While a corporate crisis can come in many forms, the prevalence of social media has forever changed the landscape for not only how, but how quickly, corporations must respond to keep their brands and reputations intact.

Most CMOs and CCOs are well-versed in the core principles of crisis communications; however, fewer are prepared to manage their crises using social media.   A study by the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth backs this up: use of blogs, Twitter and Facebook among Fortune 500 companies, small to begin with at only 23 percent, has leveled off in 2011.

The Opportunity Trumps the Risk, But That’s Not What the Lawyers Will Say

One of the biggest challenges for companies, particularly those in highly regulated industries, is that the perceived risks of saying too much loom large.   The legal team’s involvement in the crisis heightens this focus.   Social media, by its nature, requires a level of openness and quick response outside the comfort zone of many companies.

But companies can’t afford to stay out of the social media dialogue when a crisis hits. The recent video of a Fed Ex delivery person tossing a computer box over a fence posted to YouTube got more than five million hits in five days.  Through its immediate responses on Twitter and ultimately its own YouTube video, Fed Ex was able to get out in front of the communications quickly.   Contrast that with the recent crisis for Susan G. Komen for the Cure when a series of messaging contradictions and slow responses made an already-bad situation worse, as negative news and commentary spread rapidly over social media.

Social Media Early Warning System Helps Companies’ Executives Sleep at Night

Social media can alert the corporation to an impending crisis. Companies should have a system to monitor chatter from blogs, twitter, search engines, and other forums — and to act.

While many companies monitor the good news, fewer have effective systems in place to monitor neutral to bad news.   Those companies that do are often single-purpose, for example, monitoring customer service issues.    A strong, broad-issues monitoring system, and program to share and act on brewing problems, can have a big effect on the company’s ability to potentially avert a crisis.

Getting Ahead of the Curve

Here are ways a company can prepare:


Identify issues and prepare social media content now.
  • ▪This is particularly critical if your organization moves slowly in terms of approvals.
  • ▪Cover the social media landscape – develop content for tweets, blog comments, YouTube video scripts.
  • ▪Create a microsite to address a larger issue and keep it dark until needed.
  • ▪Engage legal, HR, other senior leaders for advance approvals.
  • ▪If an actual crisis occurs, you will need to adjust and edit to suit the situation, but you’ll be prepared to react very quickly.
Develop relationships with key online influencers.
  • ▪Do you know who the key online influencers in your industry are?
  • ▪The social media landscape changes quickly – a list of bloggers today could be obsolete by next month.  Stay on top of who’s saying what and where.
  • ▪Once you’ve identified the key influencers, develop relationships with them.  Comment on blog posts; participate in discussions and online forums on key topics.   You’ll want to be a visible and regular contributor.
  • ▪Not every “influencer” will be a “fan” but you will know where you stand, and you will know who you can count on to get the real facts out during a crisis.
Establish organizational ownership for social media response plan and execution. 
  • ▪Establish defined processes for rapid workflow and online engagement, including roles, responsibilities, and levels of authority.
  • ▪Few organizations are prepared for the speed of social media, so this is an area that requires definition and practice.
  • ▪Develop your social media response plan, and then run some fire drills.   It will help you identify the areas that need strengthening.


CMOs and CCOs have a big challenge – balancing the corporation’s culture and sensitivities with the need to embrace social media.  Whether it’s a real-world crisis, like the BP oil spill that became amplified by social media, or a crisis born and bred on social media like the #McDStories Twitter campaign, planning and practice, both internally and externally, are key.