02/05/2015 10:25 am ET Updated Apr 05, 2015

Don't Panic! Using Social Media in a Crisis

Organisations and companies find that crises come in all kinds of disguises - 'physical', where something has actually gone wrong, or reputational, where people have simply started to hate you...

Crises of both kinds tend to fly pretty quickly on social media, and that can be a failure of strategy or implementation. If something's gone awry, the Twitterati will generally be pretty happy to let you know about it. And if you work for a company facing that kind of problem, there's a natural tendency to look for comfort in familiar processes and issue press releases, while phoning journalists. That media-facing approach comes from a desire to give the impression of control - the fewer the variables in a situation, the easier it is to manage. And social media is difficult to control - so don't even try.

In basic terms, you have a choice in a social media crisis of fight or flight - and many choose the latter. Yet, by entering the fray in troubled times, an organisation can:

- Amplify: Put the case better, and without the prism of professional media interpretation. This is vital - it might be to deliver messages to change people's opinion over a reputational issue, or it might be to warn users or consumers about the dangers of a product catastrophe. Reach is vital.

- Listen and understand what people are saying about an issue and responding accordingly. This might be to change approach or attitudes in a reputational issue, or it might be to understand how a situation is unfolding in a product or service failing.

- Engage: use that monitoring to find the engagement possibilities and interact with users accordingly, to give advice in the effect of product issues or to put a different case, in times of reputational problems.

Using social media effectively in a crisis is, in many ways, no more than a heightened version of a 'peacetime' strategy, ie an organisation has an overall social media strategy which 'stretches' to crisis management. What changes is the atmosphere in which they are enacted and the speed of delivery. The principles of social media in a crisis remains steady, but the delivery is heightened.

In short, there needs to be a certain number of principles and processes in place, before it all goes belly up. No point trying to do this afterwards:

Have the social media apparatus ready

The social media strategy should be in place, and working. It is impossible to produce the apparatus for effective social media delivery in a crisis from scratch. It is essential that platform strategy has been agreed - adopting platforms that suit messages and audiences and the internal processes to deliver them.

Have the guidelines agreed and communicated

Establish, enforce and communicate a social media policy for all - both those using official channels and their own personal accounts. In a crisis, verified facts are crucial and speculation from supposed people in-the-know will cause serious problems. If you haven't got guidelines, try this.

And have the organisational readiness too

The first tendency for companies is to view social media as a communications tool to be kept purely in the hands of communications experts. In fact, the mastery of social media can be easier to achieve than the mastery of company policy or of the quick-moving information of a crisis. Ownership of social channels by the knowledgeable figures is crucial.

Have the audiences, and the influencers, in place

It is important, obviously, to have spent time building the audience so that messaging (and information gathering) happens on as large a scale as possible. It is important to remember, when building that audience having social media as an echo chamber is of little use at any time. During a reputational crisis or product/service issue, it is important to speak to, and hear from, those who might ordinarily be viewed as problematic types. Following these individuals is not a sign of approval, it is a sign of interest. Bear in mind, too, the influencers - those who project messages out to large numbers of people: they can be of enormous use when delivering (and trying to hear) messages in difficult times.

Keep channels open and two-way

Companies across the world can react badly when they think a crisis is being 'fanned' by social media and so can be tempted to shut down. Yet information is like water and citizens will always find ways around social media bans, sometime aided by rival companies. To ignore those messages is to let them gain the upper hand - enter those conversations, since genuine communication (and transparency) is vital.

And know what it's all for.

Any form of crisis communication needs a focus and that focus depends on what the nature of the crisis is, but you should determine what engaging on social media should accomplish - improving information flow, improving the quality of information or creatings calls to action, and follow through on that need.

Social media engagement is, still, often not the default approach for many companies, organisations and governments, but by having robust processes and networks in place early and the social-by-default instincts ready, they can maintain their place in the conversations that otherwise go on around them. An engaged organisation will listen more, learn more and deliver more in any crisis, and emerge all the stronger.