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Company reputations at risk as social media revolutionizes breaking news

Following the release of Insignia Communications’s latest report ‘The effect of social media on breaking news’, managing director, Jonathan Hemus, discusses what the findings mean for business continuity managers.

By Jonathan Hemus.

With the increased use of social media and ‘citizen journalism’, people are creating and sharing more information than ever before. It is now far easier (and quicker) for disgruntled employees, unhappy customers and campaigners to voice their opinions online – providing a wealth of content for journalists in a crisis.

A perfect example of this affected Apple just last month. Two days after the iPhone 6 went on sale on 19th September, images surfaced on social media showing phones which appeared to have bent in people’s pockets as a result of accidental pressure. Within hours, the pictures had spread like wildfire on Twitter with thousands of people posting comments using the hashtags Bentgate and Bendgate: an unwanted headache for Apple and further proof of the speed at which social media can propel an issue into the spotlight.

Effective use of social media in a crisis

When asked how organizations could use social media more effectively to communicate with media and stakeholders in a crisis, a panel of journalists surveyed for the ‘The effect of social media on breaking news’ report said that businesses should communicate more quickly and update more frequently. Early and regular information from the organization at the centre of a situation not only meets the media’s desire to secure verification of a breaking news story from a credible source, it is also to the organization’s advantage. The opportunities to fill the information vacuum and shape the narrative are critical elements of reputation protection.

Paul Pester, the chief executive of TSB, demonstrated this brilliantly earlier this year when the bank suffered an outage that meant that customers could not use their ATM cards.

Unusually, Pester chose to use his own Twitter account to quickly post information about the unfolding issues, and even replied to customers who were frustrated about not being able to withdraw money or pay for goods. By doing this, he showed great empathy and leadership, using his Twitter feed to regularly supplement the messages being communicated by the company’s press office.

Better still he didn’t simply communicate general messages, but instead interacted directly with customers to empathize with their problems and explain the current status.

As more information is created and shared on social media, and at such a rapid rate, the frequency of reputational crises has also increased.

This is reinforced by Eisner Amper’s annual Board of Director’s survey (2014), which confirms that reputational risk is still the number one concern confronting boards.

So what should business continuity managers be doing to protect their organization’s reputation from a social media crisis?

It is no longer a question of whether businesses should be engaging with social media, but how. Thorough crisis management planning, capability development and testing through social media crisis simulations are all important parts of this process. Here is my advice on how you can prepare for the impact of social media on crisis management:

1. Predict and plan

Without question, organizations should review their reputational risk assessment and scenario plan how potential social media risks would play out. This will enable them to take preventative steps and plan responses should the risk emerge.

Knowing how quickly information spreads online, it is important to arrange the necessary resources to respond effectively before a crisis occurs. This includes providing crisis management training for the crisis management team, media spokespeople and frontliners (security guards, switchboard staff, receptionists and your sales teams for example). Make sure that the social media frontline (for example, the marketing agency managing your Facebook page) are also briefed on the processes to follow in a crisis.

Make sure that you have also pre-identified the technical capability you would need to respond via social media in a crisis. For example, exactly how would you film and upload a YouTube message from the CEO at 6am in the morning?

2. Prevent own goals

It’s hard enough to manage crises that come from the outside, but managing a self-imposed crisis is even tougher and more damaging to your reputation. Unfortunately, social media leaves you more vulnerable to self-inflicted harm due to the ill-judged comments of your people.

It’s easy for personal and professional boundaries to become blurred on social media so organizations should introduce a clear social media policy and ensure staff are all properly briefed on it. To reduce the chances of staff inadvertently causing a social media crisis, introduce this in an interactive way during induction and conduct regular refresher sessions. A social media simulation tool is a particularly effective way of bring this to life and embedding learnings.

3. Train and test

As business continuity professionals know, training and testing is a vital part of crisis management planning and it’s no different with social media. You can’t expect people to instinctively do the right thing on the most pressurized day of their career without building their skills and confidence ahead of time.

As part of the planning process, organizations should identify the people who would form their social media team in a crisis, brief them on their role and run social media crisis simulations to rehearse the plan. This not only builds skills and confidence, it also identifies gaps in the plan and helps develop the right tone of voice for a crisis.

4. Monitor and respond

Success in crisis management means filling the communication vacuum. Social media provides the perfect platform to do this, but only if you respond fast and position yourself as the most credible source of information when a crisis hits. This begins with a thorough social media monitoring system.

Once you know what is being said about you, and by whom, it is important to respond quickly, confirming that you are aware of an incident and that you are looking into it. That said, a speedy response should never be at the expense of accuracy and if content cannot be verified, it should not be posted.

All company posts should be treated with the same care given to an article for the front page of the FT and other people’s statements should never be retweeted or forwarded unless their accuracy has been verified. Approval processes for Tweets and other social media posts should be agreed in advance with your legal team to avoid any delays.

5. Review

Finally, when a crisis is over, you must ensure that social media forms part of the post-crisis review. Whilst no one welcomes a crisis, it provides an opportunity to learn and improve: this is especially valuable with regard to a new and emerging area such as social media. Assess whether you had the right resource to manage the situation effectively, how appropriate was your tone of voice, did your approval processes work effectively under pressure, were messages consistent across your social media channels? In summary, what can you learn and what do you need to change?

The research for the ‘The effect of social media on breaking news’ report reveals that whilst the traditional media still retains significant influence, newspaper correspondents and broadcast reporters are in turn making extensive use of social media in their research and reporting. Businesses caught in the media spotlight when bad news breaks, need to act now to ensure that their crisis management plans and processes reflect this new reality. The full report can be downloaded from http://insigniacomms.com/resource/white-papers/

The author
Jonathan Hemus is managing director, Insignia Communications. Follow him on Twitter at @jhemusinsignia – or contact him directly by email on jonathan.hemus@insigniacomms.com

Insignia Communications provides crisis management planning, training, testing and consultancy services to help organizations protect their reputation in the event of a crisis. Insignia develops crisis management plans, facilitates crisis management training workshops, trains media spokespeople, runs desktop crisis exercises, creates fully inter-active crisis simulations and offers an online tool to give experience of managing a social media crisis. www.insigniacomms.com

•Date: 17th October 2014 • UK/World •Type: Article • Topic: Crisis communications

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