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Why you need a crisis comms plan for your social media

If you are using social media for to promote a creative or cultural organisation, then it’s a very good idea to have a crisis comms plan in place before you need one. This short guide to crisis planning for social media helps you to have the right policies in place, to be prepared if a crisis arises, and to learn from any experience.

Compared with other types of communications (comms), social media has a unique nature: it can move very quickly; it’s incredibly public-facing and accessible to anyone; public/professional boundaries are blurred; it’s made for sharing; anyone can post or respond to your posts; you don’t have control over what’s said about you, and it can be difficult to remove an inflammatory post. What appears at first to be a lone comment can build into a bigger issue to which you need to respond to, and it can happen very quickly.

Prevention is better than cure

We can’t always predict but we can prevent and prepare. The good news is that having a social media policy in place can help a creative or cultural organisation to avoid a comms crisis arising in the first place. And, whilst things can blow up very quickly, a crisis comms plan with a quick response can help you to restore trust and confidence promptly.

A crisis comms plan is just one element of a social media policy. See our article What Goes into a Social Media Policy for Creative and Cultural Organisations? to find out more.

Crisis – what crisis?

You may be surprised to hear that there is a difference between a crisis comms and comms in a crisis. The difference is the source of the issue; crisis comms are created in response to an issue effecting your creative or cultural organisation specifically, whereas comms in a crisis relate to a larger, more widespread situation, that is bigger than the brand, organisation or business.

Social media crisis comms could be created in response to:

  • Someone posting allegations about the organisation on social media
  • Accusatory comments on your social media posts
  • An offline issue arising that people may/are already responding to online
  • Issues arising with partner or donor organisations

Comms in a crisis are more likely relating to societal or political issues, for example:

  • The outbreak of war
  • The death of a monarch
  • Another pandemic
  • Societal movements against injustice such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter

It’s up to you to decide whether your creative or cultural organisation needs to make a statement or create comms around that societal issue/crisis. You don’t have to respond to everything – in some instances it may seem strange or inappropriate for you to post about a topic. You can decide this by considering what you stand for as an organisation, where your funding comes from, and who your audience are.

The distinction between crisis comms and comms in a crisis is important because a crisis caused by the brand may be something over which you have more influence (‘controlling the narrative’), than a crisis which originates externally as part of the wider social media landscape.

Whatever the original cause of the crisis, having a social media comms crisis plan alongside a social media policy can help you to tackle it. As with a risk assessment for an event where you hope many of the challenges or issues won’t arise, these documents will ensure that you’re prepared in case they do.

What is a crisis comms plan?

Essentially a crisis comms plan will outline how you respond to a situation emerging on social media.

It’s a good idea for your crisis comms plan to sit within your social media policy, as the policy should identify who is involved in the running of your social media, how you use social media as a creative or cultural organisation, and what you stand for.

This is different for every organisation. For some larger creative or cultural organisations it will involve multiple people and processes, for others only a few employees will be involved, and the process will be as simple.

What goes into a crisis comms plan?

As part of the plan, we would recommend you consider:

  1. Who is involved?
  2. How to report a crisis?
  3. What kind of crises need to be reported?
  4. What steps need to be taken?

1. Who is involved?

Firstly, you’ll need to include who will be involved in responding on social media and in making decisions. Will this be the usual team who manage your social or will you need to bring in additional support? Will the crisis be escalated to senior staff to make a decision? Will trustees be involved? What about if the crisis occurs outside of regular working hours?

2. How to report a crisis?

Next, you’ll need to consider how this crisis comms team will communicate with each other to flag and potentially escalate a situation. What channels will they use? Again, think about outside of hours as well as during the normal working day.

Crisis Comms plan example 1 – Who to contact

At its most basic a crisis comms plan can simply indicate how staff can get in touch to escalate an issue on social media.

In the event of social media concerns crisis contact:

When is it? Where to contact Secondary way to contact
Monday – Friday between 8am and 5pm Use internal Teams channel ‘Crisis Comms’ to raise the issue. Please include links to posts Call Jessica Bloggs on 07**********
Outside of regular working hours, evenings and weekends Use the WhatsApp group ‘Crisis Comms’ to raise the issue. Please include links to posts Text Alex Smith on 07**********

For this type of plan, you would need to have created the channels/groups for reporting issues in advance and ensure that everyone who needed access was already invited to them. This is a very basic level of plan and while it means that issues and crises will be flagged to the team, it doesn’t cover how employees should respond or what the internal processes are.

