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Social Media and Crisis Management: 10 Common Mistakes

Written by  Gideon F. For-mukwai, MA, CEM December 27, 2011

If your organization is already on its social media journey, you may want to think of yourself as a traveler. It can be an exciting time out there on the road, but it can also be a challenging time - especially if unforeseen problems arise and you make mistakes. While many mistakes can be easily rectified, others can have severe consequences. It is hence only natural that the following question surfaces as you explore the use of social media in crisis management: What can I do to avoid costly mistakes upon developing and implementing social media strategies that are geared toward improving my organization's crisis management?

This article attempts to answer your question by highlighting 10 common mistakes made by organizations that are using social media today.

Mistake #1 Lack of Social Media Guidelines

Some organizations have joined the social media bandwagon without thinking their efforts through. Sadly, these organizations often find themselves in a precarious situation as they have put the cart before the horse.

The required approach is to establish guidelines or rules of engagement prior to embarking on the social media journey. With social media guidelines or policies that are tailored to fit your organization's needs in place, it is a lot easier to prevent problems should a crisis occur.

Mistake #2 Lack of Senior Management Support

Do you think it would have been possible for Christopher Columbus to set sail without the blessing of Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand? The endorsement and financial backing of the Spanish Monarch was crucial in the many discoveries that resulted from the expeditions. The same applies to the use of social media in crisis management. Without senior management support it will be impossible to develop and implement a social media strategy that can effectively support your organization before, during and after crisis.

Mistake #3 Undefined Mission

Every successful voyage needs a defined goal that justifies the inherent risks. Similarly, when embarking on using social media to bolster crisis management, your organization must establish specific goals. These goals can be social, economic and political in nature.

In the course of our practice we have encountered companies that are using social media without having taken the time to integrate social media into their strategic goals. This approach is bound to result in a less than satisfactory outcome because the use of social media must be in alignment with relevant business objectives.

Mistake # 4 No Roadmap

These days, most drivers use a Global Positioning System (GPS) if they do not know the way. A few years ago, it used to be printed maps. And farther back in time, many travelers carried a compass. Thanks to these and other navigation devices, we have been able to get to our desired destinations. Unfortunately, some organizations employ social media without a plan or a roadmap to guide them through the process and subsequently wonder why getting to where they want to be is so hard or even impossible.

That is why you need to make sure your organization develops and sticks to a plan as it sets out to employ social media in crisis management.

Mistake #5 Who Is the Conductor?

Every ship needs a capable captain. However, when it comes to embarking on an organization's social media journey, sometimes even large companies fail to designate a qualified manager who will spearhead the development and implementation of crisis management related social media strategies.

Just because someone has an IT or corporate communications background does not mean that he or she understands social media and the subtleties of public engagement in a social media environment. Neither does it mean that the individual considered for the job has the appropriate leadership or project management experience. A thorough skills assessment and resulting training may therefore be required before a particular manager is in the position to lead with competence.

Mistake #6 Who Is the Tour Guide?

While the captain or project team lead is busy charting the course, ensuring ongoing senior management support and allocating necessary resources, other project team members must work on project details so the voyage can be successful. These team members function as tour guides who support and facilitate the necessary internal process. If your organization lacks qualified project team members, you should consider bringing qualified employees and external consultants on board (see also Mistake #7).

Mistake #7 “Insource” vs. Outsource

No organization produces everything it needs to operate itself. Whether you are working at a government agency, a nonprofit organization or a corporation, your organization does what it is are good at and necessarily outsources certain services and functional areas.

When it comes to social media, many organizations unfortunately elect to handle everything internally without sufficiently assessing their in-house capabilities first. Perhaps outsourcing social media related services is not viewed as a good idea because of the cost, confidentiality issues or certain brand implications. Whatever the reasons may be, it is important to realize that because an employee knows how to contribute to Facebook or upload a video to YouTube does not imply that she or he has sufficient expertise in essential areas such as stakeholder management, message development, etc. Engaging qualified external social media consultants may therefore be another helpful and in fact critical step on your organization's journey to increased crisis readiness.

Mistake #8 Unspecified Landmarks

Even today, many travelers get lost on their way for reasons other than weather or technical challenges. Many of them do not make it because they fail to divide their journey into manageable stages.

The fact that some organizations have not thought through important processes, technicalities and deliverables of social media usually brings about a comparable result. Determining appropriate milestones or landmarks up front makes taking stock and continuously assessing what still needs to be accomplished possible. So establish a timeline and link it to specific objectives on your organization's way to becoming more crisis resilient through the use of social media.

Mistake #9 Biased Emphasis

Many organizations are paying too much attention to social media tools and the technology and particular techniques of getting information distributed via social media. Comparatively few organizations are paying enough attention to the social dimension of social media. Social media is not only about gadgetry, applications, and widgets. After all, a growing number of (reputational) crises nowadays result from the use of social media by citizen journalists who, for the first time in history, can provide uncensored (and sometimes deliberately false) information to a global audience in real time. Social media must hence be about how organizations continuously listen to and engage with their stakeholders, how they strive to better understand and cater to their stakeholders' informational needs, and how they communicate with specific stakeholders utilizing carefully developed messages and technologies that enhance sharing.

Mistake #10 Lack of Initiative (Procrastination)

As the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu correctly remarked, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." The same is true regarding your organization's social media journey. For if your organization has yet to embrace social media as an important piece of its crisis management strategy, the time to act is now. Further delaying will put your organization at risk because the question is not whether a crisis will hit, but rather when it will happen.

This article was written by Gideon F. For-mukwai, MA, CEM and a Senior Consultant at C4CS, LLC and Oliver S. Schmidt, Managing Partner of C4CS, LLC. In January, C4CS® (www.c4cs.com) will begin teaching an e-Learning course on "Harnessing the Power of Social Media in Crisis Management" that is marketed and administered by the International Consortium for Organizational Resilience (ICOR). Successful completion of the e-Learning course earns participants a Certificate in Social Media Crisis Management Planning accredited by ICOR. The course brochure can be downloaded at http://www.theicor.org/art/pdfs/courses/cmc3030.pdf.