Is your social media response helping during a crisis?

In times of emergency, social media managers don’t need official statements. We need flexibility.

Let’s imagine you’re a social media manager, working at one of the UK’s charities, when without warning, a big negative story goes down.

It’s scary, it’s unforeseen, and it has the potential to do enormous damage at the highest level.

Shit is kicking off, in other words.

At this moment, your Comms team will most likely be racing into the nearest meeting room, collaborating furiously with senior stakeholders on a single, agreed official statement.

As social media manager, you might be involved in the process.

But depending on how old-fashioned your charity is in its processes, you may very likely be left off to one side, watching the angry mentions rack up on Twitter while the ‘real’ media team put their heads together and come up with something that, in form and function, is effectively just a press release.

This press release, when it does arrive, will be carefully worded. It will be perfectly measured and tonally appropriate, a perfect and pristine representation of your charity’s view.

It will be almost useless to you — and honestly, fairly dangerous.

Because on Twitter and Facebook, the outrage will not be controlled, and your output will not be restricted to a one-off broadcast.

And by the time you’ve repeated that perfect “All of us are shocked and dismayed, but we want to emphasise that…” wording three or four times, it will be immensely clear to your audience what this is: a generic holding statement.

And suddenly that measured phrasing begins to look robotic, inhuman. Worse, like a disingenuous, careless effort to placate people en masse, with near-zero effort or respect for their individual anger.

People begin to reply to it. Mock it. Pick it apart. Ask if you have anything else to say in your defence that isn’t ‘PR speak.’

What are you going to do, say it to them again?

Conversation, not broadcast

As an organisation, you may well decide that it’s best not to try and engage with social users at all — just to batten down the hatches, pin a link to your official statement at the top of your Twitter feed, and stop posting until the anger’s died down.

If that’s your choice, that’s fine.

But if you want to try and respond to people on social media, even in the worst possible crisis, the usual rules continue to apply.

Be sympathetic and specific, addressing individual concerns. Be flexible and conversational and clear.

Don’t fob people off with a link to your website or an email address to send their complaints to, unless you’ve already made a concerted and visible effort to answer them within the platform.

This should all be common sense.

But too often the temptation, when charities find themselves in the middle of huge, historic crises, seems to be to crack open the old-school comms playbook and do things in a way that makes the senior staff most comfortable that things are being handled.

And in 2018, that’s likely to make you look severely out of touch — with your audience, and with the issue at hand.

Don’t wait for the storm to hit, either

Charities need to be providing their social media teams with a series of foundational, flexible talking points, rather than a brittle established statement.

It’s the only sensible approach if you’re going to engage with supporters online during a period of crisis comms.

Of course, it means extra work, and extra oversight — and an impressive level of trust in your social media team — especially during an emergency.

That’s why it’s vital to get agreement on this issue before a crisis even begins, and to ensure the social media team are being directly involved from the very start of the emergency.

If you wait until the crisis actually starts…well, you’ve left it too late.