How to Use Social Media to Manage a Crisis

This is the third in a series on how to use social media to prevent a crisis, manage a crisis, and recover from a crisis. Parts one and two on crisis prevention can be found here.

If you’ve been using social media strategies to create loyal followers, you’ll have a decisive advantage when a crisis hits. Companies that have an advanced social media strategies in place will mitigate a negative event quicker and with less financial loss. Here, we are going to take a look at three areas that will help you manage a crisis with social media: tools, tactics, and tips.


Every good carpenter makes an investment in tools. They don’t start a job and run to Home Depot every five minutes to pick up another tool. They arrive on the job stocked with what they need to build out the blueprint. It’s the same with crisis management. If you don’t have any tools going into the event, you’re in for a bumpy ride. If you are missing a blueprint, you are going to waste valuable time and wrestle with decisions you could have made ahead of time with a calmer head. Here are some tools you should develop now:

1. Crisis plan that includes social media protocols and team responsibilities.  Many organizations have a crisis plan. You can’t operate without one anymore.  Almost 90 percent of U.S. universities have a crisis plan, but only 59 percent of those plans address the use of social media in a crisis.  Make sure your communications plan addresses the use of your social media channels and who is responsible for manning those channels.

2. Triage response plan.  Even though this is a piece of your plan above, it is a critical piece worth mentioning separately. Crises can escalate quickly and you need a plan that defines who is in charge of what types of messages. It’s a critical mistake to leave a social media manager in charge of all social communications in a crisis. You will need more people on board to handle the large stream of information coming in and going out. If you don’t have the resources of trained people to handle a crisis online, get outside help from an experienced agency. Here’s a link on how to set up a triage response plan. If you find yourself in a crisis without one, this should be one of your first tasks.

3. Social Media Management System (SMMS) capable of large data collection and analysis. Monitoring the chatter around your brand should be part of your everyday social media operations. You  may be using a free product such as HootSuite or Google Alerts on a daily basis, but once a real crisis hits, you will need something with more power. An application that is set up specifically for this purpose will serve you much better in a crisis. Look for an application that has a high threshold of data points, identifies influencers (both positive and negative), and analyzes sentiment, volume, and escalation. Make sure it can export information. This will save you time so you don’t have to produce manual reports for your team and leadership.

Good monitoring software is an investment in your organization’s financial health and reputation. If the budget allows, I recommend investing in an enterprise level application for daily operations such as Radian 6 or Meltwater Buzz. If your budget won’t accommodate the cost, I would recommend hiring an experienced monitoring firm during a crisis. Here is an extensive list of management applications. The list begins on page 13 of the report by Altimeter.

The tool box is not a first aid kit. All three of these elements should be part of your daily operation. If you find yourself in a crisis unprepared, you would be better served to hire outside help.


Tactic (noun): An action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end. How effectively you implement your plan in a crisis determines your success. Your plan isn’t just a document, it’s a map to navigate an unfamiliar journey. Here’s an overview of some important tactics you need to manage a crisis with social media. Some are preparation oriented and some are for real-time management.

1. Training and practice. A basketball coach knows their team cannot win a game without practice. And embedded in that practice is training and drills—two elements of successful crisis preparation. Start now, and implement often.

2. Logistics. Believe it or not, crises have predictable rhythms and cycles. Learn what a real crisis looks like and how the media will respond.  The more you know, the more confident you will be when the real thing shows up. A cool head comes from understanding what you’re up against. Here is a quick list of resources that will give you a big picture of what to expect:

Books: Listen, Engage, Respond by Chris Syme; Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management  by Jane Jordan Meier; and Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management by Jonathan Bernstein. Also, it helps to know what a viral event looks like and how to manage it.

3. Channel Surfing. In the book, The Now Revolution, authors Amber Naslund and Jay Baer wrote, “fight social media fire with social media water.” In other words, address the crisis on the channel that is buzzing about it. If it’s on Twitter and Facebook, go there with your messages. Don’t rely on a traditional press release. The only stakeholders that will read it are the press.

4. Supporting Cast. Getting your website and any digital channels (blogs, video, and photo channels) ready for a negative event is a must as well. Are you going to suspend social media content-as-usual in a crisis? Make that decision ahead and include it in your crisis plan and communicate with the various internal channel managers involved.

For most, social media channels are outposts that link to a website. Make sure you prepare a dark website page for an emergency where you can post ongoing updates and important information with links to your social channels. Two other important web pages to have up in a crisis are an FAQ page that answers ongoing questions plus contact information, and a press room for tools and releases for the press that may include video and pictures they can download.


In a crisis, it’s important to monitor all digital media closely. But what are you looking for? Use a comprehensive monitoring tool that keeps track of mentions on social media channels, blogs, news services, and other digital sources. Here’s a short list of what you should watch and document:

Volume: record the number of post on the crisis each hour by channel.  Keywords you monitor may vary here, but at the least, watch the brand stream and any other keywords associated with the event. Keep an eye on Twitter as hashtags develop and monitor them as well. Also make sure you track the number of crisis mentions to non-crisis mentions.

Sentiment: Some monitoring tools record sentiment. Even though they aren’t exact, Radian 6 and Meltwater Buzz both have tools that let you change sentiment tags on a post or help the application determine the ratings with keywords. Use a simple positive (+), negative (-) and neutral (O) rating for both brand and event mentions. It’s important to separate brand issues from crisis issues. Sometime a negative online event can trigger a conversation of griping that actually has nothing to do with the event. Remember to weigh the issue sentiment heavier when devising response strategy. That should be your main focus. Crises can bring trolls out of the woodwork. Don’t feed the trolls.

Escalation: The first piece of escalation is looking at the number of crisis (or event) mentions to non-event mentions. Make sure this is on a timeline graph so you can see escalation at a glance. Escalation is a key indicator of when you should speak to the public. If an event is escalating quickly, it will require more interaction with stakeholder groups. Also track escalation by sheer volume and sentiment. Faster escalation requires faster and more frequent communication from the brand.

Influencers and Detractors: Make sure you track influencers by frequency of posting and shares. If you have time, you can even check on people’s social graphs or Klout scores. If you have important pieces of information, you may want to reach out to key positive influencers to help you spread messages. Remember that detractors are different from haters. Know how various online social communities operate in a crisis and use them accordingly.

Managing a social media crisis requires planning and perseverance.  There are lots of tips and tactics for handling a social media crisis. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.