Crisis Management in the Age of Social Media

By Aaron Ellis, Professional Development Committee member

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If you attended the National Capital Chapter’s “Crisis Management in the Age of Social Media” professional development event Dec. 6 at Hager Sharp in downtown Washington, you probably walked away feeling you invested your time wisely.

For most, it was their first interaction with crisis management expert and instructor Brian Ellis. A former broadcast journalist who is now executive vice president for Minneapolis-headquartered Padilla public relations and who also teaches crisis management at Virginia Commonwealth University, Ellis’ riveting, rapid-fire lessons about responding to various crises reminded participants that advance preparation is the key to success.  

In today’s age of 24/7 news cycles, where media must constantly produce content and anybody with a smart phone (“citizen journalists”) can record an event and post it online within minutes, the timeline as to who controls the narrative of a story has collapsed to mere minutes. That means professional communicators and the organizations they represent must anticipate questions in advance to tell their side any story, or risk losing the advantage.

With the steep decline in professional journalists over the past two decades, public relations practitioners now outnumber reporters five-to-one. That leaves citizen journalists to fill in the gap.  Ellis said a typical citizen journalist’s response to getting a news event onto social media is two to three minutes after it begins. He said the first hour of a news event is the only window available for public relations professionals to shape the story. After that, it’s mostly damage control and trying to correct errors and misperceptions.

According to Ellis, there are three steps for effectively communicating during a crisis:

  1. Identify what audiences want and need to know by writing out in advance the questions they are most likely to ask.
  2. Based on the anticipated questions, develop three key messages and short, memorable quotes to go with them.
  3. Practice your messages and quote(s) out loud, honing your transitions until they’re seamless.

Ellis said the key messages should focus on: a) showing compassion for those impacted; b) providing information about your organization’s crisis response plan, and c) explaining your organization’s crisis investigation and how to ensure something similar doesn’t happen again.

In Padilla’s online Crisis IQ test, a recent sampling showed that only 21 percent of participants felt “well prepared” to communicate effectively in a crisis, while 63 percent said they didn’t have a solid plan. Seventy-one percent felt they didn’t practice their crisis plan often enough and 86 percent said they weren’t prepared to manage the social media onslaught of a crisis that affected their organization and its brand.

In today’s 24-hour news cycle, Ellis noted that the “media beast” must constantly be fed. To that end, he highly recommends creating a dark website that can be quickly engaged in a crisis, then reviewing and updating its content regularly. He also reminded workshop participants that an organization’s internal audiences can be either their greatest allies or worst enemies in a crisis, depending on how they are treated and kept informed.

“In a crisis, the best strategy is to always play offense and be out there telling a positive story,” he said. “By pointing your audience to what they perceive to be inside information, they’ll pay more attention to your side of the story.”

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