me to consider alternative perspectives. Below is a compilation of the folks who joined the conversation and the thoughts they shared.

Elissa Plastino

The other night while channel surfing, I found myself also surfing through my Twitter stream and came upon a conversation about crisis communications and social media between Justin and Rachel. A couple of us decided to butt in and we ended up having a pretty lengthy and very interesting conversation.

While I completely agree that social media needs to be included in a communications plan, I don’t believe it needs its own plan, which is what Justin originally asked. As Rachel said to us that night, “Social media is a vehicle used to disseminate the crisis, one element of a larger plan.” She is bang on with that.

With today’s heavy use of technology and the amazing power of social media to reach so many people so quickly, it should definitely be considered and/or used in the event of a crisis, as should other traditional channels such as TV, radio and print. The most important thing to remember is that when developing a crisis communications plan, companies/organizations really need to consider who their audience is, and what the best way is to reach that audience.

Elissa Plastino is corporate brand manager for Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc., one of the most seasoned companies in the regional gaming entertainment industry. She has more than 10 years of experience in government and corporate public relations.

Christine Perkett

The question we were discussing was around a crisis communications plan vs a social media plan. Here’s my take — In my opinion these are two totally separate topics. I don’t think companies need a social media plan. Social media is not a strategy – it’s a tactic. A method of communicating. As such, social media should be a part of your crisis communications plan – just as social media should be a part of many other strategic plans, such as:

  • Marketing
  • PR
  • HR
  • Customer service
  • Business development
  • Sales process

And so on. Social media in and of itself is not a plan. It is a method of communicating. A crisis communications plan should definitely have a social strategy section outlining who the decision makers are in regard to what content should be shared – and where, how, and from whom. It is absolutely crucial to outline what role social media will play in any crisis situation – including how fast the company needs to move on communicating. These days with social media, companies don’t have the luxury of time. So addressing issues via social media is an absolute must.

Any company that doesn’t include social media guidelines in their crisis plans is foolish.  Even if they think they’ll never use it – after all, isn’t that the hopeful case for a crisis plan in the first place? Plan for it and hope you never have to use it!

Christine Perkett is the CEO and founder of PerkettPR – a public relations, social marketing and interactive digital services firm. She has been consistently recognized as an innovative PR and social marketing industry leader and a strong role model for women in business and technology.  In addition to running a small business, Christine is a mom of two boys and three dogs and a marathon runner in her “spare time” – most recently completing the 2010 Boston Marathon. Connect with Christine on Twitter: @missusP or LinkedIn or with PerkettPR on Facebook.

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 Friday February 11th, right here on PRBC

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  • Good points of discussion. I agree that a crisis communications plan should incorporate social media as a matter of good practice. Social media generally should not need it’s own distinct plan. However, I would argue that certain issues that come along with ONLY live in social media and never jump outside. For those types of issues, a plan that is very tuned to the nuances of social is warranted. In the case of McDonald’s we have a social media communications plan, but it lives within the overall PR plan. For a given type of issue, our response may only activate the social aspects of the overall communications plan.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Rick. I see what you’re saying. But I’m not sure I believe that any idea can be completely contained in online social media. For instance, social media that starts online always makes its way into conversation online. And a recent Cision study shows traditional media is using social for story ideas more frequently than ever before. Just not sure any situation lives channel agnostic. But maybe I’m wrong. Cheers!

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  • Thank you for including me thin the discussion and giving me the opportunity to participate on the blog. Rick has some good points re: some issues arise only in social media – and that’s true, such as trolls, negative blog posts, etc. But for me, those are still marketing and PR issues first – do you engage the haters or not – and the social media element is just an expansion of what the Internet has always been: a place where anyone can say anything. The strategy is how to respond, if you respond, where and when. The issue – the crisis – could be a customer service crisis and a company could solve it by initially reaching out via social media (if the crisis started on Twitter, for example, like Kenneth Cole last week) but then taking to other channels to address it long term. So Rick’s comment, “In the case of McDonald’s we have a social media communications plan, but it lives within the overall PR plan,” further enforces my points in this post – social media communications should live within the overall [enter your division here] plan – whether it’s PR, customer service, sales, etc. When crisis hits, yes, you choose where to activate from the given options and path in the crisis plan.

    Thanks again! I love learning from others and this blog is another great place for that.

  • Justin,
    I sense your frustration that companies/government/clients often say something like “let’s do social media”! You are correct, it should all be part of a larger strategic public relations and communications plan. For the industry I work in (public projects that impact people), I still get requests, inquiries that want to “do” social media, when there is not the strategic plan in place to do the simplest of things, such as responding adequately to inquiries, media relations, government relations and the like. Once the basics of a good public relations and outreach are established, social media surely plays a role in that, and is a benefit on the projects I work on, in some cases more so than others. Also, when I put together crisis communications plans that follow the National Incident Management System (NIMS) ( used by almost all government, it does and must include social media, including monitoring, research and implementation. Strategic public relations and outreach plans must take into consideration social media, whether it is actually implemented or not, because there is a segment of the public that is surely talking about your project or issue in that world.

    • “Strategic public relations and outreach plans must take into consideration social media, whether it is actually implemented or not, because there is a segment of the public that is surely talking about your project or issue in that world.”

      Yep. And same goes for other channels too.

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  • liz

    hi, good discussion points. Social media is a way for people to communicate other than in person or via email, or if your really classy, written letter. We have seen the situation in Egypt unravel where people are going underground to pass information to people in the states to Tweet to the rest of the world, if this collapses, then the newspapers, our local tv stations miss out on that information,not everyone can be Chris Cooper.In a way I am certain that its vital to have a back up plan or emergency plan for social media. Other social sites such as Quora and Crowdbeacon and others are also information vehicles, it would probably be good to save those too. Communication platforms, real time information, these are just starting to ripped, it would be a shame to lose the progress we have made in the field, companies build up, if we lose the basics, the rebuilding will really suck.

  • Jasmollica


    Very thought-provoking post! I think social media should be part of everyone’s crisis plan, but not a separate social media crisis plan. A crisis is a crisis and needs to be addressed accordingly. Social media, like Christine said, really is a tactic.
    When we do strategic planning, I never mention a social media crisis plan. I do stress using social media as one part of helping to alleviate a crisis.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Jason. I’m with you here. Social media is a tactic. A crisis does not ever happen in one channel in isolation. Social media should be part of the overall approach. Cheers!

  • I hit on the main point on FB – the reason agencies support the separate crisis plans is because those divisions are likely separate at the agency and not incorporated.

    But reading the post, one other thought that makes me say “hmm, maybe there should be a separate plan.” And it’s for this: the crises that start out in social media should have their own social media plans. Could it be a part of the bigger crisis planning? Probably.

    • I’ll take the second part first. Think you are right — companies must understand that a crisis can start via social media and that may be home base for the issue and where they need to respond first. Have to listen and join the conversation where it happens.

      But I think the social media piece can definitely be part of bigger crisis planning. And has to be, because a crisis/issue that starts in social media can quickly find its way to the Huffington Post, USA Today or other mainstream media. Just ask Kenneth Cole or Taco Bell.

      • Or Groupon – although did the issue start mainstream then go to social media and the back to mainstream?

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  • CommCore Consulting Group

    We agree with Rachel: “Social media is a vehicle used to disseminate the crisis, one element of a larger plan.” In a recent PRNews article, CommCore CEO Andy Gilman demonstrates ways that digital and social media elements can be added to existing plans. Here is the article for more information:

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