• Laura Merritt

Crisis Communications in Uncertain Times: The Role of Social Media


These days, issues can escalate to crises quickly. We live in a hyperconnected world where everything is happening in real-time. Social media provides the vehicle by which anyone can offer their take on the situation, accurate or not, leading to the potential spread of misinformation and eliciting strong reactions and demands for your organization’s immediate action. While you can’t preemptively stop this, you can take control by staying one step ahead. Incorporating social media into your crisis response plan will help you manage the conversation. And monitoring social media and press coverage from the start will help you respond, address misinformation and encourage people to see you as their best resource for information.


Organizations often see social media as a sales platform, but it’s really all about relationships. Ideally, those relationships lead to sales, new memberships and more, but if you don’t cultivate a relationship based on trust, goodwill and respect (much like your brand), you won’t get very far.


Where to respond

Go where the people are. Who do you want to reach? Potential or existing clients/customers? Employees and possible candidates? It’s important to know your audience and which social media platforms they use—Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, to name a few—and the appropriate content style for each. For example, Instagram is image-driven, Twitter requires short, succinct messaging and LinkedIn is business-focused. While all social media platforms can be useful in relationship building, they may not all be appropriate for a crisis. Where you will respond when a crisis occurs should be established beforehand.


In addition to identifying where to respond, it’s important to know how to respond. First, pay attention to what is being posted. Are you seeing a lot of misinformation? Is a negative comment going viral? Do you have supporters weighing in? Are reporters asking questions (of you or someone posting inaccuracies)? Acknowledge the negative by setting the record straight. Get out in front of the conversation, take responsibility, demonstrate transparency, and provide the public with accurate and valuable information. Be their source and, if you remain fully transparent and trustworthy, they will become your allies and help you spread the word.


When to respond

As we shared in the second part of this series, pausing to evaluate the situation is important before you respond. However, this doesn’t mean you remain radio-silent until you have all the facts. In fact, according to Susan Brown of Big Impact Communications, the new crisis response timetable is: 15–30–60–90. Essentially, she recommends issuing your first response within 15 minutes of first becoming aware of the situation, then another at 30 minutes and so on. You likely will not have all the information initially, but that doesn’t mean you should stay quiet. A simple message acknowledging the incident and the assurance that you are working to get the answers is sufficient AND will provide an update at a specified time (and do it!) is sufficient. It lets people know that you are on it and will keep them informed.


Benefits of social media in a crisis

There are many benefits to using social media when you’re in the midst of a crisis. As a crisis communications tool, social media:

  • Gives rapid, authoritative, direct and/or corrective responses at an unbeatable speed

  • Makes your brand message accessible

  • Provides insight into public sentiment

  • Allows you to join and listen to the conversation

  • Provides opportunities to address fears and misinformation

  • Is well suited for simple messages & actionable items that are needed in a crisis

  • Allows you to express empathy

  • Promotes action

  • Provides quick opportunities to shift the dialogue

  • Enables you to be proactive and lead the conversation

  • Allows you to be present and provide timely information to fill the audience’s knowledge gap

  • Presents the opportunity for your organization to be seen as human, sincere and empathic

Social media message templates can and should be created before the crisis strikes. By having these templates (including your initial message and subsequent updates) in your crisis communications toolbox, you can easily tailor them to the situation and communicate to your audience before they start speculating or spreading misinformation.


Investing the time and effort into developing your crisis communication plan will position you to not only survive the crisis but also build and nurture relationships with your audience and demonstrate that your organization is on solid ground. We finish this series with a look at some tips and final thoughts in part four. For more on navigating a crisis, visit AOE’s Crisis Communications Microsite.