illustration: man standing on skyscraper using a megaphone to communicate with a man sitting on an adjacent skyscraper

How to Use Social Media for Crisis Communications and Emergency Management

On a regular day, connecting with your audience on social media requires tact, care, and forethought. In the epicentre of a major crisis, the pressure skyrockets. What should your brand say when the facts and the future are uncertain? And how should you say it when new developments are coming in by the hour, or minute?

Social media crisis communication for brands comes down to one reassuringly simple question: how can you help?

In this post we’re taking a look at social media best practices during a real-world crisis or emergency. That is, strategy and tactics for “challenging times”—earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, massacres, pandemics, economic collapse.

(Please note that if you’re looking for information better suited to a social media PR crisis, our guide is over here.)

More than ever, real-world catastrophes play out on social media in real time. As social media professionals, our job is to help our audiences and communities come through hardship together.

So, here’s our guide to social media crisis communication.

Bonus: Get a free, customizable social media policy template to quickly and easily create guidelines for your company and employees.

The role of social media in crisis communications

In a crisis, social media’s role is much larger and more complex than simply checking Facebook’s Crisis Response tool. 55% of Americans get their news from social media. Meanwhile, first-person accounts and opinions from regular people break news, shape narratives, and influence opinion (as well as potentially affecting the news journalists even choose to report).

For teams working at the center of a crisis (say, government social media teams or health care professionals) social platforms are one of the top ways to get authoritative information to the population, fast.

And for those of us operating farther from the crisis, social media is how people connect and make sense of tragedy. Brands can’t ignore these conversations, but participation must be approached with care.

So, when the world’s in a tailspin, what role does social media play in a crisis communications plan?

  • Rapid, direct communication of updates to your audience;
  • Support for people who need help or information;
  • Social listening to learn more broadly about what’s happening in the world and your industry, as well as what people need from your brand.

In short, social media isn’t just where you say you’re helping, but it’s also where you find out how you can help, and, in many cases, roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Whatever crisis we face—as both professionals and regular people—we all hope that after it passes, we’ll come out changed for the better. On social media, that means strengthening trust and connections with our audience for the long term.

What does that look like? Here are our tips.

10 tips for communicating on social media during a crisis or emergency

  1. Review—and possibly pause—your upcoming social calendar
  2. Have a social media policy in place
  3. Know who’s on your “tiger” team
  4. Make sure employees are aware of your organization’s position
  5. Communicate with honesty, openness, and compassion
  6. Cite only credible sources
  7. Use social media listening and monitoring to stay informed
  8. Avoid “trend-jacking” or activities that appear profit-driven
  9. Leave room for questions
  10. Don’t disappear

1. Review—and possibly pause—your upcoming social calendar

Context shifts rapidly in a crisis, and brands (especially ones who already worry about brand safety) are right to wonder if, for instance, “finger-lickin good” is an appropriate thing to be saying in the middle of a pandemic. At best, you might seem tone-deaf, at worst, inappropriate messaging could endanger lives.

If you’re using a social media scheduler, you’ll want to unschedule upcoming posts. Have faith that all the hard work that went into your perfect National Donut Day post isn’t wasted, it’s just postponed.

For example, the usually mouthy Pop-Tarts Twitter account (along with many of our favourite snarky foods) went silent for 10 days as the COVID-19 pandemic started its spread across North America. When they did reappear, they had a message that was still on-brand, but also humane and reassuring.

Tweets from Pop Tarts US 10 days apart, most recent one says "Love you"
Source: @poptartsus

2. Have a social media policy in place

We can’t predict crises, but we can be prepared for them. Especially for bigger teams, your organization’s official social media policy is your best asset in responding as rapidly and effectively as possible. A good policy will provide a solid, but flexible, response process, as well as compile all the crucial internal information you need to move forward.

It’s also a helpful document to have in the case that some of your team members are affected by the crisis and compelled to share duties with non-team members.

Make sure your social media policy includes the following:

  • An up-to-date emergency contact list: not just your social media team, but legal advisors and executive decision-makers, too.
  • Guidance on accessing social account credentials (i.e., where that information is, and how to go about getting it, if need be.)
  • 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?).
  • An internal communication plan for employees (see #4).
  • An approval process for your response strategy.

3. Know who’s on your “tiger” team

What’s a tiger team? A pack of ferocious specialists that assemble to work on a specific problem or goal. In this case, in the middle of an emergency or crisis, your existing social team might reconfigure, or call in additional firepower to handle the increased pressure.

Identify the people who are best suited for these roles, and delineate their responsibilities so that everyone can own their mission, and act. Tasks to assign include:

  • Posting updates
  • Answering questions and handling customer support
  • Monitoring the wider conversation, and flagging important developments
  • Fact-checking information, and/or correcting rumours

It’s also helpful to have people clearly responsible for:

  • Strategizing for the medium-term (not just day-to-day)
  • Coordinating/communicating with other teams, external stakeholders, and/or the rest of the organization

4. Make sure employees are aware of your organization’s position

Communications begin at home, and however your organization moves forward, you’re going to need your employees informed and on board.

