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Preparing for a Social Media Crisis

By David Calusdian, Executive Vice President & Partner

I recently participated as the designated “social media expert” as part of a crisis communications case study session at the 2012 NIRI Southwest regional conference. This year’s conference was held in New Orleans and the session centered on a fictitious publicly held bead manufacturing company (apropos for the conference host city) that found itself suddenly facing a major environmental crisis. During the true-to-life exercise, attendees took on the roles of the company’s corporate communications officers and were tasked with implementing all aspects of the crisis response plan.

In their new roles, the attendees had to make a number of decisions relating to the immediate actions of the fictitious company, “Beignet Beads & Baubles.” For example, should the company proceed with a press conference with the governor announcing a state grant that afternoon? Should management go forward with a scheduled presentation at a major investor conference in New York the next day? Should a planned announcement of a major plant expansion be delayed? As typically happens with a real crisis, the Beignet Beads & Baubles “crisis team-for-a-day” was given an increasing amount of information to complicate their decision-making process.

Beignet Beads & Baubles had been besieged by negative (but erroneous) reports in the mainstream and digital media -- sparked by the aggressive social media activities of a powerful environmental organization. Fortunately, the company had implemented a proactive social media strategy. The strategy included a clear social media policy and usage guidelines; ongoing monitoring for mentions of brand names, products, competitors and industry news; an active Twitter account and use of StockTwits; engaging YouTube videos; an interactive corporate blog; and compelling SlideShare presentations.

Each group of participants handled the fictitious situation somewhat differently. For example, the use of the CEO’s time and the timing, content and location of the pre-planned press conference varied from group to group. However, what remained consistent across all of the role-playing communicators was the use of social media tools. Twitter was used to distribute key corporate messages that countered erroneous statements made by unfriendly organizations. Video was uploaded to the corporate website to carry the CEOs personal message and calming tone directly to panicking shareholders, customers, community members and local leaders. YouTube, along with Twitter, provided significantly broader reach for the videos.

What was particularly interesting about the use of social media in this situation, was its ubiquity. Most anyone who has been working in IR for any length of time has heard the pros and cons of using social media in IR at one of many related panel discussions in the past few years. And it’s worth noting that among the dozens of participants, there was less than a handful who had actually implemented any kind of IR social media program at their own companies. But when faced with a serious crisis where the other side was aggressively using social media to control the message, every single participant used the social media tools that were available to them.

In fact, one key session takeaway was the realization that if the fictitious Beignet Beads & Baubles did not already have a following on Twitter and other social media platforms, an effective response to the opposition messaging would have been nearly impossible.

Back in 2009, I’m sure the crisis team at Dominos wished it had social media platforms in place to respond appropriately to a viral video of its employees behaving badly. Of course, even when social media platforms are in place, they need to be used appropriately within the context of a comprehensive crisis communications plan using traditional and new media communications. For example, Nestle attempted to combat a negative viral video by having it removed from YouTube due to copyright infringement (apparently forgetting that the Internet means forever… ) and Dole neglected to actually use their social media platforms during a salmonella scare, instead opting to issue a simple news release that never made it into the social media conversation. Neither situation worked out well.

If you are part of your company’s crisis team, take another look at your crisis preparation plan. Does it leverage opportunities to use Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to take your messages to your critical stakeholders? If the answer is “no,” the time is now to incorporate social media. Because when a crisis hits, it will be too late.

David Calusdian, an executive vice president and partner at Sharon Merrill, oversees the implementation of investor relations programs, coaches senior executives in presentation skills and provides strategic counsel to clients on numerous communications issues such as corporate disclosure, proxy proposals, shareholder activism, IR social media plans and earnings guidance.

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