Ryan CohnRyan Cohn

While every company needs a social media crisis plan, that plan must be a living, breathing document that provides the opportunity for flexibility amid constant change in a crisis. If the plan is not appropriately flexible, it will fail to keep up with the constant twists and turns that come with any crisis.

As Rachael Rensink, Manager of Social Marketing Strategy and Engagement at Delta Air Lines, explained, “Do not create a plan and put it on the shelf until you really need it. Plan, test, practice, evaluate, re-test, re-evaluate, evolve, etc. Social media changes and evolves so quickly, and you need to evolve with it. This is not a situation where one size fits all, and one plan fits all. Is your company growing its social footprint? Is it growing its social staffing? Your plan needs to grow with it.”

O'Dwyer's Apr. '16 Broadcast Svcs. & Social Media PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Apr. '16 Broadcast Svcs. & Social Media PR Magazine

Practice, practice, practice

It’s one thing to write a crisis plan, but another entirely to live it. Implementing a social media plan in the midst of a major emergency requires a clear definition of roles, alternative plans, and trained support options.

Rensink explained how social media fits into the mix during a potential crisis at Delta.

“Social follows what is determined by the crisis coordinator during the event. Our social teams are there to not only execute the plan, but to help develop copy that is socially appropriate, by channel/community, and also to advise on what the current social conversations are, where they are, and what we might need to address. I cannot express enough how critical coordination is with all teams involved and that social is just one of the pieces of an effective crisis communications plan.”

In other words, during a crisis, social media must be tightly integrated with every other aspect of the response. Rather than being siloed from other elements of the crisis response, social media works in close conjunction with those elements.

The reality is that crises are rarely short-term events. While the actual on-the-ground emergency may be over after a few hours, the crisis online may continue far longer. That’s the nature of social media. Discussion and analysis of an event continue long after the event has concluded. Social media teams must be prepared and ready to jump into action.

“You want to have backups and secondaries, and frankly you want to have people who can give other people relief,” said Morgan Johnston, Manager of Corporate Communication and Social Media Strategist at JetBlue Airways. “A crisis isn’t going to only occur during normal business hours. You need to plan for an emergency response that can last for days, weeks or even months. So the question becomes, how do you relieve people so they can get some rest and be able to function properly?”

Listen first, talk second

The power of social media as a listening and monitoring platform provides a variety of new ways to verify reports and take action promptly. Conversations are happening in real-time, with events being reported in a matter of moments instead of hours.

A prime example is the earthquake that happened in Mineral, Virginia in 2011. The quake was being reported on Twitter 30 seconds before it was even felt in Washington, D.C., several miles away. Conversations and reporting happen at lightning speed on social media, and crisis response teams must be tuned in to those conversations.

“Before social media, it sometimes took up to an hour to even confirm that one of your planes was involved,” said Johnston. “Now with social media and the kind of real-time reporting that’s happening, you see 14 different photos and 14 different angles of roughly the same scene, and you suddenly start feeling pretty confident that the flight is yours.”

As a crisis begins to unfold, social media teams must attentively monitor the online conversation to determine what is actually happening on the ground.

Go all-in on engagement

Social media, while vital for listening, can be even more powerful for framing and distributing your own news.

According to Steven Frischling, a travel social media consultant, “Social is the first place you have to go. You need to say the incident occurred and that you are gathering information and will keep the public updated. Then, every ten minutes, even if you have nothing new, you keep saying, ‘We’re still looking into it.’ All that matters is that you’re on it, and as soon as you have something new to release, you release it.”

It’s essential to understand that if you don’t frame the news, someone else will. Social media gives everyone a voice during a crisis. If your voice isn’t the clearest, you’ll quickly be drowned out by the noise.

But where exactly should you distribute your message when everything is on the line and you don’t have a second to spare?

JetBlue’s Johnston pointed to a path out of the confusion. “The difficult thing with having multiple channels is that there are multiple places where people think they need to go for the most up-to-date information. What you really want to do in a crisis scenario is limit the amount of places that people think they need to look. If you can centralize the information and use all the different channels to point to that central database of information, you’re more likely to have your message delivered.”

Establishing the #hashtag

“Create your own hashtag,” suggested Frischling. “If you own the hashtag and immediately make it the primary hashtag, you’ll get the media using it, too. If someone is looking for info about your crisis and they see you use a specific hashtag, that’s it. Everyone will come to you because you’re using the hashtag and you now own that conversation. You can use that hashtag to track the conversation, know what’s being said incorrectly and start correcting it as fast as you can.”

With most crises, misinformation runs rampant in the first 30 minutes. By using hashtags and getting out in front of the conversation, you have the ability to shape what is being said.

According to Johnston, “Hashtags help facilitate some alignment on the conversation so everyone’s paying attention to the same sort of thing. We’re more likely to be able to insert the proper resources so that, as we verify information, it’s visible.”

Crisis communication has changed by leaps and bounds in the last several years. Today, the initial news “announcement” frequently comes from a participant or onlooker at the scene, followed by mainstream news outlets.

Brands in crisis must be as truthful and transparent as possible. Thanks to today’s technology, everyone is an amateur investigative reporter with the resources to find the truth, often before the brand owner even knows it.

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Ryan Cohn is Vice President of Social/Digital at Sachs Media Group.