Bob McNaneyBob McNaney 

Sticks and stones may break your bones. But words? They can demolish your business reputation in a New York minute, especially when amplified and multiplied by the social media megaphone.

One day your company is progressing on a positive path. The next, a disgruntled customer — or a misguided attention seeker —takes a public shot at your reputation on Facebook or Twitter.

Then the rumor mill kicks into high gear, and the online firestorm spreads on social channels. The damage is done before you know what hit you or your stock valuation.

O'Dwyer's Jan. '18 PR Buyer's Guide & Crisis Communications MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '18 PR Buyer's Guide & Crisis Communications Magazine

A social media crisis can happen to the best of businesses. But it doesn’t have to happen to you.

Preparation is the surest way to protect your interests and reputation. By controlling the narrative before, during and after a social media crisis, you can mediate threats and effectively minimize reputation risk. In fact, I’ve seen well-prepared companies emerge from a crisis stronger than before.

Here’s how to make 2018 the year you take control of your social media reputation.

Create a team

Who best can speak for you in the event of a social media threat? Now is the time to bring strategic communications and marketing staff together to assign roles and responsibilities.

You want cool-under-pressure people. Folks who are strategic thinkers and qualified to be on-point for social media responses when issues arise.

Ensure that your team brings a broad — and deep — understanding of crisis implications to your business reputation, operations and market standing. Try to include mid- to senior-level communicators and industry experts, plus representatives from key functional areas: HR, finance, IT, marketing and communications, among others.

At least one member of your core team should understand best practices for crisis management and social media crises — including the stages of a crisis, social media scenarios and potential impacts to your reputation.

Pick someone articulate and well-practiced in navigating sensitive issues to lead your online conversations and crisis communications efforts. He or she should be the one to engage external counsel for guidance during an actual social media crisis.

You’ll benefit from including at least one Millennial representative, too. They’ve witnessed plenty of crises unfold on social media and can provide practical guidance.

Make a plan, assess your risks

Every organization needs an overarching crisis communications plan. Specific social media practices should be featured prominently in that plan, whether your organization has a social media presence or not.

Your plan should address potential risks and outcomes, likely scenarios, key stakeholder groups and influencers. It should also include a social media policy for employees, always introduced during employee onboarding.

Begin developing your plan by identifying key audiences and stakeholders, including important social media influencers in your markets and industry sector.

For message triage, identify the top three to five stakeholders who require immediate notification, those who critically influence the story and can impact your organization the most. Prioritizing their messaging will prevent crisis escalation. Then create sample messaging tailored to key internal and external audiences for each likely scenario.

It’s equally important to tailor messaging to each social media platform. Facebook, for example, tends to be a platform for general discussion, while Twitter operates likes a news feed across social media channels and audiences, including traditional media.

If your organization operates globally, address potential scenarios and responses for each country. Assign local teams to execute country-specific plans, so your messaging will reflect local cultural values and the needs and perceptions of local audiences.

Vulnerability scans are another valuable component of a crisis plan, helping you anticipate and navigate issues on social media channels. They improve crisis preparedness by identifying and prioritizing potential risks and impacts in three categories: strategic risks, preventable risks and external risks, all of which have social media impact.

Train and drill your team

Train your crisis communications team to make the right decisions when an actual crisis hits. Offer both traditional tabletop exercises and social media simulator drills.

In my experience, companies that conduct social media drills perform better during actual crises. They learn from their gaps and adjust their tactics.

Real-time drills can help your team understand how a social media crisis might unfold and how best to respond according to their individual roles. Always include a live social media component in your drill. I recently led a written drill, made infinitely more instructive by a team posting related mock-up messages.

Global organizations should tailor their simulations to local country teams, reflecting cultural differences, social issues and unique audiences.

To do’s during and after the storm

The most successful companies have social media monitoring tools in place and ready to use when an issue arises. Monitoring should continue during an actual crisis.

Media monitoring tools can help you understand exactly how the crisis fallout is affecting your reputation and brand. We have the technologies, worldwide partners and processes to gauge the global social media landscape on an hourly basis, if needed.

By tapping into your constituents’ concerns, you’ll know if you need to address specific issues — or you may learn that coverage is dwindling. In that case, let the story die. Don’t risk rekindling the issue. Take your messaging offline as soon as possible.

In any crisis, take time to remind employees about your social media policy, and your expectations for their social media behavior. Encourage them to be respectful in their posts, and to clearly state that any personal posts are their own opinions, not communications on behalf of the company.

When the crisis is over, do a social media audit. Review what actions were taken, and when and how messaging was received.

Be sure to reach out to key stakeholders or customers once the crisis has passed. You’ll find they are more engaged on social platforms and eager to hear from you.

Make 2018 the year that you prepare to survive a social media crisis. And may your good reputation live on and your company prosper.

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Bob McNaney is senior vice president of crisis and critical issues at Padilla