Crisis Comms plan example 2 – Responsibilities flowchart

Larger teams may want to use a flowchart to identify who from the team needs to be involved in responding. Here’s an example flowchart that we’ve created, where the more serious the crisis the more senior the team member involved.Image of flowchart

As you can see, at the lower end of the scale the people who usually manage your social media will be the only ones involved. As the crisis intensifies, additional measures are taken and more senior staff are involved to deliver an appropriate and strategic response.

3. What kind of crises need to be reported?

It’s obviously impossible for you to predict every type of crisis that could occur or what will go wrong, but you will be in a better position to respond quickly if you’ve pre-planned some potential situations and how you would react.

You can create some guidelines for identifying the seriousness of a crisis. This may be in the form of a flow chart, or it may look more like a risk assessment, where you evaluate the risk to the organisation’s reputation.

Crisis Comms plan example 3 – Response flowchart

Some creative or cultural organisations will use flowcharts to help employees to understand when to respond and when to escalate a comment or post. Here’s an example of a flowchart we’ve created on how to respond to a comment or post on social media.

Image of flowchart

This flowchart is a starting guide. It’s important to tailor the specifics to your organisation’s social media policy, tone of voice, and strategy. Adjustments might also be necessary based on the unique scenarios you encounter.

You’ll notice that within this flowchart there are instances where you might leave a comment without a response and where you’ll remove or hide the audience member’s comment. Sometimes people won’t like what you’re doing as a creative or cultural organisation and that won’t always warrant a response. At other times comments and posts from social media users may be inappropriate, contain hate speech, threats, abuse, or personal and/or libellous information. You can hide or delete harmful comments on platforms like Facebook and Instagram. On other platforms like X you have less control over what people can write on your posts, but you can report comments for hate/violent speech and abuse. Don’t feel you have to respond to this kind of post.

While this flowchart is focused on responding to comments, you may prefer to create one that explores how serious a comms crisis is, that indicates the likelihood of reputational damage and the need for a quick response.

4. What steps need to be taken?

Identify the initial steps to be taken during a crisis now, and you’ll thank yourself later, as it can be tricky to think straight while it is unfolding! These steps might include:

Informing the relevant teams/key members of staff that a situation has arisen and that you’re now following crisis protocol

Temporarily pausing any communications that are set to go out – this could include scheduled social media content, ads, email newsletters, or press releases.

Assembling your crisis comms team/individuals to decide on the wording of your response and where this will be going out – on specific social media platforms? By email? Consider which audiences need to know. For example, you may communicate about a data breech by email but not on social media. If you receive an allegation on one social media platform will you respond to it across them all, or just on the platform where the accusation has been made?

Creating resources for staff – responses to questions, guidelines on the type of language to use and to avoid

Monitoring social media for audience responses and sentiment towards your brand. How do people respond to your posts that address the situation? What should employees do if the official response seems to be inflaming the issue?

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Crisis Comms plan example 4 – Response spreadsheet and risk assessment

Blast Theory’s free crisis comms template

Blast Theory is an organisation we’ve worked with and supported multiple times here at the Digital Culture Network. Blast Theory make interactive art to explore social and political questions and their work places the public at the centre of unusual and sometimes unsettling experiences, to create new perspectives. Because of this, they can encounter strong reactions to their content. When working with Blast Theory we were impressed by their detailed crisis comms processes and asked whether they would be open to sharing this great example with the rest of the sector.

Blast Theory’s crisis comms plan includes a response spreadsheet so that employees can record audience comments and how they’ve responded to them. It also features a risk assessment so that staff were prepared for how the audience may react and able to respond or escalate these responses accordingly. Their plan also includes some FAQ templates so that everyone knows the standard responses.

Blast Theory has very kindly adapted their crisis comms template so that you can download it for free and use it for your own organisation. To make the plan easier to follow and adapt for yourselves, they’ve left in some examples from their Cat Royale project, which explored the impact of AI on humans and animals.

Download Blast Theory’s crisis comms template here

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What should I do during a social media crisis?

