The role of social media in crisis communication


Fast-paced, global and interactive: social media has revolutionized the way our society communicates. This transformation of communication, however, has not stopped at corporate or government levels. Social media has enabled an unprecedented two-way communication, empowering companies, and governments to engage with and listen to their audiences – the days of a one-way conversation are long gone. It provides public relations practitioners with the ability to inform and seek input and opinions from relevant stakeholders in real-time.


One size fits all? A no go in crisis communication!

One of the biggest challenges a crisis imposes, is the uniqueness of a crisis. No crisis is the same; every crisis comprises a unique set and sequence of events. Hence, perfect preparation for a crisis is impossible. Nevertheless, the crisis preparation should not be neglected in any way. This implies that not only the crisis itself is unique, but also the organization’s response as such response needs to be tailored to the crisis typology in order to be effective. When it comes to communication during a crisis, there are multiple factors playing into its effectiveness. One of them being the channels used to communicate with the target audience.  Social media has developed not only into a vital component of strategic crisis communication but also a new channel to distribute information. Subsequently, it raises the question of the role of social media in crisis communication and moreover, the effective and efficient use of social media in a companies’ crisis communication strategy.


A shift in news consumption

Various sources picked-up on the shift in news consumption and the way the general public acquires information. More and more people gather information and news from social media rather than traditional media. Hence, social media is playing an increasingly important role in shaping public opinion and thus has a significant importance on a company’s reputation.  A development which was most recently demonstrated by the case of Credit Suisse, with a tweet spreading a rumor like a wildfire, subsequently even spilling over from social to traditional media. As much as this development increases the spread of misinformation and fake news, this is also an opportunity to embrace to try dominating the narrative of a crisis situation. It enables an organization with the possibility to publish updates in real-time and to address questions and concerns directly. This is crucial in times of crisis, where prompt action is necessary. Establishing this direct line of communication humanizes institutions and authorities, as they demonstrate their concern for those affected by the crises. From a corporate perspective, is therefore essential to regard social media with the same level of importance as traditional media outlets.


Stay sharp and alert

Simultaneously, social media monitoring becomes an invaluable tool for gauging public sentiment, tracking the spread of (mis)information, and identifying emerging issues. This real-time awareness allows organizations to respond swiftly and strategically, further addressing concerns and rumors before they escalate. Today, there is a myriad of different already established social listening tools, which can track different hashtags and monitor accounts and topics. Monitoring enables organizations to pinpoint key influencers, detect shifting opinions, subsequently tailoring their crisis communication to suit the evolving landscape. And while it is not advisable to respond to every rumor, it is crucial to identify when one needs to step in and try to take control of the conversation. Nevertheless, in order to ensure a prompt reaction, already established crisis communication procedures are required.


The principles of crisis communication also apply to social media

Due to its speed, reach and interactive nature, social media may mislead to inconsiderate actions and / or answers. Therefore, one should not neglect traditional crisis communication principles while utilizing social media as a crisis communication and listening tool. An organization should aim to ensure a “one-voice-principle” – with all the different spokespersons sticking to the same narrative and wording, ensuring consistency across all channels. Effective crisis communication further uses a multichannel approach. Organizations utilize a variety of communication channels to reach different stakeholders effectively; with messages tailored to the respective receivers. Sharing accurate information, and providing regular updates help build trust and credibility with stakeholders. Moreover, a rapid response is essential to control the narrative and prevent misinformation from spreading. Delays in addressing a crisis can allow rumors and false information to take hold, making it harder to regain control of the situation. These factors allow to establish credibility, minimizing the negative impact of such a crisis on the stakeholders’ trust, and subsequently the organizations reputation.


Social media: a vital element

In the ever-evolving landscape of communication, social media stands as a dynamic force, transforming how organizations connect with their audiences. Yet, amid this revolution, the need for a tailored crisis communication strategy has never been more evident. Crises are diverse, demanding unique responses, and social media has emerged as a vital channel for effective crisis management. Social media offers the power to disseminate real-time updates, address concerns directly, and shape public perception. A very recent demonstration of such an incorporation of social media in crisis communication was the communication during COVID-19. Authorities published updates to the most recent insights to the current situation, case numbers, infection rates along with messages regarding the code of conduct during the pandemic; essentially using social media as a multiplier for their messages. However, this power requires vigilance. Social media monitoring becomes the compass, guiding organizations through the chaos, helping them navigate swiftly and strategically. Amid the speed and reach of social media, the timeless principles of crisis communication remain steadfast. Consistency, transparency, and a rapid, unified response prove indispensable. In this digital age, where misinformation spreads like wildfire, the integration of social media and crisis communication principles becomes a shield protecting an organization's reputation and securing stakeholder trust.


The role of social media in crisis communication in a nutshell:

  • In this digital age, social media is integral to any crisis communication strategy
  • Be prepared: have your crisis communication procedures established and your people trained
  • Act fast but not hasty: despite its speed crisis communication practitioners should not neglect the principles of crisis communication e.g. the one-voice-principle

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