For instance, if you’re announcing relief efforts, donations, or other moves for the greater good, then proud 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 (including any crisis-specific amendments).

On the other hand, if your brand is in a tense position because of the crisis (layoffs, backlash, etc.), or emotions are running high, be prepared for employees to turn to social to express themselves.

Tweet by Donald J Trump responding to YouTube shooting with negative reply from a YouTube employee requesting stricter gun laws

Sometimes it’s impossible to get everyone pulling towards the same goal. In this case, social listening (see #7) can help you understand your employees’ concerns better. As well, your brand’s reaction in this scenario might be informed by your organization’s social media policy for employees.

Which leads us to our next point.

5. Communicate with honesty, openness, and compassion

This one is self-explanatory.

One of our favorite examples comes from Chiquita. This team obviously took the time to pause, re-orient and put in the work to fully integrate the #StayHome message into their social media plan during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Twitter profile header image of Chiquita bananas
Source: @Chiquita

On the other side of the coin, the International Olympic Committee reposted a generic encouragement to self-isolate, even as they were under fire for resisting pressure to cancel the summer games in Tokyo. Naturally, people noticed the hypocrisy and left many negative comments on the post (which has since been deleted, but still exists as a retweet by @shibsibs).

View this post on Instagram

Too many people aren’t taking COVID-19 seriously enough. It’s a problem. The cycle of transmission needs to be broken – the numbers are going to keep going up in part due to testing, but also because the virus continues to spread. We aren’t doing enough of what is necessary to mitigate the effects of this situation. We’re all affected. We’re all at risk. Everyone can take actions (such as social distancing) to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Protecting human life should come above all else. We’re all very connected and dependent on each other in this global situation. The sooner we stop the spread of this virus, the sooner we can begin to recover. How I behave affects your health. How you behave affects my health. Let’s all work together to keep each other safe. – An excerpt from @alexshibutani’s Twitter thread.

A post shared by Maia Shibutani, Alex Shibutani (@shibsibs) on

The post was deleted by the time the IOC actually cancelled the games. (This left the team behind the account free to double down on their pandemic strategy of reposting videos of elite international athletes training in their homes with weird accessories, which was much more appreciated by their followers.)

Going further back, to the 2018 YouTube shooting, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey found the right balance between human emotion and professional, social accountability in his response.

Tweets by Jack Dorsey responding to the YouTube shooting
Source: @jack

At the end of the day, honesty, compassion and humanity will win out. The brands who build trust during hard times are the ones who are transparent about the issues they’re struggling with—or responsible for.

Bonus: Get a free, customizable social media policy template to quickly and easily create guidelines for your company and employees.

Get the template now!

6. Cite only credible sources

Resisting the spread of misinformation on social media has been a vital issue for platforms, government, and brands these past few years. But in a crisis, bad information doesn’t merely damage reputations, it can be outright dangerous.

While social platforms themselves may implement broader protective policies during a crisis, it’s absolutely necessary to have a fact-checking protocol in place before you share specious claims with your audience.

A "fact" about coronavirus that UNICEF has crossed out due to being false
Source: The New York Times, fake news that UNICEF does not endorse

And if, in the heat of the moment, you erroneously share misinformation, own the mistake right away. Most likely your audience will tell you.

A correction to false information issued by Spin Energie
Source: Spin Energie

7. Use social media monitoring and listening to stay informed

Your social media team may well have been the first people in your organization to hear about the crisis, whether local or global. It’s just the nature of the job.

And if your social listening strategy is optimized, your team can continue to monitor audience sentiment around your brand, as well as track what’s happening with your competitors and industry at large. How are other, similar organizations responding to the emergency? And how are their customers responding to their response?

Do you need to craft content around your relief efforts, or new operational policies? Does your customer service team need to ramp up fast?

These are just a few of the questions social listening can help answer. It’s a direct line to what your audience needs from you, so tap in.

There are a number of social listening tools on the market that make it easy to track conversations, mentions, and search terms across different networks from a single dashboard. Hootsuite is one of those tools. The video below gives you an overview of the platform’s listening capabilities, if you’re interested.

(Note: Hootsuite Professional plans are free until July 2020 for small businesses and nonprofits affected by the COVID-19 crisis. If you want to take advantage, sign up here.)

8. Avoid “trend-jacking” or activities that appear profit-driven

Don’t attempt to “spin” a crisis.

Yes, it can be a tough line to pin down. Even legitimate moves towards altruism, if they seem showy or calculated, will leave a bad taste in the collective mouth, and damage your relationship with your customers.

For instance, when Blackbird—a boutique perfume and incense company that is typically mysterious, hip and edgy in their communications—hinted that they’d be selling not only fancy hand sanitizer, but face masks, they received such an immediate, outraged response that they had to post a clarification half an hour later attempting to explain their good intentions. (They weren’t going to sell the masks, but donate them to hospitals all along.)

The lesson? Coy teaser strategies don’t work in an emergency situation. Communicate clearly and directly so that you don’t end up muddying the waters.

Meanwhile, this PR firm’s post reads as a strange and unappreciated brag regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

And of course, let’s not forget that back during the California wildfires in 2018, a shocking number of Instagram influencers were suffering from terrible thirst.

