Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Difference Between a Social Media Crisis and a Traditional Crisis

My last blog post on the crisis communications missteps of Lowe’s sparked some interesting dialogue with some social media professionals.   My point in the blog post is that if you have a social media crisis, turn to a crisis communicator before relying on a social media guru for advice.  This is because social media gurus typically have very limited crisis management experience.

The first thing that struck me in some of the feedback was how the social media industry defenders jumped to the assumption that it’s more important to know the technology and the current etiquette of social media than to have a broader understanding of effective crisis management.

If I were to buy into that line of thinking then it would also make total sense to me to have a golf pro serve as primary investigator of a murder on the basis of the fact that the crime took place on the 14th tee.  Maybe it’s just me, but I’d still rather have an experienced detective on that case.

My point is that when it’s crisis time you need someone familiar with crisis management and strategy first and foremost.  Since social media is a channel or delivery system for communication, understanding the fineries and etiquette of managing such things as “comments” sections becomes secondary.

This brings me to one of the most fundamental discrepancies I have found in some research on social media crises – because so many social media gurus are so new to crisis communications, they are not able to differentiate between a social media crisis and a traditional crisis.  This is extremely important if you are to manage a social media crisis effectively.

Case in point, one social media marketing guru defined a social media crisis according to this three-part criteria:  “1) You don’t know what’s happening; 2) There is a spike in commentary or a new topic of conversation; 3) An issue with a very broad impact or interest is raised.”

It would be easy to dissect those three statements for the remainder of this blog post, but the main thing is that not one of these factors is exclusive to social media.  Further, they are not very good barometers of the severity of any crisis.  In fact, these statements can apply to a broad number of normal, non-crisis situations.

So let’s go back to what defines a crisis and then get into how that differs from a social media crisis.

What is a crisis?

A crisis is any development or potential development that has the potential to seriously disrupt the company’s or organization’s operations.  Against this premise, the organization typically does not have the systems, personnel or resources in place to address the situation in the normal course of business, and so the situation becomes a high priority until it can be brought under control.

Since every organization has its own issues, what might be a crisis for one may not be for another.  An extreme example of this is a fire company.  Since fire companies exist to extinguish fires and save both property and life, responding to out-of-control blazes is a part of their normal operations.  They have systems in place to deal with what are crises to every constituent they serve.

What is a social media crisis?

A social media crisis is any development or potential development that is rooted in social media or can be exacerbated by social media that has the potential to seriously disrupt the company’s or organization’s operations.  The two definitions are similar with one basic exception – in this instance social media activity is at least part of the problem if not the cause.

This is where the social media gurus have the biggest challenge in dealing with such crises.  If they are not crisis communicators first, they often don’t appreciate that when a crisis occurs, every company behavior must go under the microscope, including all forms of social media activity.  Nothing is sacred.

This is standard crisis communications practice.

Where social media experts tend to fall down is their continued belief that some things tied to social media are sacred.  Most base their counsel on the belief that companies cannot and should not withdraw from social media forums or change their fundamental behaviors to address a crisis. 

In several social media crisis situations, the general consensus in the social media community is that the company at the center of the controversy should not aggressively moderate comments in social media forums that they control.  This is just one example.  Another common belief is that if a crisis flares up on social media, it must be handled there.

This can be a problem when a comments section of a social media site is filled with hate speech or such vitriol that it can spur violent or irrational behaviors in the public.  And that’s just a worst-case scenario.  Many other social media wild fires can spell disaster for a company.

Without getting into specific situations and strategies, it is important to remember some of the basic objectives of crisis communications and then to act accordingly.  To the extent that effective communication can help, we have a duty to protect the reputations of our organizations and brands, the health and safety of our constituents, and to do so with integrity, ethically and truthfully.

Crisis management is about fixing the fundamental problem first, and when a crisis is rooted in social media behavior, then that behavior must be addressed and corrected before substantive change can be achieved.

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