Unfortunately, even with the best Social Media Policy, a crisis can still happen. If a crisis occurs there are some key steps that you can take as a creative or cultural organisation to regain control of the situation. These can include:

  1. defining the problem
  2. outlining the process
  3. establishing ownership
  4. not going for radio silence
  5. keeping staff informed
  6. maintaining transparency and trust
  7. monitoring

1. Define the problem

What’s the problem and where has it come from? If the crisis has been generated by a comment posted by employees, the source can be identified and halted almost immediately. However, an external party or situation that has arisen outside of the creative or cultural organisation will be harder to control and predict.

Assess which channels the message has affected and the damage so far, because this will help you to decide on the level of response. Although speed of response is vital, making something public which could be resolved privately could be inflating a problem into a crisis. In many instances where there is just one person complaining about the organisation you will be able to take the conversation to direct messaging or to email correspondence, to keep the issue from escalating.

2. Outline the process

What happens now? Do you have a flowchart for employees to follow in responding to online comments? Are there clear steps to follow? Ideally you want the team to know who to go to with issues, how to escalate the more serious situations, who makes the final decisions on your response as a creative or cultural organisation and where you will respond – will it be on social media? On your website? By email? Getting your processes in place before a crisis occurs will save you a lot of stress and enable a faster, more joined up response as an organisation.

3. Establish ownership

If you decide you need to respond publicly, have a template you can use to create an initial response post, even if it’s simply acknowledging the situation. By letting people know that you’re investigating it, and will update soon, you have started the process and bought some time to further develop your response.

4. Don’t go for radio silence

When responding to negative comments and feedback online try to ensure that your response is sympathetic and non-confrontational. Remember that you’re speaking as the organisation and that this isn’t a personal attack on you, even if you crafted the post they’re responding to. Consider thanking them for getting in touch and letting you know their thoughts, as ultimately, we learn from our mistakes, and they may be making your content better. Often, assuring someone that they are being heard and that the matter is being discussed internally is enough.

One of the worst things you can do in the midst of a crisis is to go silent on social media for too long. This implies to the audience that you aren’t interested in resolving the issue and while behind the scenes you may be feverishly working on the situation, the audience will have no idea what’s happening. It’s crucial that you act quickly but thoughtfully when your reputation is at risk, which is why it’s handy to have your crisis comms plan in place long before it’s needed.

5. Keep staff informed

It’s essential to keep your external audiences informed, but you also need to keep your team in the loop and give them the information and tools they need to handle the situation.

To head off an internal crisis, give your team information, tell them what they can share, and present them with language to share it. It can help at this point to outline clearly in a template what you are and aren’t saying. Doing so ensures that everyone on your team contributes to a consistent message and will help get your brand on track.

If there’s an internal review of the situation happening then you may not want to openly accept blame at this stage, but you can still apologise to people for any upset inadvertently caused. It’s crucial that all of the team working on social media know the official stance of the creative or cultural organisation so that they don’t accidentally inflame the situation further.

Consider how you will support your social media team. Comment moderation during a crisis can be an enormous strain on a person’s mental health and wellbeing. You may need employees from other areas of the organisation to step in and support them, particularly in situations where the audiences’ responses are confrontational or abusive.

In a particularly difficult crisis this can extend to your employees’ personal social media accounts. If employees are receiving comments relating to the organisation on their own accounts, then you may need to include some safeguarding advice to protect them – such as encouraging them to make their accounts private and removing any reference to the creative or cultural organisation from their bios/pages.

6. Maintain transparency and trust

If it’s full-blown crisis and escalating, it’s time to tell your audience about your process, what you are doing and it’s also time to pause campaigns you’re running – both paid and organic. Posting standard fare whilst there is an ongoing online situation will feel inconsistent and insensitive.

Even more so, if it’s something that you have instigated, recognise that it started with you – an apology and acceptance that something went wrong generally deflates the situation and if you can include information about how you are going to resolve the situation, it builds trust with your audience.

7. Monitor

Throughout a crisis make sure you’re closely monitoring the responses your account receives and see how you can combine their suggestions with meaningful action. Do this and your reputation will have a better chance of survival.

When developing your crisis comms strategy, it is critical to monitor online conversations during and after any crisis. Use your experience to further develop your crisis comms plan, as learning from a crisis is an opportunity to avoid it happening again.

Actions: Create a crisis comms plan; create templates and tools that can be adapted to a variety of situations.

Want to read more:

https://cipr.co.uk/CIPR/Learn_Develop/Training/Blogs/Five_tips_for_social_media_crisis_management.aspx

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/charities-and-social-media/charities-and-social-media

https://blog.hootsuite.com/social-media-crisis-communication/

 

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