Who owns social media communication in a crisis?

Remember the spat on Twitter between former IPL head honcho Lalit Modi and INC minister Shashi Tharoor in 2010 over the equity pattern in the former IPL Kochi team?

This one incident, which cost Tharoor his job as the junior minister for external affairs and made Lalit Modi a rather public fugitive in London, reveals very clearly the sweeping power of social media.

It’s not surprising then, that brands in India are also grappling with how to handle a reputational crisis on social media. How best to respond to this medium which tolerates no dishonesty? How to monitor and track the voices in social media? And, crucially, who should lead the charge, when a crisis breaks out. Should it be the PR agency or the social media expert?

Anatomy of a crisis in the age of social media

First, it is important to understand how a public crisis plays out today. Stephen Waddington, European Digital and Social Media Director at Ketchum and author of Brand Anarchy, says; “Prior to 2000, a crisis communication situation was led by broadcast; either radio or television news. It had both the audience and the air time to play out a story in real time. Newsprint, with its 24-hour cycle, followed with deeper analysis. In 2013, people at the scene share the news loaded with their own comment and opinion. This is quickly amplified in real time by networks and picked up the mainstream media.”

Waddington adds that a situation that starts as a tweet can quickly spread via networks. “It will typically be amplified and inflamed as it spreads. But corporate communicators are better armed than ever before to deal with a crisis situation as it arises. The social web allows every conversation to be monitored in real time. You might not like the fact that conversations that are taking place publicly about you but at least you have the opportunity to listen in and, crucially, take appropriate action.”

Which team should lead the crisis response?

Stephen Waddington believes that, “A crisis communications response should be led by a public relations agency that has the knowledge and expertise of crisis situations. Social media cannot be treated within isolation in a crisis and an integrated response is required across all forms of media. An issue that breaks on a social form of media such as a blog or Twitter can quickly shift and be amplified by more traditional forms of media. Oversight of the entire media landscape is critical for listening, planning and response.” 

Nikhil Dey, President of Genesis Burson-Marsteller, feels that whoever is equipped with the best content generation capability should lead, so there is no one size fits all approach. "Social media strategies differ from company to company, those that have a holistic approach to engaging multiple audiences (consumers, fans of the brand, employees, prospective employees and also managing negative feedback online) often find PR agencies better suited to support their needs. Today, I think we are seeing more blended teams, with companies tasking internal team members with social media management responsibilities, but working hand-in-hand with outside agencies who specialize in strategy and implementation. Whatever path a company takes with respect to social media, the key to success is team work and seamless integration.”

Vivek Bahl is Founder and Director of GoVivekGo Social Media Marketing, which handles social media for clients such as Fiama Di Willis Men, Bausch+Lomb, Cadbury Celebrations, Happydent, and Dunkin’ Donuts India. He points out that the scale of the crisis is what decides the nature of the team leading the crisis response, "Social media agencies act like an on the ball PR agency during a crisis. They play a critical role in alerting the organisation to an issue. The key is to decide at what point traditional PR agencies need to come in. If you, for example, have a complaint about a faulty car door, then this is easily first addressed by the social media expert. But the minute, you have over seven to ten complaints about the same issue then that is where PR companies need to come in and work at addressing and curtailing the issue.”

How to handle the social media crisis

Once a crisis is spotted that requires an early response, Bahl advises quick action, "The key is the speed with which you respond. For example, if a complaint or reaction is spotted on social media at 12 noon, then social media agencies should swing into action in three to four hours to reach out to the person and convey that information along with the contact details of the complainant back to brand managers. This is very useful first contact is addressing the issue. An open and mutually trustworthy relationship between the agency and brand managers is the key to achieving this. There should be an efficient process for reaction.”

Nikhil Dey says it is critical to “Have a strategy in place that provides critical team members with a unified response and establishes clear ownership and accountability within an organisation of who is in-charge of social media, this saves valuable time and resources when a crisis hits.  It should also be noted that social media is immeasurably helpful in a crisis, if used properly. With the help of social media, companies have instant access to what is being said, and can respond immediately with proper messaging and other necessary information that does not get filtered or distorted.”

Vivek Bahl agrees saying that, “Today, consumers do not wait to call a phone line about their complaints, they just write about it on social media. The social media is the spot where brands can first spot and curtail an emerging issue. Brands can watch live what the reactions are to an issue."

Whatever the pace of a crisis event, the nature of it, or the media by which it breaks, Stephen Waddington says that the response effort should follow best practice. "The fundamental tenets of crisis management remain constant. That means preparing for an event long before it breaks out by scenario planning and rehearsing crisis events. In their excellent handbook to crisis communication, Risk Issues and Crisis Management in Public Relations, Michael Regester and Judy Larkin summarise the key eight components of a crisis communication plan as follows:

1. Develop a positive attitude towards crisis management

2. Bring the organisation’s performance into line with public expectation

3. Build credibility through a succession of responsible deeds

4. Be prepared to act on opportunities during a crisis

5. Appoint appropriate teams to act on opportunities during a crisis

6. Catalogue potential crisis situations and devise policies for their prevention

7. Document the plan

8. Test, test and test again"

It is clear that in these complex times of multiple communication platforms, an integrated public response led by a crack team of communications experts that includes social media professionals is essential.

Written by Paarul Chand