Why is social media crisis communication important?

Flame wars, hate speech, fake news – social media nowadays poses many risks and dangers to companies and institutions. This makes it all the more important to develop appropriate social media communication. This is especially true for crisis situations: Regardless of whether you are dealing with a traditional or a purely digital crisis, social media crisis communication is essential today. In this article, we explain how social media crisis communication works and what matters in flame war management.

The role of social media in crisis communication

Social media has become an indispensable part of corporate and institutional communications. Many companies are represented on one of the numerous platforms and communicate with their community there on a daily basis. The advantages of social media are clear: You can communicate in a self-determined, fast and simple way. In addition, you can achieve a large reach without much effort and can enter into a direct exchange with your community. All these factors make social media a profitable communication tool – even in times of crisis.

Social media as crisis driver or dampener

Social media can play two roles in crisis communication. If it is not implemented at all or is implemented inappropriately, social media communication can itself become a crisis trigger and crisis driver. In most cases, a single misstep in communication is enough to trigger a full-blown social media crisis. Even “staying silent” in crisis situations usually causes outrage on the social web and drives a communication crisis forward. However, if social media crisis communication is used correctly, it can become a valuable tool and crisis damper. Those who communicate quickly on social media, strike the right tone and take the community’s concerns seriously can take the wind out of the sails of the outraged online mob. This can contribute to a weakened course of the crisis. The framing of the crisis in the public eye can also be influenced by adequate social media crisis communication or professional flame war management.

It becomes clear that social media plays an ambivalent role in crisis communication: On the one hand, social media open up great communicative opportunities for dealing with traditional and digital crises. On the other hand, the social web also harbors acute risks and dangers that can have a negative influence on the course of the crisis.

What is social media crisis communication?

Before we take a look at how social media crisis communication works and why it is enormously important despite – or precisely because of – the risks cited, the first question to ask is: What exactly is social media crisis communication?

Social media crisis communication describes communication in crisis situations via social media as well as communication in social media crises. Thus, on the one hand, social media can be used for communication in classic crisis situations such as accidents. On the other hand, they can become the scene of crises themselves. The best-known example of such a social media crisis is the online flame war. This avalanche of outrage is usually triggered by operational or communicative measures taken by an organization that are judged to be reprehensible by the online community. In the case of a social media crisis such as the flame war, special communication strategies such as so-called flame war management are necessary.

Why is social media crisis communication important?

As shown, social media opens up many risks for companies and institutions. A slip of the tongue can quickly escalate into a crisis. And reputational attacks via social media – e.g., by spreading disinformation – also pose an increasing danger. What’s more, inappropriate social media communication during a crisis can quickly turn a small crisis fire into a wildfire. Nevertheless, withdrawing completely from social media and ceasing communication on the social web during a crisis is not a recommendable solution.

Stakeholders expect social media crisis communication

Social media has become a relevant information medium for a wide range of stakeholders – even in classic crises. They expect organizations to answer their questions via social media during a crisis. This is also confirmed by recent surveys. According to this, 80 percent of those surveyed expect stakeholders in crisis situations to monitor the social web and communicate there. Around a third even expect to be informed via social media within 60 minutes of the crisis becoming known1. These figures refer primarily to classic crisis situations such as natural disasters or accidents. In the case of pure social media crises, expectations are therefore likely to be even higher.

Diving down is not an option!

Anyone who avoids the social media runs the risk of disappointing the expectations of many stakeholders and further fueling their indignation. The motto is: “How dare they not even comment on the crisis here? At the same time, by “going underground,” you also give up the sovereignty of the discourse. Communication about the crisis and crisis management is not determined by the company itself, but in the worst case by angry users or opponents. Then a social media crisis is guaranteed – and it can quickly last a few days without active flame war management. If the traditional media then jump on the bandwagon and report on the company’s lack of response in the crisis, there is a lasting danger to the company’s own reputation. It is important to remember that a loss of reputation can have real, financial consequences and should not be dismissed lightly.

Social media crisis communication brings many advantages

In contrast, crisis communication via social media holds many advantages and opportunities for companies, institutions and individuals. Relevant information can be shared quickly via their own channels. The absence of journalists and editors means that crisis communication can (initially) take place without commentary and in its own framework. In concrete terms, this means that the company’s own core messages can be placed in a self-determined and targeted manner. In addition, social media also offer the opportunity to capture the general sentiment of stakeholders in the crisis. This is possible, for example, via Escalation Monitoring with a corresponding analysis. Recurring topics and concerns of stakeholders can also be identified and addressed in the company’s own communications. Social media in a crisis thus offers four fundamental advantages:

  • Rapid dissemination of information
  • Self-determined placement of messages with own framing
  • Monitoring for the purpose of social listening
  • Maintaining the relationship with the community by addressing issues and questions

Responding to crises in a channel-specific manner

Social media is therefore enormously important for successful crisis communication today. In addition, social media crises such as flame wars in particular require crisis communication in the digital realm. This is the only way to reach those stakeholders who are affected by the crisis or are following it online. After all, it is quite possible that a press release or an associated report in the traditional media will not necessarily reach social media users. Moreover, self-initiated media coverage usually makes a crisis bigger than it actually is. For this reason, we generally recommend setting up an adequate flame war management system for social media crises, which communicates primarily on the same channel as the angry online community.

