How to Use Social Media to Prevent a Crisis

This is the first in a four-part series on how to use social media to prevent a crisis, manage a crisis, and recover from a crisis.

In 2011, research by Jeremiah Owyang and Altimeter concluded that as many as 76 percent of the crises they studied could have been prevented or diminished by proper preparation. The report detailed how social media readiness gives companies a decisive advantage in everything from operations to sales, and can even help the bottom line in a crisis.

One of the most neglected pieces of crisis prevention today is social media strategy. Crisis managers talk about how to plan for a crisis and use social media in a crisis, but not much is said about how to prevent a crisis using social media. In the e-book Listen, Engage, Respond, the process for building a social media strategy to prevent a crisis is outlined. In its simplest terms, the key to building a crisis shield with social media is loyalty (or advocacy) strategies. The good news is that loyalty strategies will not only help prevent a crisis, they’ll also help you sell more widgets, provide better customer service, improve employee morale, and bolster many other business operations. But before we dig into loyalty strategies, we need some background.

Level the Playing Field

All crises are not created equal. In the Altimeter research, Owyang used a system of levels to define the severity of crises. A Level One crisis involves negative media exposure, a Level Two adds a significant change made by the company, and a Level Three adds financial impact.

In 2001, I used a similar system of levels in my research on defining the state of crisis preparedness in NCAA university athletic departments. Level One examples were issues such as academic ineligibility of an athlete, a team violation by an athlete, or a drug/alcohol violation by an athlete or coach. A Level Two crisis may involve a misdemeanor charge for athlete or coach, NCAA violation that resulted in post season ban, or the firing or resignation of a head coach in season. A Level Three crisis might be the death of a coach or athlete in season, or a severe venue emergency during an event such as bombing, tornado, or fire.

One of the reasons to level crises is that responses must be designed considering the severity of the crisis.

But when a crisis hits social media, it has the same potential escalation speed regardless of the level. [tweet this]

This becomes confusing to some who conclude that every crisis deserves the same kind of response, mistakenly causing an overreaction to a Level One event as though it were a Level Three event.

Look at the Root

Francis Bacon said, “The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses.” To understand  how a crisis takes root, we need to look at what we are probably overlooking–our everyday operations. In this diagram from the Altimeter research, we see the causes of the studied events.


A quick glance at this chart reveals the simple truth that some of these causes are more controllable than others. For instance, exposure of poor performance (the number one cause) is often in the eye of the beholder and not solely related to the organization’s performance. But the most important takeaway here is that the top two causes have to do with customer relations, or in social media terms, community engagement. A loyal fan is more likely to overlook a poor product performance because they love the organization.

Causes that are easily fixed are the ones related to poor social media strategies: inappropriate content, community censorship, lack of fact checking, failure to respond quickly, and inappropriate online response. Proper training and use of advocacy strategies in social media could all but wipe out all those particular causes.

Hop On Board The Cluetrain

To avoid a pie-in-the-sky simplification of creating loyalty in social media, we must start with three basic facts:

  • Creating successful loyalty strategies in social media may take organizational change. If your present strategy is broadcast and reach alone, you are in for some work. The Cluetrain Manifesto’s  95 theses  are worth reading if you haven’t entered the brave new world of online relationship building. Social media has altered the path to success.
  • Reaping the benefits of loyalty strategies in social media takes time. You can’t create instant loyalty because it is built on trust. If you build it, they will come.
  • Implementing loyalty strategies in social media takes a village. Organizations with multiple social media managers and accounts will have to get on the same page. You can’t create loyalty in sales acquisition and ignore it in customer service.

Creating a social media strategy that can prevent a crisis is not just a matter of changing the way you post on Facebook. It is a commitment to change, a realization that social media is not just another marketing channel, but a way of increasing advocacy for your organization—the kind of loyalty that help prevent a crisis.

Part Three: How to use social media to manage a crisis