Some Thoughts on Using Social Media in a Crisis

Thom Weidlich 03.18.21


It goes without saying but we’ll say it anyway: Social media must be part of any crisis communications plan. Whether you have a separate social media strategy or it’s part of the overall crisis plan, it must be considered — ahead of time. Here are some thoughts on that.

Social media’s immediacy makes it a valuable tool in a crisis. For example, Subway recently used social media as part of its campaign slapping back at a lawsuit attacking its tuna. Your social media messages — Facebook posts, tweets, TikToks — might even go viral and stop a problem in its tracks.

Just as a plan details who’s in charge of various aspects of responding to a crisis — contacting law enforcement, monitoring the media, drafting statements — someone has to be in charge of social media. That includes approving posts. The plan should also have social media account information, such as site URLs and passwords and emergency contacts for the social team.

A crisis communications plan includes pre-written holding statements for media and others. It should also include social media templates based on your general holding statements but shorter. For example, Twitter limits tweets to 280 characters. With Tweet threads, remember that individual messages can be retweeted; each tweet should be self-contained and make sense on its own. We recently wrote about a problem Burger King had with this.

Social Media Policies

The plan should include your organization’s social media policies. What guidelines have you established? Are employees generally encouraged or discouraged from posting about the company? Should they be asked to refrain from doing so during a crisis? A crisis is a good time to remind employees of social media policies.

Should you pause promotional posts during a crisis (that goes for off-line promotions, too)? It’s a move that should be considered. You might also freeze your social media presence altogether until the crisis has abated.

For example, last year when a UK bakery chain faced a backlash for firing a longtime employee, it shuttered its Twitter and Facebook pages. In 2013, after George Zimmermann was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Skittles halted its Twitter and Facebook activity; when he was killed, Martin had been carrying a bag of the candy, which had become a symbol of the incident.

Danger: Humor

A big policy question is whether to use humor. Yuks are tough enough on social media in general (things get misconstrued and backfire), but they’re even tougher during a crisis. It’s probably best to stick to the facts, though KFC used humor to its advantage during its UK chicken shortage in 2018. Humor can especially work if you’re making fun of yourself (as with KFC). Bottom line: Don’t let your social media make the crisis even worse.

Another important part of social media during a crisis is listening. Social media is a two-way street: Yes, you communicate through it, but you also listen. What are people saying about your crisis? What is the mood? How are your statements resonating? What facts can you gather through social media — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Is there misinformation on those channels that you need to correct?

Finally, a crisis is a good time to take extra care that your social media accounts aren’t hacked. During a crisis, you have an unwanted spotlight on you, and people may want to take advantage. Don’t let them.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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Related:The Importance of Training the Team in the Crisis PlanListen to Social Media, But Don’t Ignore Real-Life Conversations: Study