How do you manage social media during a crisis? It’s not an original question, but it’s as pertinent as ever in the PR industry.

As evidenced in the recently published ICCO’s World PR Report 2017, one of the noted areas of growth globally is social media community management (56%). With this growth comes the responsibility of PR industry bodies to facilitate discussions around best practice when it comes to advising, implementing, and evaluating integrated reputation management programmes.

As part of my voluntary role as a member of the PRCA Digital Group, we staged a cross-industry discussion at Lansons on the subject of integrated reputation management. For this we organised a diverse panel of industry specialists representing communications, law, cyber security and online investigations.

This featured Lansons’ Scott McKenzie MPRCA, Joint MD and Head of Change and Employee Engagement alongside:

Rod Clayton, Vice President and Co-lead, Global Issues and Crisis, Weber Shandwick

Meglena Petkova, Senior Director at Digitalis Reputation

Michael Patrick, Partner in Farrer & Co’s Reputation Management practice

The scale of topics, experiences, and personal anecdotes shared during the event was mammoth, but can be organised into 7 clear lessons for PR practitioners.

Understand the relationship between risk and threat

The best time to prepare for a crisis isn’t when it’s happening, approach PR programmes as a balance between risk and threat. Especially in the age of social media, it’s about the speed of which a risk becomes a threat.

Challenge perceptions over reality

Often the perceptions around social media can be misleading. For example, a senior person may read a critical tweet and believe it is a crisis, even though it is one negative opinion in a tweetstorm of positivity. Equally, a whole board may underestimate the influence of information being shared on social media and not put the appropriate safeguards in place. PR practitioners are challenged to frame consultancy in light of social media statistics and be prepared to provide difficult advice.

Be bold with advice delivered

Generally crisis advice falls into two different camps: either advising a company to say a lot or not say much. Sometimes it’s necessary for PR practitioners to stand their ground and advise companies to calm down, to take perspective of the situation. Here it was noted that PR and legal must work hand-in-hand; balancing liability with humanity. For instance, if your product catches fire don’t avoid saying sorry to cling onto diminished responsibility.

Investigate beyond the obvious

Whilst we don’t have to be data scientists to work in PR, we should all have a comprehensive understanding of how an issue may travel from risk to threat online. This shouldn’t be a case of relying on one social media tool, as currently data from Twitter tends to dwarf all other online sources of information, despite only 25% of the UK population being on Twitter. As part of a reputation management plan, ensure you have scoped out all the places online where an issue could be mentioned. This includes investigations into influencers and key members of staff. This makes gathering data during a crisis more efficient, with less room for error when tracking how messages get shared online.

Keeping up with the speed of social media

Some of the more experienced practitioners in the room said that the challenge with social media wasn’t so much the advice that should be given, but how to keep up with the speed of which information is being shared. So not just detecting content that has been shared, but ensuring that any advice can be delivered and agreed with companies in time.

For example, research from Cardiff University into the devastating murder of Lee Rigby showed that tweeting from the scene began in seconds, before police had arrived, and suspects were announced on Twitter before identifies were officially released in the media. Issues management programmes need to have processes in place to cope with the speed of social media and quickly find insights from the data captured.

Have diverse skillsets in the boardroom

At this PRCA event we could have organised for a whole panel of PR practitioners to speak, but that isn’t in the spirit of modern reputation management. It was necessary for the panel to include legal and cyber security experts too because in a real life situation, these are the types of people that should be sitting around the boardroom table. Make sure you have a diverse team of people who are ready to drop everything for you and support on your crisis.

Flex your tone of voice on social media

Interestingly, whilst the speed of social media becomes a reputation nightmare for some organisations, it can be helpful when it comes to tone of voice. For instance, generally the tone of voice on Twitter has more humour, such as when @GiveBloodNHS responded to a racist tweet “OR… we could just deport you.” This appears to have created a surge of new blood donors. Whilst generally your tone of voice in the media will be serious, online channels will provide some flexibility to make your communications more human and emotionally.

Thank you to everyone who attended our PRCA Digital Group event. For future events, either keep watching Lansons News and Views or visit the PRCA’s event page.

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