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Turning Lemons into Lemonade: 11 Components of a Social Media Crisis Plan

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Not long ago, I was asked to give a presentation on crisis management to a group of "seasoned" professionals. As a history enthusiast, I racked my brain to find an analogy that would illustrate the magnificent changes that were taking place in communication. My mind finally landed on the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates. A quick Google search uncovered this quote from U.S. News & World Report, which perfectly illustrated the point I was trying to make:

"It would become the best known of all presidential debates, but nobody seemed to appreciate the impact that the first clash between candidates Richard Nixon and John Kennedy would have. Newspapers barely mentioned it beforehand. Networks didn't promote it. Nixon didn't even prepare for it. But in one hour on Sept. 26, 1960, the new medium of television went from operating as a mere player to being the dominant force in political campaigns. It's rare to find one moment that so demarcates one era from another."

Only time and history will tell what that one moment will be that marks the shift from traditional media to social media. In the meantime, it seems every organization is experiencing that moment for itself; more often than not, during a crisis.

Of course, crises come in all shapes and sizes, and over the last five years while working at Southwest Airlines, I had a front-row seat to several aviation industry crises - from controversial mini-skirts and broken guitars to safety allegations and emergency landings - forcing me to completely rethink crisis communication and bow to the gods of social media.

While the specific details of each crisis varied, the key principle for managing them remained the same. Ultimately, it's all about communication.

When crafting a social media crisis plan, the most important thing to consider is not the various details of every possible scenario, but rather the reality of how people are discovering, consuming, and sharing information. For example:

Fact: You're likely to learn about a crisis via Twitter or Facebook before you receive official notification from an internal source.
Fact: You cannot "shut down" the Internet - going "dark" is no longer an option. Regardless of how you choose to leverage social media, your customers, employees, and all major media outlets will be utilizing free, public, global social media tools to communicate about your organization.
Fact: You are not powerless. By being prepared and leveraging social media, you can help to disseminate factual information, lead and influence conversations, and squash misinformation.

While crises are never welcome or wished for, they are a fact of life and an opportunity -- an obligation, even -- to show the world what you're really made of.

11 Components of a Social Media Crisis Plan

1. Talk to your customers and employees
You must communicate -- both to your customers and your employees -- in order to lead and shape conversations. Not communicating is not an option, at least not a good one. In the words of Rahm Emanuel, "Never let a good crisis go to waste." Play the hand you're dealt. As PR practitioners, you try everyday to engage your employees and get media coverage for your organization. Consider a crisis an opportunity to communicate and take action when the whole world is watching.

2. Do it as quickly as possible
Social media moves at the speed of light. Respond to news as it occurs, as quickly as possible, and preemptively whenever possible in order to lead conversations, prevent speculation, disseminate your messages, ensure public access to factual information, and squash misinformation. The longer you wait, the less control you have.

3. Say you're sorry
Saying "I'm sorry" doesn't have to be an admission of guilt. And, an apology is not going to be a deciding factor in a court of law. In fact, studies show that an apology is more likely to keep you out of court in the first place. If you've screwed up, apologize and take your lumps. Then quickly find a way to make the situation right or minimize the chance of it happening again.

4. Be substantive and factual
You often have just one shot to get your message across the plate, and the first swing goes the greatest distance. Create air tight messages. Anticipate issues and criticism and address them head on to disarm critics. Don't pretend that the tough issues aren't going to come up. Don't fool yourself in to thinking that no one is going to notice. Don't leave the door open for attacks. Give your supporters the ammunition they need to protect and defend you. If you don't have all of the answers, say so. But simply failing to address the tough issues opens the door for endless negative coverage in the form of news, blog posts, and comments that will take you to task, essentially throwing fuel on the fire and extending the life of the problem.

5. Fight fire with fire
Ramon DeLeon of Domino's in Chicago once said, "the only way to put out a social-media fire is with social-media water." Meaning, if the crisis is taking place on Twitter, don't respond with a press release. And, don't wait until a crisis to begin using social media tools. You want to be skilled. You want to understand the rhythms of the different channels. You want to have familiar and trusted voices available to represent you. And, you want to have a network of friends and fans to protect and defend you.

6. Aggressively push your messages
Use every medium at your disposal. Blogs aren't dead -- where else can you tell your side of the story, in its entirety, without the filter, rules, and limitations of a third party. And, don't underestimate search. You want to have as much influence over what people see and read about your brand as you can. When someone searches for anything related to your brand, you want your messages to be the first thing they see. Bottom line, the public expects it.

7. Gauge public sentiment
Listen to what your customers are saying. Identify the issues that are truly important to them, and if you're not addressing them, adjust your communication strategy accordingly. In reality, you should never be in that position. If something catches you off guard, it's likely that someone in your organization could have anticipated and prevented it. Get all the players at the table. In the brilliant words of Southwest Airlines' Senior Vice President Operations, Greg Wells, "the drip, drip, drip of information doesn't help anyone."

8. Always take the high road
It can get nasty out there. And, snarky and sarcastic doesn't translate well, especially when coming from a Fortune 500 company. You need people representing you online who instinctively know your brand; who can think like your customers; who have a thick skin; who are personable; who have a gift for messaging; and who are willing to personally take it on the chin to protect and defend your organization.

9. Have infrastructure in place
Done right, social media should touch all aspects of your business. But, ultimately, someone has to own and drive it; particularly in a crisis. Modernize your infrastructure. Establish reporting structures and approval processes with speed and agility as your number one priority.

10. Listen to your internal experts
Crises come in all shapes and sizes. There is no plan that will fit every situation. There is no tool that will tell you what to do. You need people paying attention to your channels and your audience in order to know how to respond appropriately. Be prepared to throw everything you thought you knew out the window if it no longer makes sense.

11. Evaluate and change
Your biggest failures will always be your biggest learning experiences. But in order to inspire organizational change, you have to make sure that everyone in your organization is learning from them as well. With each misstep, document exactly what happened: what went wrong; how it can be prevented in the future; what infrastructure changes are needed; and how you plan to address similar situations in the future.

In terms of social media, people often talk about "giving up control." But I would argue that organizations have more control today than perhaps they've ever had. By acknowledging the power of social media and dedicating resources to it, organizations can quickly address problems and maybe even turn lemons into lemonade.