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Social Media Crisis Communication: A Complete Guide [2024]

Social media crisis communication for brands comes down to one simple question: How can you help? Here’s how to make sure you’re prepared.

Christina Newberry June 19, 2023
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When crisis hits, social media is a key communication channel. In this post, we look at social media crisis communication during a real-world crisis or emergency.

To be clear, these are tactics for challenging times. That means things like natural disasters, epidemics, threats to public safety, and economic collapse.

If you’re looking for information on how to handle a social media PR crisis, find that info here.

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What is social media crisis communication?

Social media crisis communication means using social channels to communicate during a crisis or emergency. Social channels are a fast and efficient way to distribute information, both to existing followers and to the broader public.

The main advantage of social media in times of crisis is the ability to communicate in real time. But the very fast spread of information can also be a disadvantage. There’s potential to spread misinformation or respond in a way that makes your brand look insensitive or foolish.

Creating a social media crisis communication strategy before disaster strikes allows you to plan with cool heads and clear eyes. This puts you in a better position to think logically about the best way to use your social channels for good.

How to build a social media crisis communication strategy

We can’t always predict crises, but we can prepare for them. An official social media crisis communications plan can help you know the most effective way to respond when things get serious.

A good crisis communications plan provides steps for a solid but flexible response process. It also compiles all the crucial internal information you need to move forward.

1. Identify your crisis response team

First things first: You need to document who is in charge during a crisis. Is it your existing social team? Do you need to call in extra support? Will your social content follow your regular approval process? Or do you need to get more senior people involved?

Identify the people who are best suited for each of these critical roles:

  • Creating, reviewing, and approving social posts
  • Posting social updates
  • Answering public and private messages and questions
  • Handling customer support
  • Monitoring the wider conversation and flagging important developments
  • Fact-checking information and/or correcting rumors

It’s also helpful to have people responsible for:

  • Strategizing for the medium-term (as well as day-to-day)
  • Coordinating/communicating with other teams. This can include external stakeholders and the rest of the organization.

Clearly outline the responsibilities for each of these roles. Everyone should understand their mission and be ready to act.

When creating a social media crisis management plan, make sure to have an up-to-date emergency contact list. Record the names, positions and contact info of everyone who needs to be in the loop about your social media content during a crisis. Include legal advisors and executive decision-makers as well as your social team.

Go through this list regularly to ensure all contact information is correct. Check that everyone has the appropriate permissions for your social accounts. Using a social media management tool like Hootsuite allows you to change permissions and access quickly. This means you can easily align roles to your emergency chain of content approval.

2. Create triage and priority guidelines

Things move fast in the first 24 hours of a crisis. You’ll be in a better position to respond rapidly if you’ve got an action plan in place.

This comes down to pre-planning. What possible situations could impact your community, the world, and your business? This could mean anything from a new wave of the pandemic to a natural disaster to a tragic violent or political event.

It’s impossible to plan for all potential crises. But it’s worth the time to plan for anything you can think of.

Then consider what will be most important for your followers to know in each type of crisis. You can’t predict every angle, but brainstorming responses will give you a head start. Prioritize essential information. Focus on how you’ll share the most critical and relevant information first. For example, this might include evacuation orders, emergency contact numbers, or shelter locations.

Also create guidelines for identifying the scope of the crisis (i.e., is it global or local, does it affect your operations, does it affect your customers, and to what extent?).

Finally, create guidelines for prioritizing inbound messages during a crisis. Prepare templates or partly developed emergency resources in advance. This leaves you in a good position to respond to simple questions through an intelligent chatbot or autoresponder. Your team can focus on addressing more complex needs.

Bonus: Download a free bundle of social media tools designed specifically for government — including post ideas and templates for social media policies, strategies, reports, and crisis communications.

3. Specify posting platforms and schedules

When something awful or unexpected occurs, where will you respond… and when? Make a list of all your relevant social media platforms. Include how quickly you expect to post to each surface in the event of a global or community emergency. Also think about how often you should post.

Consider the different audiences you reach on each channel. How can you best target your information to make sure you get the right details to the right people? For example, say there’s a health crisis disproportionately affecting people under 25. You might want to focus on your TikTok response. If an economic crisis created mass layoffs, LinkedIn could be the better choice.

Make sure to pause existing scheduled posts. They will distract from your crisis communications plan. They’re also likely inappropriate in tone.

4. Develop an internal crisis communications plan

Communications begin at home. As your organization moves forward through a challenge, you’ll need your employees on board.

Are you announcing relief efforts, donations, or useful resources? Employees can help spread the word through an employee advocacy program. This is also a good time to remind them of your organization’s social media guidelines for employees. (Make sure you’ve included any crisis-specific amendments.)

Your brand may be in a tense position because of the crisis (layoffs, backlash, etc.), too. Be ready for employees to express their feelings on social. Make sure employees understand the commitment made through your social media policy. That should include not disclosing private company info on social media.