Attention! Avoid fatal mistakes. During a crisis, things can quickly get heated on the Internet. But even if you decide not to communicate via social media, you should not delete your account completely. This measure has a (negative) signal effect and can quickly be interpreted as an admission of guilt or cowardice. For this reason, we recommend that all those who decide against active social media crisis communication should only stop all planned actions and postings for the time being and wait until the flame war has passed.

What does good social media crisis communication look like?

In general, it is clear that social media crisis communication ist important. However, it is equally important that both are implemented professionally and adequately. But how does good social media crisis communication work? Overall, the same principles apply to social media crisis communication as to classic crisis communication. The do’s and don’ts of the two types of communication are also comparable. Nevertheless, social media has certain peculiarities that must be taken into account. We have therefore compiled five tips for social media crisis communication for you.

Tip 1: Preparation as the highest priority

Preparation is the be-all and end-all in crisis management – that’s no secret. To ensure that social media is used correctly in a crisis, it is worth investing in preparation in this area as well. Only then will the social media department know what to do in an emergency. In addition to general information on dealing with certain topics, processes and infrastructures in the crisis manual, a social media policy is also recommended. This sets out certain rules for communication and dealing with issues in social media. For example, setting rules for response behavior (do we respond to every comment?) through to instructions for dealing with hate speech (when is a comment deleted, reported or even brought to court?). The guidelines for dealing with hate comments should also be documented in a netiquette and made available to the online community.

Tip 2: Attitude as a compass in the crisis

Crisis situations are increasingly triggered in social media by polarizing topics. Even when this is not the case, fringe groups, for example, try to hijack certain crisis discourses in the current cancel culture and use them for their own purposes. In order to remain capable of acting on difficult issues, it is therefore worthwhile to define a stance on the respective issue. At best, this has already been done during crisis preparation. Such a stance can then serve as a compass during the crisis, which can also be used as a guide for social media crisis communication. For example, if a company clearly positions itself against right-wing extremism, it is clear what to do if a group of right-wing trolls tries to hijack the discourse about its own crisis. A stance on individual issues should always be based on the general corporate purpose.

Tip 3: Dialog, interact as equals and care factor

Social media is a dialog medium. Unlike traditional media, it is therefore not just about sharing information and messages. Rather, the concerns and fears of the community must be taken seriously. However, since it is often impossible to respond to every comment during the crisis, regular postings on one’s own page can simulate an apparent dialog. This can be achieved by posting regular updates or answering users’ questions centrally in posts on the own page.

It is also a good idea to set up an FAQ section on the website and link to it in social media. Such a dialog can be established even if there is no new information (“We are aware of you/ there is nothing new yet/ we are working on a solution/ etc.”). This is also important because, in addition to the active users, many others simply “read along” and may get a bad impression if you as a company do not react at all or only very poorly.

In addition to a need for information, social media users also often have a strong emotional need. They want their feelings, such as fear or anger, to be taken seriously and understood. Therefore, users should be emotionally picked up by social media crisis communication. Factual and rational statements that are suitable for the press may therefore not be transferable 1:1 to social media. In general, communicative equality applies in social media – i.e., the dialog with users should take place at eye level. Statements with an empathetic tone are helpful here.

Tip 4: Active community management

Community management plays a central role in crisis situations. Community postings should be reviewed and comments that violate the company’s own netiquette deleted. As a first step, sufficient personnel resources with appropriate knowledge of netiquette should be planned for this, as the effort involved can be very great. Furthermore, in crises it makes sense to shift communication to closed channels. For example, users with specific questions and concerns can be directed to private messaging or customer service. Technical support options such as crisis chatbots are suitable for effectively handling an increased number of inquiries there.

Tip 5: Monitoring as a crisis supporter

Permanent monitoring of communication on the social web helps to assess the situation in a crisis. Social listening can be used to determine which questions arise among the relevant target group or how they react to the crisis management measures. Depending on the results, readjustments can then be made. Technical tools are suitable for monitoring. In these, postings can usually be provided with various tags such as sentiment. This makes a continuous crisis evaluation even more effective and provides valuable impulses for further action.

In conclusion, it is clear that social media plays a central role in modern crisis communication. Its relevance should be taken into account in crisis management. This makes it possible to mitigate the course of a crisis and possibly even turn a flame war into a candystorm.

Tip 6: Practise, practise and then go practise some more

To really be ready and react properly in an emergency, you need experience and tangible skills. Train for the worst with a social media crisis simulation – and preferably on a regular basis. Because crises are mastered by people, not by manuals.

Better safe than sorry. 

1 University of San Francisco. Online at: http://onlinempa.usfca.edu/resources/webinars-infographics/social-media/