Is Social Media Your Best Communications Platform for Crisis Communications?

By Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC 

Public relations professionals and public information officers (PIOs) love social media for crisis communications. Many PR professionals wanted to share their expert opinion on a previous blog I wrote when I asked, “Is Social Media Good for Crisis Communications?”

In a nutshell, the blog pointed out that Facebook and other social media platforms have changed their algorithms and they are intentionally showing your posts to fewer people. This means that

In a crisis, social media today doesn’t give you the reach it did five years ago.

-Gerard Braud

In a companion blog, I championed the use of Live Streaming features as a crisis communications tool. The algorithms do favor live broadcasts over a basic post.

We’ve had a bit of our own crisis on our blog, that our tech team is trying to fix. The ReCaptcha isn’t working and it is making it impossible for you to post your comments. We’re on it. But one of my colleagues went so far as to send me a nice email with his point of view regarding my blog post Is Social Media Good for Crisis Communications?  I am sharing his comments in this post.

I will say this about the use of social media for crisis communications – how you use it and how it benefits you depends upon two things:

  1. What type of organization do you represent?
  2. How big is your communications staff?

What Type of Organization Do You Represent?

If you communicate for an electric company or an electric cooperative and there is a power failure because of weather or a technical problem, you can bet your customers and members will go to Facebook on their phones to look for an update on the outage. Yes, you will find social media is good for crisis communications in this situation. And as I advocated in my live video blog, Live Stream on social media is a perfect way to manage the expectations of your customers before a serious weather event. But this does not absolve you of your obligation to post official information to your website newsroom.

If you are the public information officer for a police department or a government agency and you need to get information to members of your community, then yes, Facebook and Twitter are a great way to get information to the public. But this does not absolve you of your obligation to post official information to your website newsroom.

If you represent a corporation that doesn’t want to draw a lot of attention to your crisis, then no, Facebook and Twitter may not necessarily serve you well. But your newsroom on your website will always serve you well as home base for official information.

To be clear, every crisis communications plan I write includes directives on how and when to use social media in a crisis. However, the directives always include using social media to direct interested parties to your website newsroom.

How Big is Your Communications Staff?

Are you a one-person communication staff or do you have many people helping to communicate?

In crisis communications, your goal should be to share honest information with the media, your employees, and your stakeholders.

Your priority should NOT be to moderate comments on social media. Your PRIORITY should be to gather information, confirm information, and share information, then repeat the process again until the crisis has passed.

If you have a small communications staff, spending time moderating social media comments takes you away from your primary job.

For years I’ve advocated that social media is a tool and nothing more than one more communications channel. As I mentioned in my blog and as I’ve advocated for years, your website is the most secure place to post honest information. By using it consistently, you are able to train the media, your employees, and your stakeholders to trust that this is where they should go for OFFICIAL information.

In the comments below, Kerry Shearer will point out that many of the PIOs and government organizations he works with do not have the capability to post to a website and therefore social media and Live Streaming are their only option.  

I’ll agree that it is an option and that it is useful to PIOs, but if PIOs are professional communicators, then they need to demand the tools used by professional communicators. If a police officer requires a gun, bullets, and a patrol car to do his or her job, then a PIO requires access to their website to post news updates.

It’s 2019 and it is time to demand the tools you need. Stand up, stand your ground, and if you don’t have the tools you need to do your job, then move on to a place that respects you and will give you the tools you require. Yes – I know, that’s easier said than done. However, I’m a guy who has quit four jobs and moved on because I needed the right tools. I’ve always refused to remain in a job where an employer denied me the right to do my very best work. Not once have I regretted taking a stand and moving on to greener pastures of employment.

With that, here are comments from Kerry Shearer regarding Social Media for Crisis Communications:

Most of your posts are absolutely spot on.

I do disagree with the premise of this post, though — that social media is essentially a lost cause and agencies should run to their websites where no one can comment!

Many public agency websites are poorly designed, complicated to use, and not geared up to handle a stream of posts, pictures, and video that agencies SHOULD be doing.

When you bring in a team of PIOs from various agencies, they will not know the content management system or how to post. But everyone knows how to post to social media sites.

In fact, social media is THE place to be; that’s where the public is during a crisis. That’s where they are looking and talking.

If an agency is not there, their voice won’t be heard. In fact, it’s critical to be there FAST with holding statements when crisis breaks out to show you’re on top of the situation.

Jay failed to mention Facebook is now rolling out Local Alert functionality to all local agencies and emergency responders so agencies can hit a button and get in the newsfeed. This is huge. You know that FB has a bunch of reps assigned in regions across the country to work with government/public agencies to work out issues and take feature requests, right?

I worked on the PIO team in the City of Santa Rosa EOC for 11 days during northern California’s historic, devastating wildfires that leveled massive neighborhoods and businesses. We used video on FB to the hilt, turning most updates and advisories into a livestream or a fast-turnaround recording video shot and edited on a smartphone.

Combined with real-time social media inquiry response from PIO team, public reaction was super positive. And we got great input through our interactions that we turned into FAQ content.

We did FB live remotes from donation centers and the local assistance center. We livestreamed community meetings.

Most agencies are good at terse tweets devoid of humanity, but social video puts a “face” to the response, shows the public you’re in it with them, is easily sharable & media can use it.

In my experience teaching these techniques to public agencies and responders multiple times a month, the social side of crisis content creation should not be minimized or overlooked. It is actually a massive opportunity.

The fear of trolls should never be an excuse for not learning and implementing these techniques.

That’s my two cents!

–Kerry Shearer

Thank you Kerry for your observations. To be clear, my post never said social media is a lost cause. My observations are that social media gives you less reach than five years ago.

My position for fifteen years is that your website newsroom should be your home base for all accurate information about your crisis. Organizations that use social media for crisis communications should provide links back to their website newsroom.

Regarding PIOs who don’t have the skills to use a content management system, my observation is that it is a skill that can be taught and learned. A PIO’s job is to be a professional communicator and posting to a website is a professional skill I expect all professional communicators to have. A simple WordPress blog is only a hyperlink away on a government website that is out of date. Just add a link that says “News Room” and provide a redirect to an external web page that can be managed by the PIO.

  • Ultimately, social media has to be a right fit and not a forced fit.
  • Social media has to be a right fit for the type of organization you represent.
  • Social media has to be a right fit depending upon the size of your communications staff.

Your website newsroom is ALWAYS a right fit for crisis communications.

Crisis communications and media training expert Gerard Braud, CSP, Fellow IEC is based in New Orleans. Organizations on five continents have relied on him to write their crisis communications plans and to train their spokespeople. He is the author of “Don’t Talk to the Media Until…”

More crisis communications articles:

How to Use Social Media for Crisis Communications

The Biggest Lie in Crisis Communications

4 Steps Every Company Needs to Take in Order to Avoid the Default Spokesperson

Photo by Anders Krøgh Jørgensen on Unsplash

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