Make sure you have a plan in place to support your social marketing team. Your content moderators may have a particularly difficult time. Handling incoming content can be tough on the psyche at the best of times. During a crisis, your public-facing social and customer service employees need extra support.

Sometimes it’s impossible to get everyone pulling towards the same goal. In this case, social listening can help you understand your employees’ concerns better. On that note…

5. Plan your social listening approach

As a crisis unfolds, it’s critical to stay informed about what’s happening on the ground. You also need to know what your employees, customers, and followers are saying about your brand as you navigate the crisis.

Do you already have a social listening program in place? Great! You can pivot to crisis-oriented social listening with a few tweaks of your tracked keywords. If you don’t have a social listening tool or strategy in place yet, it’s worth setting one up now. The information you gather is helpful even when things are all smooth sailing.

Make sure your social media crisis communication plan specifies how to report and share information gathered through social listening. This includes noting how quickly you need to respond. Make sure to verify incoming information before sharing it publicly.

6. Align your crisis plan with your social media policy

Do you already have a social media policy and social media guidelines in place? If not, you should develop them as part of your social media crisis communications planning.

Your social media policy provides guidelines and requirements for your brand’s social media channels.

Your social media guidelines outline expectations for employees on their personal social accounts.

Align your social media crisis communications plan with your policy and guidelines. Link between the documents so all the information is easy to find when needed.

Some crisis-specific issues to consider are:

  • What’s the right tone during a crisis? Does it differ from your usual social media brand voice?
  • What is your policy on responding to negative comments or feedback?
  • Who can speak on behalf of the brand in a crisis scenario?
  • Where can employees access approved information to share on their own channels?

Social media crisis communication examples

Let’s review some crisis communication social media case studies to see how real brands and organizations are using social tools during difficult times.

Example 1: Government of British Columbia

The Government of British Columbia uses its Instagram account to share information about emergencies in the province, both as they happen and when there are steps to take in advance. All emergency information posts have a red background, to make them easy to find when scrolling through the feed.

They also use a pinned post to provide a list of emergency contact information and resources for residents.

And they compile all the emergency information posts into an Instagram Story highlight for even greater visibility.

Government of BC Instagram emergency information Story Highlights

Source: @governmentofbc

They have similar pinned posts on Facebook and Twitter so that residents have easy access to emergency resources no matter which social platform they use most often.

Notice that on the Twitter post, they link directly to the Twitter profiles of the relevant departments rather than providing URLs in the graphic.

Example 2: Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness

Nova Scotia has had to deal with major wildfires this spring. Other provincial and governmental accounts are focused on emergency response details like evacuation orders and plans. Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Wellness is focused on how the fires are affecting Nova Scotians’ health, including symptoms to watch out for.

They also use their feed to retweet relevant information from the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

Example 3: GoFundMe

When crises hit families and communities, many people turn to crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe to offer their financial support. However, it can be a challenge to ensure you’re donating to people really impacted, rather than those taking advantage.

When crisis occurs in communities, GoFundMe uses posts on its social channels to link to pages with fundraisers verified by their trust and safety team.

FAQs about social media crisis communication

We have answers to your most common questions about social media and crisis communication.

What are the 4 stages of social media crisis communication?

The four stages of social media crisis communication are:

  1. Pre-crisis: This is the time when all is going well. Take time before crisis hits to develop your social media crisis communication plan.
  2. Crisis: This is when you are in the thick of crisis management. In the immediate wake of the crisis, your social media team goes into high gear to implement your emergency response plan.
  3. Response: You’ve had time to better understand the situation. After the initial emergency plan is put in place, you can implement your medium-to-longer-term social media strategy for dealing with ongoing issues related to the crisis.
  4. Post-crisis: After the crisis is over, look back at your response to evaluate how things went and what can be improved. Incorporate your learnings into a revised social media crisis communications plan. This will help you be better prepared for the next crisis. (And takes you back to the pre-crisis stage.)

What are the advantages of social media in crisis communication?

We live in a world where 50% of Americans get at least some of their news from social media. It’s where many people expect to find breaking news first.

During a crisis, social media can help you:

  • Communicate critical updates to your audience in real time;
  • Prevent the spread of misinformation by amplifying official messages;
  • Provide direct assistance (when possible) to people who need help or information;
  • Monitor online sentiment to better understand what people need from your organization;
  • Mobilize resources and support to connect those in need with those who can help;
  • Evaluate your outreach efforts and note trends and sources of misinformation for the next crisis.

How do you manage a crisis using social media?

The most effective way to manage a crisis using social media is to prepare a communications plan in advance. Once the crisis strikes, be sure to do the following:

  • Pause all scheduled social media posts
  • Gather your crisis response team to determine an immediate plan
  • Plan your social content to get your message to the most relevant audiences
  • Implement your crisis approval workflow
  • Use social listening to understand what’s happening as well as the public’s response.

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By Christina Newberry

Christina Newberry is an award-winning writer and editor whose greatest passions include food, travel, urban gardening, and the Oxford comma—not necessarily in that order.

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