Uh oh â€“ the nightmare begins. Someone posted an unfavorable, inappropriate or offensive blog posting, comment, video, photograph, cartoon, letter to the editor or other statement about your association, industry, staff, key volunteer or event somewhere on the Web. At this point you can’t predict if the controversy will stay within your association and industry or go viral where thousands of people will see it. Now what do you do?
Hopefully your association has a crisis communications plan as a part of either its business continuity (disaster recovery) plan or social media strategy. The crisis communications plan needs to incorporate social media in your response techniques, since most people go to the Internet, Web or mobile to get their information. If you don’t have such a plan, create one now; it is only a matter of time before you will need it.
The risk management cycle or process is a good guide for establishing your crisis communications plan. Through this process, you identify and analyze your risks or threats; select and implement your response techniques; monitor the outcomes and modify the plan as needed â€“ basic risk management.
First you listen, to monitor what people are saying about your organization, industry and personnel as an early warning system for negative material. You already have your listening tools from your social media strategy; you just need to incorporate them into your communications plan.
Define for your association what constitutes a crisis. Not all negative comments require mobilizing your crisis team. Through your social media policies and trainings your staff will know how to respond to unfavorable information to avoid a crisis or when the incident poses a significant threat.
Identify and prioritize potential crises
Establish a task force or committee including any department that can be affected by a crisis. The group should brainstorm and prioritize the types of incidents that may occur. Examples include alleged criminal activity, an accident with significant bodily injury or death, an adverse court ruling or law, an expose or other areas where your association is vulnerable to adverse publicity.
Identify and select appropriate responses
Work through each scenario to determine the appropriate course of action. Your responses will be as varied as the possible infractions ranging from a posting to clarify your position, removal of the offensive material (as per your removal policy) or launching a full public relations campaign.
In this phase, draft the wording to be used in certain situations. Also identify and train your media spokesperson and determine if additional research or preparation is needed to respond appropriately to the threat. Be proactive in identifying festering issues that could turn into a crisis.
Set up response process and crisis team
Train your personnel to identify events that may be a prelude to or create a crisis for the association. Tell the staff how and to whom to report a potential problem. Establish a crisis response team to determine when to declare a crisis and how to handle it.
Test and modify
Through a table top or simulation exercise, test your plan to identify any weaknesses or steps you may have missed. If you experience a crisis, afterwards debrief all personnel to determine what went well and what needs to be improved. Modify your plan accordingly.
Periodic review and revisions
Don’t let your communications plan sit on the shelf waiting for a crisis. Periodically review, test and modify the plan. When the individuals on the crisis team change use that as an opportunity to review and revise the plan. New threats will appear that you did not consider when you originally wrote the plan.
In the more extreme cases, hiring public relations professionals may be the appropriate action. The PR firm will bring objectivity and outside counsel to the situation to help guide you through this traumatic episode.
No social media strategy is complete without a crisis communications plan. Due to the growth of social media, there seems to be a new public relations crisis each day. Some events have national and international implications such as Toyota’s sudden acceleration or NestlÃ©’s handling of the Greenpeace video on palm oil. Other issues stay within the organizations or industry’s world, for example, ASAE’s removal of an Acronym posting or PRSA’s response to a controversial guest blog posting. Either way your social media strategy needs to include a plan of appropriate responses to negative postings, comments, videos or publicity. While you can’t control what people say about your association or industry you can be prepared to respond rather than make it up as you go along. The choice is yours.