Hello, United Airlines: Five Things You Must Do on Social Media in a Crisis

Photo credit:  Melissa Agnes, www.melissaagnes.com

Photo credit:  Melissa Agnes

Are we really seeing this movie again?

I have thought and written about online crisis communications for several years (like hereherehereherehereherehere and here), but United Airlines last week proved YET AGAIN that social media matters enormously in crisis communications. Some organizations get it, while others do not.

Since I have been talking about online crisis communications for some time (see above), it’s always a good idea to rethink, revisit or just PLAIN START your online crisis communications planning.

So here’s some free advice:

Rule #1: Avoid the crisis.

This is the most obvious, yet the most often overlooked item in any online or offline crisis communications plan. Through good planning, regular updates and an eyes-and-ears network (and also by generally having good corporate conduct), your first step is to NOT find yourself in a crisis situation. Sure, airlines cannot prevent some accidents, but so many other crises (one just need read any headline related to the 2016 presidential campaigns – ugh), and a little planning and common sense could have avoided too many headaches and reputational damage.

Take away: Get a bunch of smart people in a room at least four times a year and brainstorm ANYTHING that could go wrong in your business or industry. Anything. Then, based upon these scenarios, come up with ways to help prevent them from happening.

Rule #2: NEVER be blindsided by a crisis.

If you are a large organization, especially in a controversial realm, you have enemies. And those enemies will likely signal their intentions on social media BEFORE undertaking a large campaign. Smart organizations should have robust monitoring systems (note I said “systemS, as in “plural,” because I have yet to see one monitoring system that can catch everything that matters) that catch even the slightest mention of something important online – and something that, while it may not help you avoid the crisis, can help you manage it better of blunt its impact. There are tons of good social media listening tools out there (PC Magazine just released a comprehensive review of them), so there is not excuse for being caught flat-footed before a crisis.

Take away: spending a little money upfront on Radian6, Sprout Social or myriad other social listening and media monitoring programs can help save millions in corporate reputation down the road.

Rule #3: Look for crisis prodromes.

A “prodrome” is a fancy word for a signal that something bad that could very likely happen, that if you look for it, signals an oncoming crisis. Think tornado funnel in the distance. If you are a government organization and activist groups ask for (via the Freedom of Information Act), reams of documents or video about a sensitive topic, then you know that they are looking for a smoking gun. Have crises befallen people in your industry? That’s also a prodrome – when something bad happens to a competitor. Always be just a little paranoid and looking out of bad things that could happen.

Take away:  Most crises have some sort of advance warning. Think hard about where you are looking for information, who is giving it to you and what you are doing with that information. Is it reaching the right people? Do you have a complete picture of your issue environment?

Rule #4: Empower your social media staff.

Sorry, guys, but in the era of citizen journalism and social media based corporate campaigns, you don’t have 24 hours to craft and issue a press release anymore. You have ten minutes to even inject your point of view in an online debate. Part of your planning process should be thinking hard about what could go wrong, drafting and developing a set of pre-approved messages for use on social media. Your community manager or social media lead most likely will be the first person to spot a crisis that is taking hold online, and he/she needs to have something to say because if you do not define your organization or your position (read: NFL, above), others will define it for you. And you don’t want that.

Take away: Instead of hiring the youngest people in your organization to do social, hire experienced customer service staff and teach them social media. Then, when they spot trouble, make sure that they can inject your point of view almost immediately. And it does not have to be complex. Sometimes, it’s as simple as “we hear you,” or “we’re sorry” that will help you buy time.

Rule #5: Do a crisis post-mortem.

Especially in intense or drawn-out crises that are exhausting for communications and social media staff, the first thing people want to do is to “put it behind them.” MISTAKE. The first thing to do after the dust has settled is to do an analysis of:

  1. What went wrong;
  2. How it unfolded;
  3. Who the players were;
  4. How well you did/did not respond;
  5. What you can do better next time; and
  6. How all of this can impact your next crisis.

So much of what I am writing about I have said many, many times, but all too often, it takes a major blow to a corporate reputation before they take a social-media based crisis seriously. I fear that it will continue to happen before others get it.

Questions or thoughts? Hit me up on my web site’s contact page or in the comments below.



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