Yesterday morning was the fourth time I’ve had to go to a client or executive and suggest we publicly respond to a crisis. Three shootings and a terrorist bombing. This wasn’t part of the curriculum in my Australian public relations degree. I’d like to say it shouldn’t be on the curriculum for an American PR degree, but the reality is that it needs to be. Working in social media in the US means it’s a when, not an if. We will manage a crisis via social media in our careers.

Fortunately for most of us, it’s not our crisis. Not that it makes it easier, but it does require a different set of actions. Sometimes it means no public response at all. The four instances above don’t include the times when I’ve decided not to respond. However, even if you’re not responding, there are still actions you need to take.

Steps to Manage a Crisis via Social Media

The first step is to get all the information. What happened? Where is it? Injuries, deaths or both? A natural disaster or human-created? Is it on-going? Who is involved? What is the expected community reaction? This all needs to happen quickly, and Twitter should give you the answers. Credible news sources will be sharing what they know, use that.

Managing a crisis via social mediaSecond, do a quick check over any social posts you have scheduled and pause anything inappropriate. If you have control over the other communications tools, check those too. Emails, blog posts, and even print pieces. You don’t want to be like Charleston’s Post and Courier, who ran a sticky ad for a gun range on the front page article about Wednesday night’s shooting that killed nine people.

Next is the hardest step: deciding on a strategy. You’re a compassionate person, and chances are you’re affected by whatever has happened. At least I hope you are. But here is where you need to act as your brand. How did the crisis impact your brand? There could be proximity or relationship. The Charleston shooting was at an Episcopal-affiliated church, so of course we had to comment as the diocese. Two years ago I was promoting an upcoming conference in Austin, TX, and there was a huge mine collapse in Texas. While sitting in a theater at intermission I completed step two then emailed my client to say I couldn’t see a reason for us to comment. It had some proximity, but no relationship. I don’t let what my competitors or peers are doing impact this step. It’s all about how it fits for my brand.

Putting the copy together and distributing it is next. A quick, compassionate message is first. Then if appropriate it can be followed by a longer piece. During the Boston Bombing, my tech client published a short Tweet and left it there. Be mindful of what you’re saying with these messages. The first day or two should be supporting those impacted. Politicizing it can come later. This is especially important if it’s an ongoing situation. It’s also hard, if not impossible, to halt all other business during that time, so again check over all posts for tone.

Over the next few days, weeks, or months, depending on the type of crisis, keep an eye on the situation and adjust your posts and messaging as needed. Hopefully, you can soon go to rallying donations and support. Next week I’ll turn the Bishops Against Gun Violence procession promotion back on. I haven’t decided, but I may even add in a few more posts from how our audience has reacted so far.

An extra tip for while managing the messaging is to keep reviewing your results and the feedback. In this sense, it’s no different than a happy campaign. Here in the Pacific Northwest people tend not to voice their dislike of an action, but you’ll see it in low engagement. In other areas, they do speak up. I was working with Expedia US during the Sandy Hook shooting. We were criticized for going dark on social media. At least one customer felt that we were cashing in on a tragedy. I’m sure more would’ve been upset if we had continued promoting wild weekends in Vegas though, so we didn’t change our plan.

I sincerely hope that this is the worst of a crisis that I need to manage, but I doubt it.

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