In conclusion: avoid damaging your brand’s reputation on social media in tough times by doing what’s right and doing it humbly. And keep your shirt on.

More best practices for effective crisis management with social media

The video below offers additional tips and goes into more detail for effectively using social media during a time of crisis.

9. Leave room for questions

People will have questions. Be clear on the best way for them to reach you. Even if you’re not faced with a deluge of panicked customer service inquiries, take the time to engage with your audience, answer their questions, and provide reassurance.

For instance, Clorox’s coronavirus customer response team was on the ball during the coronavirus pandemic, dispensing clear, accurate answers where they could.

Clorox responding to customer questions on their Facebook page
Source: Clorox

Meanwhile, Ticketmaster’s customer service strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic—best described as “talk to the hand”—left outraged customers to grouse among themselves about the lack of refunds for cancelled events.

angry customers responding to Ticketmaster on Twitter
Source: @ticketmaster

For their part, pharmacy chain Shoppers Drug Mart was accused of raising prices on toilet paper and hand sanitizer around the first wave of COVID-19 panic shopping. The brand’s customer service team addressed the concerns directly, while an official response was formulated.

PS: Read Hootsuite’s Social Intelligence Briefing for the latest data on how COVID-19 has impacted customer engagement on social—and how organizations are adapting their strategies to retain customer relationships.

10. Don’t disappear

Yes, we started this list by saying a pause may be necessary while you strategize, but—and this goes triple if your brand is close to the crisis—radio silence is not a long-term strategy.

While PopTarts knew their input wasn’t necessary during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the same strategy from an airline company would be unthinkable.

And yet it happens: during the Deepwater Horizon tragedy in 2010, BP learned the hard way that an inadequate social strategy opens up gaps for someone else (or everyone else) to tell your story for you.

Since BP caused the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, this example is both a PR crisis and a real-world disaster. But the company’s lack of preparedness for online communication left the door open for a satirical Twitter account mocking their efforts that attracted 175,000 followers. (BP’s official account had 15,000, at the time).

BP tweet that says "Lightning struck one of our ships. Come on Earth, what did we ever do to you?"
Source: TechCrunch

In hard times, we all need to take responsibility for what we can. Brands included.

Social media crisis communications examples

And now, to inspire you, we’ve collected some of our favorite examples of how brands have dealt with crisis and emergencies on social media. Because of the timing of this article, many of them are COVID-19 related (check out Twitter’s round up of COVID-19 responses from brands for more inspiration).

Wealthsimple

This infographic encouraging app users to think strategically about the super-emotional topic of money during a shocking downturn is A++. Not only does it fulfill a genuine informational need, it shows a lot of empathy for what people are feeling and thinking.

10% Happier

Free offerings from online companies skyrocketed in the self-isolation “housebound economy.” What we like here is how this meditation app took the opportunity to get even closer to its audience: going from prerecorded audio to daily livestreaming.

And yes, it’s also a stealth conversion tool. But only because the offerings are truly valuable.

Bell Jar Botanicals

Admitting that you need help is hard. This post was an honest way to let loyal customers of a vulnerable small business know how they could help.

David Suzuki Foundation

This is a stellar example of a brand providing support and value to its audience when they need it most. A week of digital forest bathing for people stuck indoors? Yes, please.

Osmosis Medical

Osmosis is an online health professional education company that leveraged its in-house content resources to help lead the informational charge on COVID-19. Their multi-pronged content strategy is truly inspiring: helping medical schools transition to distance learning; helping people stuck at home stay healthy; and providing all sorts of shareable educational content that could genuinely help lessen the load on the medical system.

While hospitals, universities, and public health organizations may not have the resources to commit to a full-scale social effort like this, the good news is that it’s right there for re-posting.

Skyn

This condom company elected to shamelessly advertise through a pandemic. They even came up with their own branded hashtag. But you know what? It’s a condom company, it pretty much has to be shameless. So it works.

New York Police Department

From their position on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, this team has demonstrated calm and measured hope on social media, doing what they can to alleviate confusion and disorder.

Providing information to help the population stay safe, as well as informing them what the reality looks like out there, is exactly the kind of service people need from their police departments in times like these.

Vita Coco

Here’s an example of a brand demonstrating some radical transparency. And also showing its audience that it will do the right thing even when no one expects it of them.

Their CEO explains: “We’re selling A LOT of coconut water right now. Sales are spiking. But it’s hard to be profiting off a global pandemic.”

World Health Organization

WHO, unsurprisingly, has been super active through COVID-19: livetweeting expert panels, reposting reliable (or even entertaining) content, and generally being both authoritative and consistent.

What’s more surprising is that their social team, unlike almost everyone else in late March 2020, wasn’t exclusively dealing in pandemic content. They also continued their work on tuberculosis, the Health For All film festival, and other topics. This kind of moderation makes sense for health and government organizations whose day-to-day involves life and death.

All of these examples, though from vastly different industries, communicate with their social media audiences tactfully and efficiently during a crisis. Remember, the most important question to ask yourself is still: how can you help?

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